T minus 14.
With training camp just two weeks away, focus is rapidly turning to the micro—can Donovan McNabb still move; who will start at free safety; how quickly can the offensive line gel and adjust to the new schemes, etc. The obvious macro question, of course, remains ...
How will the Washington Redskins do this year?
If you'll indulge me a minute, allow me to answer with a question:
What is a reasonable expectation?
Given their circumstances—coming off an ugly 4-12 season, replacement of their head coach, general manager and (apparently) entire modus operandi, installation of new systems on both sides of the ball, new quarterback and multiple additional new players—how exactly should one define “success” for the 2010 Redskins?
By wins alone? By some subjective assessment of "progress?"
Scenario 1: the Redskins start fast, say 5-3, stumble a bit down the stretch as the league gets a book on them, but claw out a tough win in the finale to go 9-7 and grab the final playoff spot. They then lose a lackluster road Wildcard game to the Eagles, 19-10.
Scenario 2: the Redskins start slow, say 3-5, struggling to find their new identity, but recover to go 4-4 over the tough second half of the season, including two solid wins against good teams to close out the year, and finish 7-9.
Sitting here today, which scenario would you define as more successful, hopeful, preferable?
I go in to each new season with relatively broad, preconceived notions and level of expectation about the Redskins and rest of the league. I have synthesized those expectations levels down to the four main categories below. Sometimes a given team will straddle the lines, true, but by and large it's a big-picture approach that has served me well ...
1. Championship Contender - All major parts in place; coming off a contending season. Barring catastrophic injury (Colts losing Peyton Manning for the year), no reason to expect a major fall.
2010 examples: Saints, Colts, Patriots
2. Expected Playoff Team - Coming off a playoff or competitive season with no new major question marks. Season would be considered disappointing if they failed to make the playoffs. Given relative health and a little luck, perhaps a breakthrough season and Super Bowl run.
2010 examples: Cowboys, Packers, Ravens
3. Hopeful Playoff Team - Coming off an average or even a little better season; solid in most areas and trending up. Given relative health and a little luck, perhaps a wildcard spot or even a title in a weak division. Season would be considered successful if they broke .500 or made the playoffs.
2010 examples: Texans, Panthers, 49ers
4. Also-Ran - You know one when you see one.
2010 examples: Rams, Lions, Raiders
To me the 2010 Redskins are a Hopeful Playoff Team.
There are simply too many variable and moving parts for me to put the weight of playoff expectations on them. To name just a few and most obvious ...
● Will the new culture of professionalism at Redskins Park under new head coach Mike Shanahan hold up under crisis? If the Redskins lose badly at home to Dallas in the opener, or find themselves at 2-4, will the warm fuzzy feeling of today be forgotten, replaced by the familiar "here we go again" mentality so prevalent among fans and, it is fair to assume, even in certain parts of the locker room?
● Will 32-year-old Donovan McNabb stay healthy and maintain close to the level of play he exhibited last season? If so, all other things being equal I translate that factor alone into anywhere from three to five more wins than the Redskins might have gotten this year were Jason Campbell still the starting quarterback.
Yes, I went there. No one single change can affect an NFL team more than the emergence of a legitimate, Pro Bowl caliber quarterback. If the Redskins suddenly have one ...
● Is new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan really as good as the buzz would have us believe? As good as his short resume with Houston would seem to indicate? No way to know until we see him tested under fire on the Redskins sideline.
● How long will it take rookie LT Trent Williams to not just start, but be effective protecting McNabb's blind side? Williams' predecessor at left tackle, recently retired Chris Samuels, started effectively from day one of his NFL career, but there is no guarantee Williams will be able to do the same. For the Redskins to be playoff contenders down the stretch, the big rookie will need to get it going sooner than later.
● Will new Defensive Coordinator Jim Haslett’s revamped (reloaded?) 3-4 defense get itself synced up enough, early enough, to keep the Redskins in games while the offense works through its own growing pains?
We could do this all day, but you get the drift. And that's even without discussing the Diva Called Albert.
Hopeful Playoff Teams need two critical things to go right in order to meet or exceed expectations, regardless of how one defines them.
One, they need to stay relatively healthy. There's only so much a team can proactively do about that; building decent roster depth and having good trainers probably covers it. Beyond that, they need fate to smile.
Two, they need to stay afloat early. It's the rare team that can recover from a 3-5 or worse start and contend for a playoff spot at the end. It happens, but you wouldn't want to bet your own hard-earned money on it.
For those who will define success in 2010 as "X" Redskins wins or a playoff berth or bust, hope they get their collective act together early and strong enough to be no worse than 5-3 or 4-4 at midseason. Given the layout of the schedule and a string of tough games in the second half, it may be tough to get the 9 or 10 wins a playoff berth will require even if the team is considerably "better" than it was early.
My own expectations for the 2010 Redskins have less to do with the final record or playoff spot than they do with ending the season on a clear upward path. It's a new team. I never saddle a new team with that kind of expectations.
Here's what I do want.
I want to roll into the 2011 offseason having seen the Mike Shanahan/Bruce Allen Effect pay dividends in terms of professionalism on and off the field.
I want to see whether Donovan McNabb is The Man for another 3-4 seasons—long enough to continue the search for the home-grown "it" guy to take over when he's done.
I want to see if a) Jim Haslett is a better defensive coordinator than I gave him credit for when he was hired, and b) if a 3-4 defense can work in burgundy and gold. I mean, somewhere Diron Talbert is shaking his head.
And most of all, I want to see the Washington Redskins have begun the long climb back to NFL relevancy and respect.
Wins matter. Damn straight they do.
But at least for this year, seeing this storied-but-drifting franchise headed firmly back in the right direction matters more.
In fourteen days, the quest begins in earnest.