It has been more than a generation — 26 years, to be precise — since the Washington Redskins reached the Super Bowl. For fans invested in the team’s return, it was impossible not to view Sunday’s conference championship games without noticing what the Philadelphia Eagles and New England Patriots have that the Redskins lack.
The conclusion was twofold and doubly dispiriting: The 2017 Redskins, who finished 7-9, are far more than one player away from contending for the NFC championship. And no matter how many holes Washington’s front office plugs, it’s doubtful the Redskins will reclaim their fading NFL glory until business decisions no longer trump football ones.
On the field
They lack a punishing running game. The Eagles dismantled the Minnesota Vikings’ vaunted defense behind the surprisingly accurate arm of backup quarterback Nick Foles, who was 26 of 33 for 353 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. But after giving up the game’s opening touchdown, the Eagles got a terrific second-quarter boost from the sheer power of running back LeGarrette Blount, who plowed 11 yards through the heart of the Vikings’ defense. It was but the latest example of Philadelphia’s excellence on the ground. As a whole, the Eagles finished with the NFL’s third-ranked rushing attack (132.2 yards per game).
Blount may be 31, but the Redskins don’t have anything close to a 250-pound force in their running back corps who’s capable of doing what Blount did, aided by terrific blocking. Collectively, Washington’s running backs ranked 28th (90.5 yards per game). The Redskins went through six running backs this injury-ravaged season; none held the job long enough to make a game-changing mark, earn a meaningful grade or give coaches confidence the position is in solid hands heading into 2018.
They lack a strong defensive line. Eagles defensive end Chris Long set in motion the early shift in momentum, getting a mitt on Vikings quarterback Case Keenum to force the interception that Patrick Robinson returned 50 yards for the Eagles’ first touchdown. The Vikings didn’t score again as they fell, 38-7, with Keenum finishing 28 of 48 for 271 yards and three turnovers to offset his one touchdown. Against the run, the Eagles held the Vikings, who averaged 122.3 rushing yards per game (seventh in the league), to just 70.
While the Redskins’ defensive line was helped by the addition of rookie Jonathan Allen, his midseason foot injury underscored the need for more help up front. Washington finished last in the league in rushing yards allowed per game (134.1).
They lacked playmakers in the secondary. While the Patriots’ fourth-quarter comeback against Jacksonville was the result of brilliant collaboration between quarterback Tom Brady and wide receiver Danny Amendola, it was New England cornerback Stephon Gilmore who clinched the victory. Facing fourth and 14 with less than two minutes remaining and his Jaguars trailing by four, quarterback Blake Bortles dropped back and uncorked a beauty of a deep ball to streaking receiver Dede Westbrook. But Gilmore, in close pursuit, dived full out and, twisting his torso to track the ball coming over his right shoulder, batted it away with his outstretched right hand.
The Redskins ought to be okay at cornerback next season, regardless of whether Bashaud Breeland departs via free agency, with Kendall Fuller coming off a four-interception season and the re-signed Quinton Dunbar making impressive strides. But the Redskins need more from their own No. 24: Josh Norman, the team’s highest paid defensive player. They likely need another safety, too. And they need more speed, aggressiveness and big plays at nearly every position on defense.
Off the field
They’ve lacked high-impact additions. If anyone will give the Los Angeles Rams’ Sean McVay a run for NFL coach of the year honors, it’s Philadelphia’s Doug Pederson, who weathered the loss of his starting quarterback, Pro Bowl left tackle and starting middle linebacker to return the Eagles to the Super Bowl for the first time since the 2004 season. And when NFL executive of the year honors are doled out, Philadelphia’s Howie Roseman should be in the running.
Roseman was aggressive on the right things this season and last. Not only did he sign Long and Blount, members of the Patriots’ Super Bowl LI championship team, in free agency, but on the eve of the NFL’s late October trade deadline, when most teams sit on their hands, Roseman traded a fourth-round draft pick for Miami’s Jay Ajayi to bolster the Eagles’ running game. Combined with the decision to move up in the 2016 draft to take quarterback Carson Wentz second overall, Roseman appears to have the Eagles well positioned for years to come.
That’s unwelcome news for the Redskins, who appear on the brink of losing quarterback Kirk Cousins because of their halfhearted contract offers and have a glut of unproven running backs following an injury-prone season. The Redskins were 1-5 in the NFC East this season, swept by the Eagles (30-17 at home in Week 1; 34-24 on the road in Week 7) and Cowboys. The Redskins also fell to the Vikings, 38-30, in Week 10.
They’ve lacked preseason preparation. Redskins President Bruce Allen announced with great fanfare in 2012 an eight-year deal to hold training camp in Richmond each summer. It wasn’t until a few years into the deal that a significant competitive disadvantage became apparent: Since the Redskins committed to hold all of their practices at the $10 million facility Richmond built as part of the deal, the team is precluded from traveling elsewhere to scrimmage other teams. The Redskins can host teams for joint practices, as they did with the Patriots in 2014 and the Texans in 2015. But few teams, it turns out, want to enter into such agreements without a reciprocal visit.
Redskins Coach Jay Gruden and Cousins have voiced regret that the team has failed to find a willing partner for a joint practice in Richmond in the past two seasons. Cousins and running back Chris Thompson have said it provides an honest gauge of where the offense stands heading into the regular season. Too often, Gruden’s teams have looked like a work in progress in Week 1.
During Sunday’s AFC championship game, the value of joint practices was a topic of conversation in the CBS booth featuring quarterback-turned-analyst Tony Romo and broadcast partner Jim Nantz, who reminded viewers that the Jaguars traveled to New England’s practice facility for two joint practices in August. At that point, the Jaguars led 7-3, and Romo suggested the experience of facing Brady had helped the Jaguars’ secondary. “You start to figure out strengths, weaknesses [in a joint practice],” Romo said.
Nantz agreed: “Some of the awe factor had been taken away,” he said.
That “awe factor,” of course, returned with the Patriots’ fourth-quarter comeback.
While no team can replicate Brady’s value at quarterback, smart ones can take a cue from the Patriots’ preparation. This season marked the sixth consecutive year the Patriots scrimmaged another team during training camp: They hosted Jacksonville and visited West Virginia for joint practice with Houston in 2017; they hosted New Orleans and Chicago in 2016; they went to West Virginia to scrimmage the Saints in 2015; they visited the Redskins in Richmond and hosted Philadelphia in 2014; they went to Philadelphia and hosted Tampa Bay in 2013; and, in 2012, they hosted New Orleans and visited Tampa Bay.
Said Jacksonville Coach Doug Marrone during the Jaguars’ 2017 visit to New England, “It gives us a good feel for where we are.”
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