Two years into the Mike Shanahan era with the Washington Redskins, the pressing question is, where’s the beef? In analyzing the Redskins’ 5-11 record, what’s striking is their inability to assert any physical dominance over opponents, to push anybody around, or to survive key injuries. If the Redskins do one thing this offseason it should be this: get bigger.
They need to be bigger across the board. They need a bigger quarterback, a bigger pass catcher, and some bigger offensive linemen. They need to get bigger in the defensive secondary, bigger and more barreling in the backfield. In every way, they need bigger playmakers.
Fact: 15 players on the Redskins’ active roster are less than 6 feet tall. Fact: None of the NFL’s division winners carries as many diminutive bodies. The Green Bay Packers? Only seven players under 6 feet. San Francisco 49ers? Eight. Baltimore Ravens? Ten. New York Giants? Just four. The Redskins like to talk about contending for the NFC East next season. But that’s not a seriously attainable goal with such a lightweight roster.
“This is a team that lacks size, speed, and talent at certain positions,” says former quarterback Joe Theismann. “They have to focus on finding some big, fast game-changers.”
Bigger isn’t the entire answer in the NFL, of course. Smaller and faster is a distinct advantage at certain positions, and there is no measurement that accounts for a London Fletcher, the NFL’s leading tackler at 5 feet 10. But if you are looking for a pattern, a general trend, so many of the things that went wrong with the Redskins this season had to do with the fact that once they lost some big bodies to injuries — the Chris Cooleys, Tim Hightowers, LaRon Landrys — they were just not very prepossessing physically.
They didn’t just lack height, they lacked muscle, and overall field presence. Think about it. Rex Grossman’s tendency to get passes batted down. The five blocked field goals and a blocked extra point. The inability to gain significant yards after contact. Or to bulldoze into the end zone. Or to wrap up opponents.
“As you watch other teams, they’ll have individuals that are just faster and stronger,” Theismann says. “We can’t impose our will on anyone.”
Defensively, the Redskins gave up 30 pass plays of 25 or more yards, tied for 17th in the league. That suggests a couple of things: that their safeties and corners were outjumped on too many occasions, and that they missed tackles or let opponents break free.
The secondary was rarely able to separate the opponent from the ball. Josh Wilson is a nice, young corner who had a career-high 17 deflections, but he’s just 5 feet 9 and 192 pounds. DeAngelo Hall is 5-10, 195. The Redskins created just 21 turnovers — fewer than all but eight teams. How many times did we see Redskins defenders meet opponents at the point of a catch, and make enough of an impact to disrupt the play?
On the other side of the ball, the Redskins’ receivers averaged just 4.8 yards after the catch, 27th in the league out of 32 teams. How often did a Redskin burst a tackle and hit the afterburners?
According to the NFL’s official stats, the offensive line ranked a cumulative 23rd in the league. It allowed 108 quarterback hits — third worst in the league. Only Minnesota and Seattle, which gave up 114 each, were more porous.
What all this means is that the Redskins need to have another very busy offseason. They need to add size and brawn — and they need to add it two and three layers deep, so that when they lose first- and second-stringers, as is inevitable in the NFL, they don’t cave. This will disappoint those who hoped Shanahan’s Redskins were a two-year project, and it clearly disappointed Shanahan himself. He continues to insist the team is improving under his stewardship despite an 11-21 record, and that, healthy, they might have won ten games.
But Shanahan didn’t shy away from the obvious conclusion, either. When he was asked in his year-ending news conference Monday how active he would be this offseason in changing personnel, he replied, “Very similar to last year.” It was a deadpan remark, but an important one: Last year, he added eight new starters.
“I know we’re not there yet,” he said. “I knew it wasn’t going to happen overnight. It’s not going to happen in one year, or two years. We need a good free agent class, and more depth. But I like what we’ve got.”
The next few months for Shanahan will be make or break. Owner Daniel Snyder has been patient for two years but there is nothing in his personal history that suggests he will be patient for three. The good news is, the last time Shanahan and General Manager Bruce Allen went shopping, they did well. They drafted well, judging by linebacker Ryan Kerrigan and running back Roy Helu, and they found good value in free agents such as Stephen Bowen.
Shanahan’s focus last offseason was primarily the defense — five of the new starters were on that side of the ball. One area where the Redskins were significantly big enough to impress the opponent was along the defensive front. The assumption is that this offseason he will focus on the offense, beginning with quarterback. He needs to find the big performer who can redeem his failed gambles on Donovan McNabb, Grossman and John Beck. It will be Shanahan’s signature offseason, for better or worse, a final referendum on his judgment.
“This year’s draft and free agency will be the most important of the last decade,” Theismann predicts, “and of the decade going forward.”