Lambs and Bulls (A Washington Redskins Story)

Mark StevenCorrespondent IDecember 4, 2008

Only one good thing came out of the butt-kicking the NY Giants laid on the Redskins last Sunday:

Clarity. We know who the 2008 Redskins are.

What this Redskins team has shown is the ability to win the games it “should.” Against teams coming in with losing records, they have gone 3-1 (Cleveland, Detroit, Seattle, St. Louis). That’s a good thing—and something that was not a given coming into 2008 given the coaching and systemic changes.

When the season is over and the immediacy of the letdown that appears to be at hand from following a 6-2 start with scratching, clawing and scoreboard-watching down the stretch just to make the playoffs, overall I think most fans will be pleased with what the team was able to establish in Jim Zorn’s rookie year.

Unfortunately, what the 2008 Redskins have also shown is that they are not ready to compete with the NFL’s big boys.

Washington has chalked up four “quality” wins this season (all in the four-week stretch after losing the opener in New York)—New Orleans, Arizona, Dallas and Philadelphia.

Since then, as the season has moved from the first-half appetizer to second-half main course, they have faced three tests against some of the NFL’s best teams—Pittsburgh, Dallas (much as it pains me to say it) and the Giants again. In each, the Redskins were overmatched physically and beaten convincingly.

Even in the 4-point home loss (to a Dallas team starting a quarterback coming back from a throwing hand injury wearing a cast) the Redskins were pushed around up front, on both sides of the ball, and never really seemed a threat to win the game. Those four points might as well have been 14.

So…now we know. The 2008 Redskins are the quintessential middle-class team—good enough to take down the lambs, not good enough to run with the bulls.

In my view there are two basic ways NFL teams can bridge that chasm.

The first is to land a Brett Favre, Peyton Manning or Tom Brady. Allow me to point out that the Redskins don’t have one. Jason Campbell could still become one, but at this point, like me, you probably aren’t betting your hard-earned dollars on it (at least not in a West Coast offense). And rookie Colt Brennan, as intriguing as he might be, at this point is just a live lottery ticket.

Unfortunately, landing that franchise quarterbacks is a bit like actually hitting the lottery—a whole lot more luck than skill. A franchise can either, 1) be awful enough for long enough, like the Indianapolis Colts, to happen to hold the number one draft pick in a year a Peyton Manning comes out, or 2) luck into one, like New England did in taking a flier on a project named Tom Brady with their second sixth-round pick (No. 199 overall) in 2000.

Of the two options, the second is preferable. Mainly because your team doesn’t have to be awful enough sit at the top of the draft waiting around for a Peyton Manning. And because luck does in fact happen:

The 49ers got Joe Montana in the third round. Green Bay ended up with Brett Favre only after Atlanta decided it didn’t see anything special there and let him walk. The Dallas Cowboys seem to have gotten a boatload of it when they signed some kid named Romo as an undrafted free agent and sat him on the bench for four years to ripen.

Who knows, maybe the Redskins already have The Man on their roster. Maybe the proverbial light will click on for Jason Campbell one of these weeks and he’ll soar, taking the team with him. Or maybe they lucked into Him in taking a flier on Colt Brennan in last April’s draft.

But they don’t have one today, and unless something magical happens between now and then, they won’t have one on the field against another elite team—defensively, anyway—this coming Sunday night in Baltimore.

Which brings us to the other way to build an elite team.

Control the line of scrimmage. On offense, run well enough make the defense respect it, and protect your quarterback well enough to allow him threaten them down the field. And on defense, contain the run and get after the other quarterback enough to force from his comfort zone. Simple in theory, a bitch in practice.

The Redskins can do it against average teams. They can’t against the elite.

Which is where the clarity thing finally comes in. For the rest of this year I’ll be watching this Redskins team on two distinct levels.

First, I have not forgetten that they are 7-5 and very much alive in the playoff hunt. One doesn’t have to look back far to find under-the-radar wildcard teams getting hot in the playoffs and making serious January noise. If you’re reading this, you don’t need me to point them out.

Which means I’ll absolutely be riding the rollercoaster the rest of the way, play-by-play, series-by-series, game-by-game. Clarity or not, when this team is on the field I’m living and dying with it.

But I’ll also be watching with one dispassionate, critical eye toward the future.

I’ll be watching for signs that Jason Campbell is progressing as Coach Zorn says he is, and as my intellect, if not my gut, still believes.

I’ll be watching for signs that the receiving corps can threaten defenses with anything other than a double-covered Santana Moss downfield and Chris Cooley underneath.

I’ll be watching for signs that Zorn has answers to the answers that other teams have come up with for his offense.

I’ll be watching for signs that defensive coordinator Greg Blache can squeeze blood from a stone and get a hit on the opposing quarterback once in a while.

And, agonizingly, I’ll be watching the Redskins linemen, on both sides of the ball, continue to get pushed around against the NFL’s big boys.

That last part, in my view, is easily the Redskins biggest problem going forward.

If the quarterback were to somehow explode and start lighting it up, the offensive line could still get the job done this year, and at least make the transition to next a far less pressing concern. But as of right now, with zero credible downfield passing threat, they cannot consistently move seven- and eight-man fronts off the ball in the run game, nor keep teams fielding NFL-caliber pass rushers off their quarterback.

Defensively, things are even less comfortable. This Redskins team simply cannot generate consistent pressure on the quarterback. They can’t do it with the down linemen alone, and they can’t seem to do it with scheme either, as game after game we watch Blache send the house on key downs, only to see every rusher stick to a blocker, and the QB find time and a clear lane to throw to an uncovered receiver.

That is what has me most concerned long-term. I’m convinced we’ll get adequate QB play in the next year or two. Campbell, Brennan or someone not even on the radar today will solidify that position; at least enough to make the offense competitive. Functional West Coast quarterbacks are out there, and if a team is solid at the line of scrimmage, you can win with one. See Tampa Bay, 2008.

But the lines are another matter. For so many years I’ve lost count, fans and media have questioned the Redskins philosophy of focusing on skill position players in the draft and free agency, relegating the line of scrimmage to later-round picks and free agent fill-ins.

Personally, I’d like to see them devote allof their early-round 2009 and 2010 draft picks, and any priority free agent targets, to assembling a class of athletic, relentless, slightly sociopathic (between the lines anyway) big men. The kind teams like the Giants, Cowboys, Steelers and Ravens have and will throw at the Redskins, making their lines look old, slow and overmatched by comparison.

I just don’t have a lot of confidence that's going to happen. I don’t recall if he has actually come out and said or just intimated it, but my clear sense is that personnel honcho Vinny Cerrato’s philosophy is that big men are easier to pick up in the later rounds and secondary free agent market than great skill players.

For the record…Vinny Cerrato is an NFL personnel man. I am guy who writes about NFL personnel men from the comfort of a desk chair. I understand I’m not “qualified” to pass judgment on Cerrato.

But I have eyes...and what I see a team with a nice complement of skill players. A team that can generally beat bad and average teams. But a team that gets physically overwhelmed at the line of scrimmage against the NFL’s best.

A precious few teams reach that level by having great quarterbacks who elevate everyone around them, masking other deficiencies. Other teams, those not fortunate enough to land The Man, follow the old standard philosophy that football, even in this highlight-driven age, is still a fundamental game won and lost in the trenches.

Own the line of scrimmage, you win. Get pushed around, you lose.

Unless the Redskins develop or find The Man behind center, my strong sense is that they have hit a plateau. They’re pretty good—and they’re going to get better as they learn Zorn’s passing game. But they’re not going to be great. Not without a serious infusion of youth, size, hunger and power in the trenches.

Watch closely Sunday night. The story of the game—and ultimately, I suspect, the season—won’t be told by guys wearing numbers in the teens, 20’s, and 80’s. As it almost always is when December rolls around and the league gets nasty, in a game not involving one of the small handful of superstar quarterbacks, it will be decided by guys wearing numbers in the 60’s, 70’s, and 90’s.

I’d like to think Messrs. Cerrato and Dan Snyder will be watching as well...though as the years go by, I’m less and less hopeful of that. If I was a pessimist, I’d probably suggest that means I will writing this same column again at this time next year.

Fortunately, I’m an optimist, so I’ll leave you with this:

Scenario 1. Jason Campbell, Colt Brennan, or someone not on the radar today will walk onto the field one of these days, clad in burgundy and gold, and become an elite quarterback, removing any doubt still lingering out there about exactly what that means in today’s NFL.

Scenario 2. Between now and next September, there will be at least a half-dozen new large, powerful and borderline crazy young behemoths in burgundy and gold putting their hands in the dirt looking to kick someone’s ass.

Scenario 3. Both of the above will happen, and you and I will spend the next ten years being completely insufferable to fans of merely mortal teams.



In the event you’ve come this far and your eyes aren’t bleeding already…

On the Redskins recent record of drafting linemen, my comments were not just idle speculation. History does not lie. Since drafting Chris Samuels No. 3 overall in 2000, the Redskins have drafted one (as in 1) lineman higher than the fifth round—tackle Chad Rinehart with their third-round pick (No. 96 overall) in ’08, and tackle Derrick Dockery with their third-rounder (No. 81) in 2003.

Beyond that, of the 49 total picks they have made in the eight drafts since grabbing Samuels in 2000, a total of ten have been for linemen—two 5ths, four 6ths and three 7ths.

There’s a reason the Redskins get pushed around up front.

And I haven’t forgotten free agency. The Redskins did pick up Cornelius Griffin, Andre Carter and Jason Taylor. As I’m sure you recall, none were highly sought-after by the rest of the league. As solid a run-stuffer and good guy as Griffin has been, and despite the brief sack-flash in 2007 from Carter…turns out there was a reason for that.