Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Where Are We? I Don't Know.

The Doom That Came To the Secondary, and other Lovecraftian Tales
This Sunday, watching the Redskins play the New York Giants was a profoundly strange experience. As you probably could tell from my pregame post, I wasn't sure what to expect, but thought the Redskins would ultimately lose the game. Sure enough, that's what happened. I've lived through devastating losses to the Giants many times since returning to full-time Redskins fandom circa 2001, so I would expect to be feeling a very familiar emotion right now. Specifically, some crossbreed of frustration and despair--the certain belief that the team could have done better, combined with a deep-seated fear that they never, ever will. Based on past experience, the way the game ended on Sunday should have ruined my day and left fuzzy contrails of depression across my brain that would subtly drag down at least the first half of the week to come. And yet, that's not how I felt at all.

In fact, in terms of my feelings, this entire Redskins season thus far has been bizarre. I'm hearing other Skins fans express much the same. On the Redskins blog I follow most regularly, the Monday morning post was talking about how no one the guys who run the site know was really bummed about the outcome of the Giants game. Instead, they were all talking about how weirdly hopeful they felt after seeing it. Sure enough, that pretty much describes my feeling at this point as well. And the thing that seems to be affecting all of our feelings is a real optimism about the performance of Robert Griffin III. On the surface, though, this doesn't make any sense. I've seen far worse Redskins teams get their asses kicked by the Giants within the past decade, and I never felt the least bit good about it. Why should I feel better about seeing the most clearly talented team we've fielded in something like ...shit, probably 20 years, now that I think of it--still manage to blow games at the last minute?

Well, I've spent the past few days thinking about it, and I think I've come up with an answer. Back when I was watching the Giants beat the pants off the Al Saunders or Jim Zorn Redskins, when I was watching Patrick Ramsey scramble or Clinton Portis get injured or Devin Thomas drop passes, I was seeing a team that was about as good as it was gonna get, at least for that year, with that lineup. Watching turnovers, bad play calls, and stupid mistakes doom a mediocre team who were trying to talk themselves up into half-decent status, I just knew they would never make the grade, that they'd remain the half-stepping, short-falling gang of underachievers that I was seeing on the field right at that moment for the foreseeable future. And it killed me. I wanted to fucking scream, so many times, watching a team that could put together a solid drive, a decent quarter, sometimes even a good half when playing an equally mediocre team expose all of their weaknesses when confronted with a football team that actually had their shit together.

Last Sunday, the Redskins confronted yet another in a long line of Giants teams who have their shit together. Tom Coughlin, who reprises his role as the gunnery sergeant from Full Metal Jacket on the sidelines every week (do you think he calls Eli Manning Gomer Pyle?) seems to have the whole team walking on eggshells, but when they hit the field they play hard and make shit happen. They won the Super Bowl last year, for fuck's sake, and if anything they look even better this year. A week ago I wasn't sure that that was really true, but I hadn't seen them play this year yet either. Now I have, I know what's up with them, and I'm sure that it was difficult for the Redskins to even hang in there with them as long as they did. There've been enough callbacks to the infamous Denny Green postgame speech over the past decade to last everyone a lifetime, but considering that I expected the Giants to, in the end, get the best of the Redskins, I'm sure you know what I'm thinking.

So the question remains--why do I feel, actually, pretty good about where things stand right now? A little less than halfway through the season, the Redskins are 3-4. The offense is putting some things together, but after scoring three takeaways against the Vikings, we responded by turning the ball over four times to the Giants--hardly a positive development. And the secondary is so shitty that they singlehandedly blew the game for us. Yeah, I know, Santana Moss's fumble with 45 seconds left is what really took away our last chance to score, but his 30 yard touchdown catch with 92 seconds left should have been enough to win the game. All the secondary needed to do was prevent any big plays and keep Eli and the Giants from scoring for a minute and a half, and we'd have won the game. They couldn't even manage a third of that--Eli's 77 yard touchdown pass to Victor Cruz happened 19 seconds of game time after Griffin's pass to Moss. That pass should have been the one all over highlight reels on the Sunday night sports shows, but that's not what happened.

I prefer to remember the good times...
The thing that keeps me from being devastated by the eventual outcome of the Giants game has a lot to do with that pass, though. As Santana pulled it in and I saw for sure that it was a touchdown, I leaped off my best friend's living room couch and (once I'd calmed down enough to speak actual words) started yelling, "That right there! That's the difference RG3 makes! That's it right there!" And I was hyper and inarticulate at the time, but I was also right. His ability to stay upright in the pocket, extend plays, and make accurate downfield passes that complete scoring drives is the difference between RG3 and most other quarterbacks playing in the NFL today. And it's definitely the difference between RG3 and pretty much every other quarterback who has played for the Redskins in the post-Gibbs 1.0 era. Who else have we seen that could have made that pass? If you said Mark Brunell, who did it not once but twice in the final moments of an incredible 2005 win against the Cowboys, I'll give you that. However, not only was Brunell the best Redskins quarterback of the pre-RG3 modern era (this is probably gonna cause controversy, but it's a judgment call I'm willing to make), that game was also a fluke for him. At least during the Redskins phase of his career, it was--if anyone who watched the Jaguars regularly between 1995 and 2003 can tell me differently about his earlier years, I will totally take your word for it, because god knows I don't now, nor have I ever, watched the Jaguars regularly.

But anyway, the thing about RG3 is not so much that he hit that clutch pass to Santana Moss to give us the lead with a very short amount of time left to play--little enough time that the majority of the teams in the 2012 NFL would have been unable to come back--but that he was doing shit like that all day. Downfield passes were dropping into the hands of Moss, Josh Morgan, Leonard Hankerson, and others in such a way that they didn't usually have to even break stride to pull the passes in. This made a definite difference in the yards after catch our receivers delivered in the game. Even the one high-profile downfield pass I can think of that wasn't caught bounced off Leonard Hankerson's fingertips--and if he'd caught it, it would have been a gain of 50 yards at minimum. It's tough for a quarterback to hit long passes like that with any degree of accuracy. From what I've read (and I'm not going to cite sources on this, so you'll just have to trust my memory), only somewhere between 20 and 40% of long bomb-style passes are completed. The fact that, as a rookie in his seventh game of pro action, RG3 was not only completing such passes frequently, but a lot of the time delivering them so accurately that receivers didn't even have to break stride to catch them, puts his performance on Sunday in borderline-elite territory. He was out there throwing like Drew Brees, and he's a goddamn rookie!

I mean, seriously, it's crazy how good the guy is. And on the ground, he's just as good--as is his most frequent backfield partner, Alfred Morris. People keep comparing that guy to Terrell Davis, and while I think such praise is premature, to say the least, at one point in the game, Fox flashed a graphic comparing Alfred's stats thus far to Terrell Davis's stats after 6 weeks in the NFL, and Morris actually has significantly more yards right now. Of course, he's also on track for something like 320 carries this season, which is good for us this year but could wear him out more quickly in the long run, and I'd hate to see that. At this moment, though, I have little to complain about, where Morris is concerned. OK, the fumble was awful--ruined a scoring drive that might very well have made a difference in the outcome of the game. But I've managed to convince myself that the fumble wasn't really Morris's fault at all; instead, I blame Tyler Polumbus.

For those who don't pay that much attention to guys that never touch the ball, let me explain the whole Polumbus thing. First of all, he's only our starting right tackle because Jammal Brown appears to be a piece of burnt toast. After four years as a New Orleans Saint, including the year they went to the Super Bowl--though he spent that year on IR with a torn ACL--Brown was traded to the Redskins, and has had trouble staying healthy ever since. In 2010, recovery from hip surgery slowed him down, but he started in 14 games. In 2011, he was in and out of the lineup, starting in 12 games. This year, he was injured in training camp, and had another hip surgery. We'll see if he can recover from this one, but in the meantime, our starting right tackle is Tyler Polumbus, one of the worst right tackles to start consistently in the NFL over the last five years. The Redskins are his fourth team--he was undrafted in 2008, and played for the Broncos in 08 and 09 before being waived by them during the 2010 preseason. The Lions claimed him off waivers, traded him to the Seahawks after a week, and the Seahawks kept him for a year and a half before waiving him midseason in 2011. The Redskins signed him two weeks later, and he's been playing for us ever since. Dude is terrible. He's a running joke at Football Outsiders, which makes it even more cringeworthy to see him out there every week as a Redskins starter. And, to bring this back around, Polumbus is responsible for Morris's fumble. How so? Because on the play before the one on which Morris fumbled, Polumbus got called for holding, nullifying a 15 yard run. Then the Skins tried the same play again, and this time the ball was stripped out of Morris's hands. If Polumbus hadn't gotten penalized, they'd never have run that play at all.

Whatever--maybe you buy that, maybe you don't. And when talking about ways in which the Redskins still have a long way to go, Polumbus is just the tip of the iceberg. It is at least nice to only be complaining about one of our offensive linemen rather than all of them, but now the secondary is the position group that needs a total overhaul. If anything, I think D. Hall has aged past his effectiveness at cornerback, and would probably be best in the role of strong safety, where he can play out the downside of his career. I've been made happy by the play of all of the rest of the Redskins secondary members at one point or another, but considering how many of them see the field regularly without managing to consistently distinguish themselves as real coverage threats, at this point I have to figure that any good plays they make are just the result of the law of averages, and someone with real talent would do a lot more than pull in an occasional interception or come blitzing in to stop a run behind the line once every other game.

And now Fred Davis is injured. Easy to let that get lost in the shuffle of the game, but I don't think we can underestimate its importance. With Garcon out, Davis had become RG3's #1 target, and while Logan Paulsen proved that he can be effective as a pass-catching tight end over the course of the second half, I'm not sure he can step into Davis's shoes. I know Niles Paul can't. Has anyone seen him catch a pass this year? The guy's as bad as Robert Royal was. We resigned Chris Cooley, which is an important move on the cosmic scale of good karma, so I'm glad it happened. But can the guy come back and be the #1 tight end he was four years ago? I have a feeling those days are behind him. I guess we'll see.

Still, though, I feel good. I have hope for the future. Between RG3, Alfred Morris, Leonard Hankerson, most of the offensive line, and several members of our defensive front seven, I feel like I'm seeing real positive development in the Redskins as a team. Kyle Shanahan continues to get positive results out of the Pop Warner-style stacked backfields I was babbling about last week (I saw a new four-man backfield pre-snap formation during the Giants game, but I didn't write it down and now I don't remember what it was), and whether he's running or throwing, RG3 is the kind of player that sets even the best defenses back on their heels a bit. This team isn't the same sort of half-stepping squad of underachievers that used to bedevil me in past years. They make great plays every week, and seem to be moving in enough of a positive direction that I don't feel like an idiot having hope for the future. Whether that will last through a few more of the inevitable losses that I expect to see this season remains to be seen, but I'm cautiously optimistic. Hopefully for the 2012 Redskins, such a feeling will not be the prelude to certain doom that it often has been in the past.


Raven Mack said...

two thoughts (and I've been waiting for you to post to share one)...
1st, I am so fucking sick of the Alfred Morris/Terrell Davis comparison. so sick of it. fuck Terrell Davis.
2nd, Santana Moss at the end of that game was both a sign of RG3's greatness and also why there's still so much work to do. greatness because he makes other players around him better, as was the case with Moss, who honestly hasn't been worth a shit for two years now. but also limited because of Mr. Moss's gloating and flaunting after the TD, and then fumbling away the game at the end but all spinning away like it was somehow nothing to do with him. they still have some cancer remnants to get rid of, and hopefully they do.

honestly, it's because of that I felt a little conflicted about Cooley coming back. I mean I love Cooley (the dude tried to get a case of beer written into his contract) but also it's (hopefully) a changed locker room - no need to go backwards. if anybody can mesh in with the flow of things I'd say it'd be Cooley, but still, shit needs to keep moving ahead because RG3 is definitely one of those team-changers. I mean, essentially there's some huge problems with this team still - glaring shit like secondary and offensive line, and yet they are 3-4. that's RG3 doing that. that 4th and 10 was fucking amazing.

Andrew TSKS said...

Yeah, I pretty much agree with all of that except I was too busy celebrating after the TD to see what Moss even did. You're totally right that RG3 is making him better and that's an angle I probably should have addressed, honestly. I'll be keeping it in mind from here on out.

Cooley--I tend to think that that guy was the primary force for spiritual, karmic good in the locker room during the dark years of Zorn and early Shanahan. If anything, I always believed that he was part of the solution and not the problem, where his attitude was concerned. Maybe we see him differently, I don't know.

Finally, re: my comment about D Hall as a safety rather than a cornerback--Hogs Haven apparently agrees with me:

...though they say he should be a free safety, which would have him playing deep center field and seems like it would not use his talents as effectively as strong safety would. Oh well--I disagree with that site more often than not anyway.

Raven Mack said...

I like Cooley, I just have my reservations about bringing the past into the future.
Also if you want to be disgusted by idiocy, go to extreme skins. It probably jaded me as much as Snyder this season at least.