As the Washington Redskins prepare to face the New York Jets on Sunday in a game that means little to Washington but could determine whether the Jets make the playoffs for a third straight season, there seems to be a cloud of quiet optimism coalescing around the Redskins in spite of the team's 4-7 record
Fans and pundits are starting to recognize that even though this season marks year four in the Redskins current playoff drought, the team is slowly accumulating the players it needs to get back to the postseason in the not-too-distant future.
When the Redskins drafted Kerrigan with the 16th pick of this year's draft, it was unclear what the team could expect from the rookie from Purdue. I distinctly remember talking to a friend, who is an ex-football player, at the beginning of the season and him telling me that Kerrigan looked slow on film.
Questions abounded. Could Kerrigan fulfill the plethora of responsibilities outside linebackers have in a 3-4 scheme, or would he be overwhelmed and overmatched at the professional level?
The answers to those questions are a resounding "yes" and an emphatic "no." As Williamson points out in this week's column, in addition to being an excellent pass rusher—Kerrigan has six sacks this season—the rookie linebacker seems to be blessed with an excess of that elusive quality commonly referred to as "playmaking ability."
To be more precise, Kerrigan often seems to be in the right place on the football field at the right time, and he has shown the capability to make plays that go beyond rushing the passer. He is a good tackler, above average in pass coverage and showed exceptional coordination in Week One when he intercepted a tipped ball and returned it for a touchdown.
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Kerrigan may not be the type of player whose skills are easily measured in the drills that constitute the NFL combine, but it is clear that he is an excellent football player. He is similar to Redskins middle linebacker London Fletcher, another player who is not as physically gifted as many of his peers but makes up for it by being incredibly savvy and fundamentally sound.
Young players like Kerrigan, linebacker Perry Riley, running back Roy Helu and tackle Trent Williams are helping Redskins fans forget about the plethora of other positions at which the team desperately needs upgrades. They are one of the reasons fans can allow themselves to believe that the franchise is just a few solid draft picks/free-agent acquisitions away from having the talent to break out of this four-season playoff funk.
Landry reminds me of former Colts strong safety Bob Sanders, who currently "plays" for the San Diego Chargers. Both men thrive on an extremely physical brand of football based upon hard hits, and as a result both men tend to get injured a lot. Landry is physically bigger than Sanders, and his injury woes are not quite as severe. However, it remains quite clear that the Redskins cannot rely on Landry to stay healthy for an entire season.
Landry is what I like to call an "in-theory player." In theory, he should be one of the best defensive players in the NFL. He is physically gifted and fearless, yet for every good play he makes, there is at least one other play on which he takes a bad angle and misses a tackle, or breaks down in pass coverage.
The good and the bad Landry were on display against Seattle. He recorded a sack, broke up several passes—though he was lucky not to be called for pass interference on one deep ball he ended up deflecting—and recorded three solo tackles. But Landry also demonstrated his tendency to over-rely on his physicality.
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During one play, Seattle quarterback Tarvaris Jackson hit wide receiver Doug Baldwin over the middle,and instead of wrapping Baldwin up with a fundamental tackle, Landry opted to lower his shoulder and try for a big hit. Baldwin simply bounced off Landry and recorded a 24-yard gain.
Great defensive players like Troy Polamalu avoid those types of mental mistakes, and if Landry wants to take the next step, he’ll have to eliminate such mistakes from his game.
In his five seasons in the NFL, Landry has only begun to scratch surface of his potential. His injury woes—a hindrance that may never go away—are one of the factors holding him back. His inability to demonstrate consistency is another factor.
Landry's contract expires at the end of the season, and Redskins management will have to decide how much they are willing to spend to keep him in a Redskins uniform. For the sake of continuity, and considering that he is extremely talented, Bruce Allen and Mike Shanahan should endeavor to retain him.
But they would be wise to limit the amount of guaranteed money any new contract provides. Landry's injury woes are such that starting him at strong safety means the team always has to have a contingency plan ready to go at a moment's notice. It’s impossible to predict when Landry might have to miss a game against a hated division rival due to a sore tendon.
Players like Landry are always one violent collision away from a major injury and career setback, so structuring the deal in a way that allows the team to cut him without setting themselves back financially is imperative.
If the Redskins can keep players like Kerrigan and Landry, and if those players can continue to improve, fans have reason to be optimistic. I’ve criticized Shanahan throughout this season, and I still doubt his ability to make sound decisions regarding personnel. That being said, the team has drafted better under Shanahan and Allen than under prior regimes, and drafting well is arguably the most important quality in building a winning team.
And at least Shanahan isn't crazy enough to consider his team a Super Bowl contender when it clearly is not one.