A season once filled with promise and a realistic shot at an NFC East title effectively ended with the snapping of two bones on the FedEx Field turf four days before Thanksgiving.
The Washington Redskins sat atop the division 10 weeks into the season and were storming toward a second postseason berth under Coach Jay Gruden when Alex Smith broke the tibia and fibula in his right leg. The outlook for 2018 and beyond was immediately altered. The Redskins lost by two points to the Houston Texans that day, the start of a 1-5 stretch that included four straight losses and three more starting quarterbacks.
Sure, Smith’s injury was the most impactful as the Redskins dropped from first place to out of playoff contention, but there were 21 players who went on injured reserve, and that meant players signed off the street found themselves in significant roles. Washington’s biggest move came Monday, when it cut safety D.J. Swearinger Sr. following his critical comments about defensive coordinator Greg Manusky after Saturday’s loss to the Tennessee Titans.
The defense was mostly spared from major injury, but it buckled down the stretch after playing like one of the best in the NFL early on. The most embarrassing performance was a 40-16 loss to the lowly New York Giants in Week 14. A blown fourth-quarter lead against backup quarterback Blaine Gabbert and the Titans sealed the Redskins’ elimination with one week to go.
“It’s very disappointing, without a doubt,” Gruden said. “You look at where we were at 6-3, we had a lot of things going positively. I felt like we were still underachieving, so to speak, especially on offense. I think Alex was just starting to get his rhythm a little bit, get a lot more familiar with the players and what we were doing and getting better and better. Then he goes down, and obviously Colt [McCoy] goes down, and we had issues with the guards and tight ends and everybody else.
“It is a tough pill to swallow because I know we have a very talented team here and I feel like I didn’t get enough out of them to get us in a position to advance to the playoffs.”
The team has one game remaining and several big questions to answer once the offseason begins next week. Here are some of the most pressing:
What to do at quarterback?
The Redskins were burned by carrying only two quarterbacks. After Smith and McCoy went down, the team was forced to sign backups off the street. Josh Johnson held down the fort well enough the past two games, but the Mark Sanchez experiment didn’t even last a full game. Smith’s recovery timetable is unknown, meaning there’s no guarantee he will be back for the start of the 2019 season.
McCoy, who broke his leg Dec. 3 against the Philadelphia Eagles, is poised to begin next season as the starter if Smith isn’t ready, but the Redskins will need at least one other quarterback for the summer and training camp. Smith’s $94 million contract makes it difficult to spend on a proven veteran, so it’s more likely the team finds one in the draft. Perhaps more importantly, Washington has to start looking to the future at the position. Smith will be 35 years old and coming off a major injury, and McCoy, 30, has not proved himself a legitimate starter.
Of course, Johnson could be brought back as a reserve after his solid performances against Jacksonville and Tennessee.
Who’s in charge?
Decisions will have to be made on the futures of Gruden and team President Bruce Allen. The team is 35-43-1 in five seasons under Gruden, and he is the longest-tenured head coach since Daniel Snyder bought the team in 1999. Allen has not built a deep roster in nine seasons, the offense lacks playmakers, and the franchise has made the playoffs just twice in 10 seasons under his direction. There continues to be talk of a toxic culture under Allen, and the team came under significant criticism this season for the decision — led by Allen — to claim linebacker Reuben Foster off waivers just days after he was arrested on charges of domestic violence.
Can the offensive line be rebuilt?
The team decided not to add depth at guard in the offseason and paid the price when the top four guards landed on injured reserve. Shawn Lauvao signed a one-year deal last offseason but ended the year on injured reserve, so it’s unclear whether he will be brought back. Arie Kouandjio could be the future left guard once he gets healthy. Brandon Scherff, the team’s first-round pick at No. 5 in 2015, is entering the final year of his contract and will be up for an extension. He also ended the year on injured reserve, so the Redskins will need to consider that during contract negotiations.
Which free agents will be back?
There are several questions that must be answered about the team’s soon-to-be free agents. Will running back Adrian Peterson return after he played well in relief of injured second-round pick Derrius Guice on a one-year contract? Will 2015 draft picks linebacker Preston Smith and wide receiver Jamison Crowder get contracts with the Redskins or sign elsewhere?
There also is the matter of players who might be released, such as linebacker Zach Brown, who indicated to reporters in recent weeks that he was expecting to depart. The roster could have a different look next season, and the team needs to add playmakers on offense while adding speed to the defense.
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