True, the Bills are bad. The Redskins’ three preseason wins evaporate on opening night in two weeks. But when a team can play as crisply as the Redskins have so far, don’t disregard it too quickly. They have taken advantage of teams with new coaches or rebuilt offensive or defensive units.
But whom do they meet in their first game? The Eagles, a team surrounded by buzz because of Chip Kelly’s warp-speed offense imported from Oregon. But Philly is in that same rebuilding boat. Washington is finally that rare NFL team that opens a season polished and comfortable in its own Skins.
“I was impressed with our football team. We did a bunch of positive things. I was impressed with our [offensive] line and backs,” Coach Mike Shanahan said after Saturday’s game, using the word “impressed” five times in different contexts.
“There’s cohesion now. They know each other, and that familiarity is a key to running-game success. You could see it today — continuity, knowing what to expect from each other.”
Even Joe Gibbs in the four years of his second go-round as Redskins coach had tons of churn as players aged and the team spent big to get better fast. Now, partly by design and also because of a $36 million salary cap penalty over the last two seasons, the Redskins have brought back the same NFC East championship team at almost every starting position.
Nobody in the NFL has blown up its roster more often with worse results than Washington since 1991. The Redskins’ penalties, missed assignments and lack of discipline, their disorganization in the fourth quarter of close games and their almost complete inability to function as a team whose sum is greater than its parts have been pet peeves throughout the six coaching regimes between their last Super Bowl win and Shanahan’s arrival.
Manic Mike’s beady glare doesn’t make him an ideal dinner companion, but it’s a joy to imagine 300-pounders who cringe when they see his Albert Haynesworth-stare and vow never to get the snap count wrong again in this century. Many Redskins followers are ready to swap charm for football fear and take a second helping of NFL coach deviousness, too, as long as their team actually can remember 11 assignments correctly on 20 plays in a row.
In contrast to those teams, the current Redskins are built on players who are 30 or younger yet also have multiple years of playing together. In the fourth season under Shanahan, the Redskins are familiar with the quirks of one another’s styles and can start the year not just on the same page but on the proper sentence and word. This phenomenon may linger; the only starters older than 30 are London Fletcher and Santana Moss.
“It’s a lot easier when you have guys who already know the system and you aren’t bringing in new people. It definitely helps,” said Alfred Morris, the 1,613-yard rusher of last season. “We only lost Lorenzo [Alexander, a Pro Bowler on special teams,] off the whole [starting] team. We don’t need to reteach. The retention is there. We’ve passed the learning curve.”
Not only are almost all of the NFC East champs back this year, but one of the key offensive elements that they lacked last season has returned — a man from their past, Roy Helu Jr., who gained 1,019 yards from scrimmage in 2011. On Saturday, he rushed for 70 yards and caught a 21-yard pass.
Last season, the Redskins led the NFL in rushing with 2,709 yards. But almost all of it came from Morris and RGIII (815 yards). The team’s next-best rusher had only 88 yards! No one thinks Griffin, with a rebuilt knee, will be asked to run 120 times this season. So who makes up the difference? Who’s the relief for Morris or a third-down back that also catches passes? It certainly looks like Helu, who, despite only five starts in ’11, had 640 yards rushing and caught 49 passes for 379 yards, too.
“Our second team really moved the ball against their first-team defense,” said Helu, who also noted that he was surrounded by familiar faces, making his return much easier. “To pull off what [General Manager] Bruce Allen did and get everybody back is remarkable.”
A weak free agent class helped the Redskins stay intact by restructuring contracts and re-signing some, like cornerback DeAngelo Hall, who might not have returned in other years. Irony came into play, too. The same autocratic NFL that slapped the Redskins with a $36 million ’cause-we-say-so penalty was, perhaps, a contributing factor in that dreary free agent market in which hardly a cornerback anywhere got a competitive salary offer. Never say “collusion.” But the NFL gets want it wants. Last offseason, even as it kept the Redskins from adding star names, it may have helped them stay intact.
“It’s true that we couldn’t go out and get huge price free agents,” said safety Reed Doughty, who adds that the Redskins, coming off a 10-6 year, weren’t exactly stuck with dregs. “But they only kept people they wanted.”
Preseason wins seem to exist for the sole purpose of teasing provincials into overestimating the local team. So before allowing too much exhibition enthusiasm, let’s note two negative factors. The Redskins’ pass defense was awful last year, 30th and 29th in yards and touchdowns allowed, respectively. Against the Bills, Josh Wilson was called for a 34-yard pass-interference penalty on a bomb on the first play from scrimmage. Buffalo knew where to test.
Rookies Bacarri Rambo and David Amerson will play key roles in the secondary. Neither has looked adequate yet on open-field tackles. And against the Bills, Amerson was penalized 57 yards for two infractions.
Also, a main reason the Redskins went 10-6 last year was a plus-17 in turnover differential. That can hardly be overemphasized. In the last 43 years, the Redskins have topped that mark only four times. Only three times have they had back-to-back seasons with plus-10 in turnovers.
Okay, that’s enough realism for August. Until the games begin to count and RGIII shows how healthy his knee truly is, here’s the central news about the Redskins: By the end of last year, they played like a true team.
Now almost every one of them is back.
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.