Notes on Sunday’s loss to the Panthers and looking ahead to the rest of the season:
— The broken record keeps skipping. The Redskins tend to start off strong, emboldening fans with hope, until the injuries begin accumulating and disappointment sets in.
Over the past five seasons, the Redskins have played .500 football in the first eight games on the calendar. But in the second half of the season they’ve only managed a .300 winning percentage. And never in that period have they been better in the second half of the season than the first, nor have they been better than .500 in the second half.
Injuries affect all teams, but the Redskins continue to be too thin, without enough talent among their backups to compete effectively down the stretch. This season the injuries have set in earlier than they typically do, but the pattern continues.
Still, the NFC East is tight, and the Redskins are only a game behind the Cowboys. The current numbers suggest the Redskins have a slightly less than 30 percent chance of making the playoffs, either as the division winner or wildcard, but that figure doesn’t fully account for the recent spate of injuries.
— In addition to the injuries on the offensive line suffered the previous week, now the team has lost Chris Cooley and Tim Hightower for the season, and Santana Moss for five to seven weeks. Although he’s a fan favorite, Cooley hasn’t made an impact this season and his production on a per-play and per-target basis has been declining for the past couple years. Both this season and last, Fred Davis has averaged 10 Yards Per Target, exactly double Cooley’s average for last season.
— Hightower’s production can be made up by Ryan Torain and Roy Helu. The combination of those two backs have a higher Expected Points Added per Play average than Hightower this season. On run plays, the Torain/Helu combination has a 45 percent Success Rate (SR) compared to a 44 percent SR for Hightower. Hightower was more effective on screens and check-downs, with a 53 percent SR compared to 26 percent for Torain and Helu, but this hasn’t been a significant part of the Redskins offense.
— Although Hightower’s production can probably be replaced, Moss’s probably can’t. Moss has consistently led the team in receptions and yards over the past several seasons. Moss leads the receiver corps this season with 0.50 Win Probability Added (WPA) and shares the lead in number of targets with 43. One out of every four pass attempts is thrown Moss’s way. Gaffney will likely step into the No. 1 receiver role, and has as many targets as Moss on the year. Armstrong’s return to health couldn’t have come at a more fortunate time. Armstrong was successful as the team’s deep threat last year. He was third on the team in targets, and 44 percent of them were deep, defined as greater than 15 yards downfield.
— Last Sunday Cam Newton had his best game of his young career while John Beck labored. Beck’s numbers were disappointing, but that kind of performance can be enough to win in combination with a very strong defensive outing. The defense is still looking like a top 10 squad, so I expect the Redskins to have their share of close games that come down to one or two critical plays.
— The Redskins made a major mistake by kicking a field goal on 4th and 2 from the Panthers’ 13-yard line in the 2nd quarter. Teams usually convert 4th and 2 situations in the red zone 60 percent of the time. On net, the expected value of the conversion attempt is much higher than the field goal attempt in that situation. In fact, depending on the game situation, it’s typically worthwhile to go for it with up to 4 yards to go inside the 15. The decision cost the Redskins a 4 percent chance of winning. Although that doesn’t sound like much, every bit matters. And it’s easy. It’s hard to make Rex Grossman or John Beck better passers, but it’s easy to look at the numbers and make better strategic decisions.
Brian Burke is former Navy pilot who has given up his F/A-18 for the less dangerous hobby of football analysis. He is the creator of Advanced NFL Stats, a website about football, statistics, and and game theory.