The Washington Redskins finished 2017 with a 7-9 record—the first losing mark for the team since head coach Jay Gruden's initial year in 2014. Then, the franchise was coming off a disastrous 3-13 season under former head coach Mike Shanahan, so Gruden's 4-12 blemish wasn't quite seen as his fault. A 9-7 campaign in 2015, followed by an 8-7-1 mark in 2016, implied progress.
But there's no way to avoid seeing regression when looking at last year's offense. Gruden's crew finished 16th in both points and yards, its worst standings since 2014 and 2015, respectively. Washington finished 20th in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted offensive rankings, down from fifth the year before.
In the offseason, the team made several significant moves to improve offensively. It traded cornerback Kendall Fuller and a third-round pick to the Kansas City Chiefs for quarterback Alex Smith and allowed Kirk Cousins to become a free agent. Cousins signed a megadeal with the Minnesota Vikings, and the Redskins gave Smith a $71 million guaranteed contract extension.
Then, Washington nabbed Seattle speed receiver Paul Richardson in free agency, signing him to a five-year, $40 million deal with $16.5 million guaranteed. It was a risky proposition given Richardson's injury history—he's missed 17 games in his four-year career, mostly thanks to a torn ACL in 2015, and 2017 marked his first 16-game season. But when he's healthy, Richardson has the potential to give this offense a deep threat it hasn't seen since DeSean Jackson.
Finally, to add to a rushing attack that totaled just 1,448 yards and 10 touchdowns on 401 carries in 2017, the Redskins got what could turn out to be the steal of the 2018 draft in LSU running back Derrius Guice. Guice gained 1,251 yards and scored 11 touchdowns on 237 carries in 2017, despite nagging injuries that limited his open-field speed. He fell down (or off) many team boards because of concerns about his temperament, but from an on-field perspective, he was the best pure power runner in the class.
Combining these new assets with an outstanding offensive line and a group of targets that allowed Cousins to throw for more than 4,000 yards for the third year in a row provides reasons for optimism, but Smith is the primary reason people should be excited about Washington's offense in 2018.
As I detailed in a recent tape piece, Cousins couldn't always take advantage of Gruden's passing concepts—and Gruden is one of the league's best minds when it comes to scheming receivers open—because he showed difficulties with reading defenses and making the necessary throws. Cousins had been a prolific passer in the nation's capital, and he made the most of his talent, but Smith plays the game at a different level.
"Yeah, without a doubt," Gruden said at the owners meetings in March, per ESPN.com's John Keim, when asked if the offense got better by adding Smith. "I don't want to compare two players, but we're always trying to be better at every position. We got better. Alex's experience is well-noted, and his record the last five years is what it is. You could argue that all day, but we feel very good."
Long known as a quarterback afraid to make deep throws, Smith destroyed that narrative with the Chiefs in 2017. Per Pro Football Focus' Steve Palazzolo, he tied for the league lead with 12 touchdowns on passes 20 or more yards in the air and amassed 1,344 yards and a passer rating of 131.4 on his deep throws.
Yes, the multiplicity of Kansas City's offense last year (especially in the pre-snap phase) and receiver Tyreek Hill's ability to dash past any defender on a vertical route helped Smith. Still, the larger point is clear: Smith doesn't have Cousins' issues with processing speed and timing his throws to routes. That alone gives Gruden a lot more to work with.
The coach continued, per Keim:
"It's not one thing, it's everything. It's the entire body of work. He's very good at the intermediate ball. He's good with the quick game. He can run zone reads, the [run-pass options]. Very exciting. ... The ability to ad-lib, make plays that aren't there and keep plays alive. Coaching him for the first time will be exciting because I don't think there's a limit on what he can do. He has all the things you want a quarterback to be able to do."
Gruden's obvious sense of relief at having a quarterback who can do it all probably isn't a slight to Cousins as much as it's the understanding he can do more as a coach and play designer. Expect more play action, more pre-snap motion, more run-pass options—if only because Smith has shown what Cousins hasn't: that he can keep the entire offense in his head on a play-to-play basis.
Which is where Guice comes in. Washington's 2017 running back rotation was decent, but there wasn't a back on the roster who could handle a full load of carries with a combination of power, speed and agility like Guice has. He brings Marshawn Lynch to mind with his ability to break tackles, expand plays in the open field and get out of traffic with lateral movement.
Moreover, Gruden has already expressed pleasant surprise in the way Guice has made catches in minicamp. JP Finlay of NBC Sports Washington detailed one play on which Richardson shifted pre-snap, taking the defense to his side, which allowed Guice to leak out of the backfield and catch an easy touchdown. That seems like a preview of what could be an expanded passing game. Having a deep threat in Richardson and a power-running constant in Guice exponentially adds to what Gruden can call on game day.
Guice caught only 32 passes for 250 yards and three touchdowns in his three seasons at LSU, but that appears to be more a byproduct of the Tigers' conservative offense than anything wrong with Guice's ability.
He said at the scouting combine, per Keim:
"A lot of guys say I can't catch and stuff just because on film I don't really catch as much because we don't throw the ball. I feel like people shouldn't really speak on things they don't know much of. … I'm a great receiver out the backfield, and I can block as well. So, I'll be able to protect the quarterback. My will to hit really separates [me] from anyone else. I'm very willing to hit and do what I have to do to stay on the field."
With that in mind, and with Smith's increased acumen and accuracy and the ways in which Richardson can stretch defenses both horizontally and vertically, things should be looking up for Gruden's crew in short order. The Redskins had maximized the efforts of a limited group on offense, and the offseason additions should provide significant improvement—and quite possibly, a playoff spot.
The Eagles are still in the NFC East's catbird seat until further notice, but with these new additions, Washington has a good chance of leapfrogging the Giants and Cowboys for a wild-card spot in the 2018 NFC postseason.