With their playoff hopes scuttled and three games remaining to chase the dubious reward of an 8-8 finish, the Washington Redskins still have ample reason to close the season strong. Sunday's game against the Arizona Cardinals (6-7), followed by clashes with the foundering Denver Broncos and New York Giants, will serve as a referendum on Coach Jay Gruden's leadership and on each player's competitiveness and commitment.
But as coaches and players focus on shoring up their value in a performance-is-everything business, Redskins fans can't help but turn the page to 2018, skipping the final chapter of the dreary narrative that has led to this 5-8 point, and think about next season's squad and the possibility that comes with being 0-0 again.
Who will be the playmakers on offense and deliver drive-ending blows on defense? How will the 2018 Redskins stack up in the NFC East? Can they contend for a conference championship for the first time in 27 years?
Barring calamity, the Redskins will return a core group of foundational players — led on offense by left tackle Trent Williams and linemates Brandon Scherff and Morgan Moses; and, on defense, by linebacker Ryan Kerrigan, cornerback Josh Norman and safety D.J. Swearinger. But between the number of starters on one-year or expiring deals — most notably, quarterback Kirk Cousins — and the 18 players on injured reserve, it's all but impossible to forecast the quality of next season's roster.
"You just look at this football team, and it's one big question mark," said former Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann, who led the team to back-to-back Super Bowl appearances and helped deliver the first of former coach Joe Gibbs's three championships to cap the 1982 season.
The loquacious Theismann, who typically answers football questions with expansive, meaty paragraphs, needed just two letters to handicap the Redskins' 2018 roster.
"It's just one big 'If,' " Theismann said, alluding to uncertainty at virtually every key position. "It is, 'If.' "
The Redskins declined to make their senior vice president of personnel, Doug Williams, available to discuss the roster or the front office priorities heading into 2018, saying the team was focused solely on Sunday's game against the Cardinals.
Regardless, everything starts with Cousins, whose value and significance eclipses all on the roster, not just in dollar figures but in potential to impact the team's success and identity.
Yet for a third consecutive year, the Redskins will head into the offseason with a question mark at quarterback. For two years running, they have blocked his departure by using the NFL's costly franchise tag after failing to a reach a long-term contract. Doing so a third time is possible but imprudent — at least in Theismann's view.
"You pretty much have to make some type of decision on Kirk to give you a chance to say: 'Where are we going?'" Theismann said. "Kirk made a decision that he wanted to play on a tag. That's an option for the Redskins going forward, but I don't see it as a healthy situation for the franchise. You need some sense of stability at that position. It's draining on the fans. It's draining on the team. I think it's draining on management. Something's got to give."
Meanwhile, the Redskins are assured of returning three of their five starting offensive linemen, following the philosophy of former general manager Scot McCloughan — that NFL games are won in the trenches.
"It's something every team works for: stability up front, on defense and on offense," said Williams, the five-time Pro Bowl left tackle who is under contract through 2020. Right tackle Morgan Moses signed a five-year contract extension in April. And right guard Brandon Scherff will enter the final year of his four-year rookie deal in 2018.
"Obviously we all were drafted fairly high [Williams and Scherff, first round; Moses, third round], so when they drafted us, they intended for us to be here for an extended period of time," Williams said. "I'm pretty sure they intend to keep adding to that, whether that's via free agency, signing guys back [center Spencer Long and left guard Shawn Lauvao are in the final year of their contracts] or via the draft."
The status of the Redskins' skill players on offense is less clear.
While Josh Doctson has made strides in his second season (27 catches, 388 yards and five touchdowns), the Redskins need a high-impact wide receiver after letting go their most productive and explosive receivers, Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson, last spring.
The passing game was further hampered by tight end Jordan Reed's toe and hamstring injuries, which limited him to six games before he was placed on injured reserve this week. Reed has yet to play a 16-game season in five years in Washington, missing 28 of 80 (35 percent) regular season games, yet was signed to a five-year, $47 million contract in 2016. He has a $10.3 million cap hit in 2018, one of four Redskins whose cap hit next season will top $10 million (Norman, Williams and Kerrigan are the others.)
At this season's midpoint, the Redskins' leading receivers were third-down back Chris Thompson and 33-year-old tight end Vernon Davis. Soon after, Thompson broke his leg while blocking for Cousins in the overtime loss at New Orleans, landing him on injured reserve. He plays a crucial role in Gruden's offense, and the Redskins are counting on him to return healthy (he signed to a two-year extension in September).
On defense, the Redskins need first-round pick Jonathan Allen, who got off to a promising start, to rebound from foot surgery. They are being judicious with his return to the lineup for that reason. Still, they will need long-term help on the defensive line and at middle linebacker.
Re-signing Zach Brown, who leads the NFL in tackles and started every game until an ailing Achilles' tendon finally sidelined him for Sunday's game, is imperative.
Outside linebacker is in better shape, with Kerrigan (signed through 2020) and third-year player Preston Smith still under contract.
"It's enough to build around," said Swearinger, the Arizona castoff who has played well at safety in Year 1 of his three-year deal with the Redskins.
Kerrigan, whose nine sacks lead the team, agrees.
"I feel like we do have a good foundation of players here that can win," Kerrigan said. "Not to make an excuse, but we have had a number of injuries that have hampered us. With the talent we have on the coaching staff and on the roster, we can still be a pretty good team and we can be a team that contends in the NFC East and the NFC for years to come. I just feel like we've got to find a way to do little things throughout games to win. Look at a game like Kansas City early in the season — games like that, maybe if we had figured out a way to close out those games, we're looking at a different season."
One solution lies in bolstering the roster.
"Let's face it: This is a players' game," Theismann said. "You can have all the concepts in the world, and you can think the concepts are going to get it done. But unless you have players who can make plays, you're not going to win games."
Note: The Redskins activated kicker Dustin Hopkins from injured reserve and, in turn, waived his replacement, Nick Rose. Hopkins, 27, a fourth-year player from Florida State, was signed by the Redskins in September 2015. He was placed on injured reserve following the Oct. 15 victory over San Francisco with a right hip injury. He had made 9 of 11 field goal attempts (81.8 percent) and 12 of 13 extra points.
Rose made 10 of 11 field goals (90.9) and 18 of 20 extra points.
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