Coach Jay Gruden might not improve much on the four-win 2015, but there are three ways you’ll be able to tell if Washington is on the right track: Their physicality, how close they are at the ends of games, and if they get the most from their players. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

You arrive at a dead end when you ask them to quantify their optimism. For all the excitement the Washington Redskins have about their improvement, they leave the soothsaying to others. They’d rather figure out the secondary than moonlight with clairvoyance.

“I’m not going to put a number on it,” General Manager Scot McCloughan said.

“It’s not for me to put out there,” defensive end Jason Hatcher said.

“How far we are away from winning depends on how we do today on the practice field,” said Bruce Allen, the team president. “We have a lot of work to do.”

No marketing slogan can come from those thoughts, unless it were something uninspiring like, “Well, let’s, um, wait and, uh, see.”

Washington invested in the lines, including drafting Brandon Scherff and making Morgan Moses a starter, to have a more physical presence. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

This season, the first with McCloughan in charge of football operations, is the beginning of a difficult process. What constitutes progress in 2015? It’s possible for the team to suffer double-digit losses for the sixth time in seven years and still be on the right path.

That’s not intended as permission to stink without remorse. There are limits. But even if the Redskins aren’t ready to be judged against the NFL’s best, you can still expect for sanity to reemerge this season.

What constitutes progress? Evaluate the season in three areas.

1. The physical factor: Whether an offseason of emphasis results in improved offensive and defensive line play and an overall upgrade in toughness.

2. The competitiveness factor: Whether a 4-12 team that lost nine games by double digits a year ago changes into one that consistently gives itself opportunities to win.

3. The coaching factor: Whether second-year Coach Jay Gruden spurs the development of his quarterbacks and makes the most of the new talent McCloughan has given him.

If those three things are accomplished, it will be clear where this team is headed. If not, prepare for a long year followed by another round of major offseason readjustments.

When asked to define success last month, McCloughan focused on the mauler mentality. Washington invested the fifth overall pick of the draft on Brandon Scherff, an offensive tackle who is now playing guard. Scherff is supposed to solidify the offensive line, and on defense McCloughan brought in veterans such as Terrance Knighton, Stephen Paea and Ricky Jean Francois to upgrade a unit that should be the team’s most talented group.

This is a bigger and stronger team. Now the players must prove to be more effective. Gruden and McCloughan are banking this season on a return to nastiness.

“From the standpoint of wins, doesn’t matter,” McCloughan said. “I mean it matters, but I’m not going to put a number on it. I’m not going to put a number on it, but I know this: When you play the Redskins this year, you’re going to know you played us. You’re going to feel us from the standpoint of being physical. The next morning, you’re going to be sore.

“We’re not going to win every game, but I tell you now, we’re going to compete no matter what. We’re going to get after you, and we’ll not back down from anything. I promise you, we will not back down from anything. If we do, changes will be made, but we’re not going to. We’re going to get after it.”

For certain, you can cull a marketing slogan from those thoughts.

Improved physical play should lead to improved competitiveness. If so, then it’s up to Gruden to live up to his reputation as a stellar quarterback groom and make sure his overhauled coaching staff does good work in player development.

But it all comes back to toughness and improvement up front. Last season, seven of the NFL’s top 10 run defenses made the playoffs. Five of the top 10 rushing offenses made the playoffs. Seattle, which ran for more than twice as many yards as it allowed, went to the Super Bowl.

There are many things that will keep the Redskins from playing on that level. Despite three new starters, the secondary might only be marginally better. Both creating and preventing turnovers could be an issue. Depth could be a problem, too. But a physical team always has a chance.

“I want to be physical. Period,” Gruden said. “We want to be a physical football team.”

In general, there are three genres of bad in professional sports: progressing bad, regressing bad and bad without a cause. In my dictionary of random, made-up terms, progressing bad means that a team has been down but its rebuilding strategy is showing signs of life. Regressing bad means that a team is awful and may sink further before it gets better. And bad without a cause epitomizes Washington over the past seven seasons, in which it has finished last in the NFC East six times.

When you’re bad without a cause, you’re floundering, hoping for a savior to change your fortunes. You don’t commit to anything, really, other than a new coach’s philosophy or a new star’s ability. Without an organizational vision, not even great individual talent can prosper. You end up resetting over and over and wondering why you’ve created a wasteland for the gifted.

Washington can get to progressing bad this season. The chaotic final two weeks of the preseason created doubt, but through it all some clarity surfaced on a few key matters.

Kirk Cousins is the starting quarterback. Gruden is in charge; he was given the authority to assess the quarterbacks and decide Robert Griffin III isn’t the answer. And McCloughan, despite his own off-field controversy, has built a 53-man roster with better talent and zeal for the game.

“I’ve got a good feeling about this year,” running back Alfred Morris said. “It looks good on paper, but we have to continue to do the work.”

Rebuilding, or progressing bad, basically means losing for a reason. It has been a while since it felt like this franchise could gain from its pain. This may be the year, though.

The feeling isn’t strong enough to attach any guarantees, but at long last, there is hope.

For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.

“I want
to be physical. Period.
We want
to be
a physical football team.”

Jay Gruden
Head coach

Jerry Brewer