At mid-season, perhaps the biggest surprise in the NFL is wearing burgundy and gold.
It hasn't only only caught outside observers off guard, either. The Washington Redskins have been a hugely pleasant surprise for their own fans; fans who just two months ago had little more to base their hopes and expectations on than last season’s emotional run to the playoff following the death of emerging superstar Sean Taylor ... and hopes that the winning would somehow carry over through a complicated transition from legendary head coach Joe Gibbs to new offensive coordinator-cum-rookie head coach Jim Zorn.
No doubt about it, the end of last season was quite a ride—as was the offseason that brought us to New York City opening night.
But it pales in comparison with what’s happened since.
Blown out of the water. If you’re reading this, you probably already know the litany; new coach, new offense, QB learning yet another new system, etc. And yet here are the Washington Redskins, at 6-2, breathing rarified atop all the power rankings and giving very indication of being a team with not just a good shot at qualifying for the playoffs but making some noise once they get there.
Having burst from the gate as they have, of course, the Redskins have created for themselves a whole new set of expectations. For many fans and observers—regardless of how good or bad they thought the team would be before season started—anything less than a playoffs berth (and at least one game) after such a start will have them describing 2008 as a disappointment.
And frankly, unless the team gets hit with a significant number of key injuries, you’re probably looking (metaphorically) at one of them.
But that’s for later. For now, I hope I can safely say there are few fans of the burgundy and gold not feeling pretty damn good about things this week. As first halves of first seasons of new regimes go, I’d say this one rates at least as high as … well … can you think of one better?
Fact is, since about halfway through his first press conference ("maroon and black" notwithstanding), I've been taken with the man. Today, halfway through his debut season, I’m pretty much taken with the Coach as well.
Oh sure, it’s possible the universe is playing a cruel joke on Redskins fans and we’ll wake up this time next year recalling a Noravalian collapse in 2008 and maybe staring at 1-7 … but sitting here today, there is no sound reason—none, zilch, zero, squadoosh (what ever happened to Rich Gilgallon, anyway?)—to believe so. The man has shown nothing but aptitude, attitude and would seem to rapidly be gaining altitude.
It’s starting to look like we have something here.
Of course, we do still live in the real world:
The Washington offense, as good as it has been at ball control, moving smartly up and down the field and showing flashes of brilliance, still has a ways to go. As Zorn will tell you himself, any drive that don’t end in a touchdown is a disappointment, and his offense has had a lot of them.
The Redskins are moving the ball between the 20’s as well as anyone in football, but aren’t there” yet in the red zone (39%, 17th).
There’s good news and bad news on that front.
As often as not, it’s the Redskins themselves causing themselves to come up short. Penalties, dropped passes, botched handoffs … the kind of self-inflicted errors that bail out back-peddling defenses and force your offense to “settle” for field goal attempts that end up feeling as much failure as success. The good news is that it’s correctable.
The bad news is that until you do correct it, you’re keeping teams you are otherwise dominating in games, and perhaps fatally reducing your margin for error at the end.
This may well be the key area to watch the rest of the way. Until and unless the 2008 Redskins begin finishing a higher percentage of drives by punching into the end zone, they won’t take the next step from playoff contender to championship contender.
And make no mistake, it’s a big step.
If there’s one other area as central to the continued, or increased, success of this team, it’s in forcing defensive turnovers. More good news and bad.
The good news is the Redskins continue to take care of the ball offensively as well as anyone in the league, having coughed it up just six times in eight games. In the NFC, only the defending champion NY Giants have protected it better, burping it up just four times in seven games. And you may be surprised to learn that the only other team in the NFL with less than six giveaways on the season are the six in seven games gacked up by Bill Parcells’ Oklahoma Dolphins.
The bad news is, after a promising start to the season, it’s déjà vu all over again and Washington's defense can't take it away. After a rollicking start (recall Chris Horton’s debut against New Orleans?), forcing 1, 3, 2, and 1 in their first four games, the Redskins have settled back into a troubling pattern of forcing 0, 1, 0 and 0 in their last four.
That’s not going to cut it. This too leaves too little margin for error, and puts too much pressure on an offense to have to march the length of the field for points on every possession. Today’s NFL is just too unforgiving for that—even against the “bad” defenses.
It’s not like the Redskins aren’t getting their hands on loose balls, they’re simply not coming up with them. If they’re going to be a serious player down the stretch, the Redskins are going to need the occasional short field for their offense, perhaps even—gasp—the occasional defensive TD. You remember the last one?
Bet you’re having to think about it.
As much as any aspect of pro football besides having a Pro Bowl-level QB doing his thing, creating turnovers and getting the easy (a relative term) points that often come with them separates the teams that end up dancing in January from those that end up watching on TV with the rest of us.
Meanwhile, back on the sunny side of the street …
The Tall Kid Behind Center
In my view, the emergence of Jason Campbell in the last seven games is the single biggest on-field difference between the 2008 Redskins and any team it has fielded in a least fifteen years.
The offensive line is playing well, but not that much better than over the past couple of years when healthy.
Clinton Portis is running the hell out of the ball, but yard total notwithstanding, not that much better than in years past.
Santana Moss is being Santana Moss—meaning, when healthy and not the sole focus of opposing defenses, almost unstoppable—but basically doing the same breathtaking things he’s always done.
And the defense, while admittedly revitalized and more than exceeding expectations themselves, are also not playing all that much better than in years past.
No, says here the main reason the Redskins are 6-2 is the elevated play of their young quarterback. Credit to Jim Zorn, the offensive coaches and all the players around him for helping in his development, but mostly, credit to Jason Campbell for looking into the abyss late in the fourth quarter of the Saints game, seeing nothing looking back, and in that moment finding his character.
A cheroot to the first person who gets the reference.
For the time being, heading into games with the Redskins, opponents are still talking about stopping Clinton Portis. As they should—man’s a beast. Says here, though, that by the end of the season they’ll be talking about stopping Jason Campbell.
Always Be Closing, Part I
Speaking of JC, a quick statistical interlude:
1st Qtr: 39-for-61 (63.9%), 315 yds, 0 TD, 0 INT, QB Rating 76.9
2nd Qtr: 46-for-72 (63.9%), 583 yds, 3 TD, 0 INT, QB Rating 103.0
3rd Qtr: 33-for-49 (67.3%), 385 yds, 2 TD, 0 INT, QB Rating 104.5
4th Qtr: 34-for-48 (70.8%), 471 yds, 3 TD, 0 INT, QB Rating 122.8
Have you noticed something missing from conversations about the Redskins young quarterback of late? I have. No one is talking about his inability to close the deal any more. With games on the line, Campbell has been raising his game to Pro Bowl level. Which happens to be what separates good quarterbacks from great ones.
Jason has also been shown remarkable consistency and steadiness on the road, something I suspect most of us rarely think about. This stat certainly jumped out at me ... you might find it encouraging as well.
HOME: 78-for-115 (67.8%), 886 yds, 4 TD, 0 INT, QB Rating 102.3
AWAY: 74-for-115 (64.3%), 868 yds, 4 TD, 0 INT, QB Rating 98.8
Bottom line, the confidence that Campbell’s clutch play is earning from his teammates week after week may well prove the difference between a depressing December and a joyous January. It's a quarterback's league, and the Redskins, after lo these many years, appear to have finally found theirs.
Always Be Closing, Part II
Through eight games, this may be the single most encouraging and exciting thing about this young team:
...........1st Qtr......2nd Qtr......3rd Qtr...... 4th Qtr
The Redskins have been at their best, both offensively and defensively, in the fourth quarter. It will certainly make things less stressful for those watching if and when they get past the slow starts and stop having to finish strong every week … but, fact is, with games on the line, the Redskins been able to bear down and make that one last, clutch play that they absolutely have to have.
Don’t discount that—that’s the same one last, clutch play this team has consistently not made for longer than anyone of us care to remember.
It guarantees nothing, of course ... but it does suggest.
It suggests physical stamina and mental toughness—the ability to bear down when the body is screaming. It suggests sound halftime adjustments. It suggests a team you better not turn your back on should you happen to knock them down early.
If the Redskins can translate that in-game, closers mentality to the 2008 season, we may well be watching the start of something special.
Half a season gone, Skins fans.
Half a season—and perhaps a little more—to go.
At mid-season, perhaps the biggest surprise in the NFL is wearing burgundy and gold.