Washington Redskins need to take a punch, and throw even more
The main thing we learned from the Washington Redskins' loss to the St. Louis Rams is that it's going to take two more drafts to rebuild the team, not just one. The Redskins have now been beaten in consecutive weeks by two of the youngest teams in the league, and they've faded badly in the fourth quarter while doing it. That's not about scheme, or one or two positions on the field, or some weird curse-like malaise. It's about their inability to punch the other team in the mouth.
The Redskins are getting physically pushed around. The truest truism in the NFL is that players trump system. The problem isn't so much Jim Haslett's blitz-happy 3-4 defense, or Kyle Shanahan's offensive playbook, though both are a little too cute. The real crux is that the Redskins don't have enough core strength - and by that I mean the muscle, the hard midsection, that is the foundation of any strong structure.
They are paying for years of roster rot, the organization's refusal to build good young quality depth on the interior lines, and that problem has defeated every single coach who has come through Redskins Park. If you were wondering why Mike Shanahan's 2010 version of the team looks so much like Jim Zorn's 2009 version, there's your answer.
Quality line play isn't something that can be built overnight. There is no quick fix for it through free agency. It requires a two- to three-year commitment to draft picks, and patience while players get to know and learn to trust each other, and there is no accelerating that process. It will require a kind of patience that the franchise has not been willing to show in the last decade.
Everyone knows that when a good team has a bad Sunday, it has to be able to fight its way out of trouble physically.
Instead the Redskins have noticeably surrendered in the second half of every game this season. They were saved by a holding penalty against the Cowboys after they gave up a late drive. They couldn't protect a 17-point lead in the final 16 minutes against the Texans. And they were outscored 16-0 in the late third and fourth quarters by the Rams.
That's a physical issue.
When you convert just one of 10 third downs against the Rams, you aren't getting the push you need. "Third downs," Mike Shanahan said. "You kept on taking a look at third and 10, third and eight, third and 11." The main reason they're in third and long is because they simply aren't moving anyone out of the way.
There were times when the Redskins actually looked contact-shy - as with Portis's purposeful slide in the grass to avoid getting hit. Defensively, you couldn't tell when Albert Haynesworth was in the game or not; he wasn't credited with a tackle as the Redskins had just one sack and never affected rookie quarterback Sam Bradford or stifled the run, especially on third down. Yet these are two players the Redskins count on to establish physical presence.
Last season Zorn's critics ripped him for a lack of discipline, and for letting his team commit mental errors. But with their record again at 1-2, it's becoming apparent that the main reason the Redskins commit penalties is that they're physically overmatched at certain spots. You false-start when you're worried you can't contain the guy on the other side. You hold because you're already beat.
Two series against the Rams spelled doom. Late in the third quarter the Redskins got the ball at their 37, and instead of mounting the game-winning drive, they kept the ball for all of 23 seconds. They went three and out with incomplete passes, presumably because they didn't have the confidence to run.
The Rams answered by holding the ball for more than five minutes. They ran 10 plays, slugging their way to an eight-point lead. For the day, they converted 7 of 16 third downs. Game over.
It's not clear why the Redskins have failed to strong-arm supposedly inferior opponents: perhaps it's age or complacency or players still learning their assignments in the new systems.
Critics can argue over specific players or play calls - whether they should go more to young Ryan Torain over Portis, or second-year guard Kory Lichtensteiger over seventh-year Derrick Dockery. But the more important question is: Why are they so reluctant to run the ball? They're averaging a league-low 19 carries per game. The most obvious explanation: They don't yet trust the run game.
The most frustrating aspect of the loss is that the Rams, with just two wins in their past 29 games, appear to be developing what the Redskins are still seeking. They got stronger as the game wore on, not weaker. On the front line, they are a blend of youth and experience: their left tackle, Rodger Saffold, is a rookie second-round draft pick, and their right tackle, Jason Smith, is in his second year and was their No. 2 overall pick last year. They are complemented by a couple of veteran guards in Jacob Bell, 29, and Adam Goldberg, 30, and center Jason Brown, 27.
The Redskins' own offensive line should have been rebuilt from the ground up three or four years ago, but instead was famously neglected. Shanahan did all he could to upgrade in a single offseason, drafting Trent Williams at left tackle and bringing in free agents, but consider their overall age: Casey Rabach is 33; Dockery, 30; Jammal Brown, 29; Artis Hicks, 31. If the Redskins had another Williams, a young draft pick with new legs and lungs, the past two games might have ended differently.
The defensive line is equally grizzled. Nose tackle Maake Kemoeatu is 31. Haynesworth is 29 but plays like he's 50. Phillip Daniels is a consummate pro but he's 37. Vonnie Holliday is 34. Kedric Golston at 27, Adam Carriker at 26, and Jeremy Jarmon at 22 are the youths in the unit.
That's a lot of drafting the Redskins need to do in the next couple of years. It's going to take a two-class infusion of young talent to compensate for the poor management of the past few years. And that's assuming that Shanahan and General Manager Bruce Allen bring in prize classes, which is by no means assured. Regardless, the Redskins are probably going to be a three-year project before they reap the full results of Shanahan's plan. In the meantime, they're going to take some punches.