A mere playoff appearance doesn’t have the same luster for the Redskins that it does for organizations without Washington’s history of three Super Bowl victories in five appearances. But that’s what the team needs in its fifth season under Coach Jay Gruden after finishing third or fourth in the NFC East in three of his first four years.
The Redskins begin training camp July 26 in Richmond. Here are a few things that they need to happen to reach the postseason for the first time since the 2015 season:
QB play: Everything begins with the quarterback in the NFL, and that rings especially true in Gruden’s system. Alex Smith was brought in to provide long-term stability, and he looked capable of it during summer workouts. He was decisive, able to make every throw, and he didn’t turn the ball over. The veteran, entering his 14th year in the league, also showed a willingness to let an up-and-coming receiving corps, including newcomer Paul Richardson, Josh Doctson and Jamison Crowder, go make plays for him despite decent coverage. Smith knows how to strike that balance between taking chances and protecting the ball. His five interceptions in 2017 were the second fewest among quarterbacks with at least 400 attempts. That said, he needs to click quickly with his new teammates and shine from Week 1 on.
Stay healthy: The 2017 season ended with 23 Redskins players on injured reserve; starters at offensive line, defensive line, running back, tight end and linebacker were lost for the season. That cannot happen again. The team has invested in a new recovery center that it hopes will help prevent injuries. There’s a thin line between winning and losing in the NFL, and the task becomes much more difficult without your big guns. Last season, that included Chris Thompson, Jordan Reed, Jonathan Allen, Trent Williams, Morgan Moses and Mason Foster.
Stop the run: The Redskins defense ranked last in the NFL against the run in 2017, allowing 134.1 yards per game. That horrific number led to the selection of Alabama defensive tackle Daron Payne with the draft’s 13th pick. The pairing of Payne and Jonathan Allen, the team’s 2017 first-round pick, should make an immediate difference. Having Mason Foster and Zach Brown together at inside linebacker for a second consecutive year also should help. When the defense can’t stop the run, the opponent can control the tempo, grind out the clock in the fourth quarter and regularly convert on third-and-short situations. The Redskins can’t continue to get knocked backward.
Youth movement: The time is now for the youngsters, including rookies Daron Payne and Derrius Guice. The Redskins weren’t very active in free agency and will rely on recent draftees to take the next step and become consistent playmakers. Guice will be counted on to inject some life into the running game; the second-round pick was considered by many to be the second-best running back in the draft. The team needs more from receiver Josh Doctson, linebacker Ryan Anderson, cornerbacks Quinton Dunbar and Fabian Moreau, safety Montae Nicholson and defensive linemen Matt Ioannidis and Jonathan Allen.
The Reed advantage: Tight end Jordan Reed is the biggest mismatch the Redskins have offensively, but they have yet to fully take advantage of his skills because of his litany of injuries. The 6-foot-2, 245-pounder is too big for most defensive backs and too athletic for most linebackers. Reed had a career year with 87 catches for 952 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2015 as he played a career-high 14 games. He then missed 14 games over the past two years, playing in just six last season. For Gruden and Smith to get the offense rolling, they need their most unique skill player to make the most of his potential.
Keep the faith: The NFL is a league of parity, and 2017 was the perfect example. Eight playoff teams missed the postseason the previous season, and six of those eight had losing records. The Eagles had missed the postseason in five of the previous six seasons before winning the Super Bowl. The Jaguars played in the AFC championship game just one season after going 3-13, and they hadn’t reached the playoffs since 2007. The Titans broke an eight-year playoff drought. The Rams hadn’t made the playoffs in 12 seasons. The Bills reached the postseason for the first time since 1999. The Redskins have never had that kind of a stretch, and now they have a quarterback who led the Chiefs to the playoffs in four of the past five seasons.