Sunday, December 28, 2014

Washington Sports Aren't A Lost Cause

No, this is not a post about how terrible the Redskins are now, and will forever be hereafter. They may be. But while the Redskins' season has come to a horrible yet merciless finish, the focus for sports fans around the DC Metro area should turn to hope.

You see, there's a star who had early success, struggled, dealt with fan and media backlash, came back from injury and showed flashes. No, I'm not talking about embattled QB Robert Griffin III. I'm talking about Washington Wizards' point guard John Wall. The major difference between the two, is that John Wall has now found his groove and started to really come into his own.

Wall is perhaps the most exciting athlete to watch in Washington sports right now. He's very young, and has a lot of growing left to do on the basketball court. But the promise he shows now only makes his capabilities later that much more intriguing, and hopefully special. Wall is as complete a defender in the NBA as there is, whether he earns honors or not. Wall is one of the most dynamic, electrifying offensive players in the NBA, whether he earns honors or not. Wall is one of the best teammates and leaders in the NBA, whether he earns honors or not.

The addition of Paul Pierce has been somewhat of a Godsend for the Wizards, but more so for John Wall. Pierce is playing on younger legs than he has since he was holding the trophy in Boston. But what Pierce brought to Washington besides his athleticism, is his savvy and mature presence. Pierce knows all the little tricks of the trade on and off court, and while he may not be the most outstanding and boisterous motivator, it's apparent the team looks up to him. In situations where last year the Wizards would have been likely to cool off or become complacent, Pierce is urging his teammates to hustle and push through. In the final moments of the game, the Wizards are not just trying halfheartedly to leave the arena with a win, they're fighting as if they have to take a lead they may already have.

But Pierce has rubbed off on John Wall. We saw hints of it last year after the All Star break. Wall was clearly aware of things he could do as a teammate that other stars around the league do. But this year it's different. Pierce is not the only player urging his teammates to keep fighting through. John Wall is actively sprinting back on defense after a score, not only signaling strategy, but getting his teammates to recognize they need to keep up the tempo and control the pace of the game. Defensively, every single one of Wall's teammates is able to play more sound, because Wall is playing defense at the highest level in the league for a point guard.

It reflects in the Win/Loss columns. The Wizards have gotten off to one of the best starts in franchise history, and they are on pace to have one of the best seasons in franchise history. Washington went from a team that could make the playoffs and push any team to the limit, to a band of brothers who can give fans hope that they will not go down easily.

John Wall and Bradley Beal both broke down in tears on the court after losing in the playoffs a year ago. Marcin Gortat's expression was utter disappointment. They knew they were better than losing to a Pacers team who had all but begun to crumble, but they needed to learn a lesson. They needed to experience more and have it taken away from them. Much like Wall needed that All Star appearance to realize what his contemporaries did to be successful, the team needed to get close.

Regular season performances and wins do not guarantee you can win it all. The Wizards may be in striking distance, and they may come up short. But there will be even more fight in them this year than there was a year ago.

Bradley Beal still has a lot of room for growth. There are times when you see hints of him trying to get it, and there are times when you wonder just how far away he may really be. But Beal, like Wall, shows that potential and has plenty of time left to develop into that player. His journey will be even easier with Wall leading him, not just on the court, but through the progression of becoming a more complete player. And when Beal one day finds his groove and starts to come into his own, John Wall should already be the complete player we believe he is becoming, and that day will spell Hell for every team in the NBA.

But for now, the focus is on getting through the regular season healthy, continuing to grow as a team and being able to communicate on the floor. No matter how many tattoo stories there are from Jason Reid or how many times Colonoscopy Cow-turd tries to suggest John Wall is just an exciting player who is not ever going to win a championship, the important thing is there is a team in Washington who has a legitimate shot at competing for a championship soon, and if all goes as planned, will be able to compete for them for many years.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Washington Redskins Back to a 4-3 Defense?

We talk about this all the time. In a passing league, many feel it is better to have 4 LB's than 3 on the field as it clogs passing lanes over the middle of the field to hopefully take TE's out of the game. But you need to be sound. Yet a sound 4-3 defense can do the same. Look no further than the Seattle Seahawks.

Choosing between a 4-3 defense and a 3-4 defense is simply about the players you want to find. In a 4-3 defense, you want leaner defensive linemen and linebackers can be more physical. In a 3-4 defense, you typically want a bulkier DL and leaner LB's. There are plenty of all types available in the draft every year, and many players succeed at being available as hybrids by shedding or adding some weight. The Redskins are a unique team, because they have a bunch of those hybrid players who could flip depending on what the team has, wants, and needs.

If the Redskins, as they stand right now, were to flip back to a 4-3 defense, there would not necessarily be a ton of changes to be made. Cornerback would ultimately be able to stay the same, unless you wanted to switch to more zone instead of man-to-man. Safety is a concern either way, but you would more than likely want to get yourself a more athletic Free Safety and let one of the guys you currently have in Ryan Clark/Brandon Meriweather/Philip Thomas play strong safety.

Linebacker is tricky because the OLB's are former college 4-3 defensive ends and not quite a fit to play OLB in the 4-3 with more coverage assignments. Ryan Kerrigan and Trent Murphy would revert to defensive ends. Remember, I'm saying as we stand today, Brian Orakpo would more than likely shift to a 4-3 DE rather than a 4-3 OLB, although he showed in his rookie year and several instances at Texas that he could play 4-3 OLB. Rak would be a much better pass rusher from a 3- or 4-point stance as a 4-3 DE.

Moving inside, you could always flip Keenan Robinson to OLB in the 4-3, although his intelligence would probably suit him well as the MLB in a 4-3. Perry Riley could be a good fit at MLB in a 4-3, but it's all about whether you feel Keenan would be a better fit. Perhaps a better fit based on his style of play and the few looks the Redskins have had of him in real game situations is Will Compton. This would allow Robinson to utilize his athleticism on the outside and Compton to play a more true 4-3 MLB style of football. No matter what, the Redskins have more flexibility with this unit in a 4-3 than they do in a 3-4.

The problem with the defense really comes at the defensive line when you try to figure out how to work with Barry Cofield, Jason Hatcher, Chris Baker, Jarvis Jenkins, Stephen Bowen, Kedric Golston, and so on. While Cofield has previously had a great amount of success as a 4-3 defensive tackle, many in the group do not have the same experience, save for Jason Hatcher's best season as a 3-technique in the Dallas Cowboys' first year back to a 4-3 themselves. Hatcher and Cofield could be a formidable duo inside in the 4-3, but young guys like Jarvis Jenkins could easily be a fit. The most important thing would be for Baker to lose some weight if he is to stay inside, as it is not clear if he is a capable of losing enough weight to be a legitimate 4-3 defensive end who would be used more to rush the passer than to stop the run. The best case-scenario for Baker is to beat out either Cofield or Hatcher for an inside spot, but perhaps Cofield does not even return for another season in Washington.

So if we are to look at strictly what the Redskins have today, if they moved to a 4-3, the depth chart would look a little like this:

RDE: Brian Orakpo; Trent Murphy
NT: Barry Cofield; Chris Baker
DT: Jason Hatcher; Jarvis Jenkins
LDE: Ryan Kerrigan; Trevardo Williams

ROLB: Keenan Robinson; Jackson Jeffcoat
MLB: Will Compton; Perry Riley
LOLB: Gabe Miller

RCB: David Amerson; EJ Biggers
LCB: DeAngelo Hall; Bashaud Breeland
FS: Ryan Clark; Trenton Robinson
SS: Brandon Meriweather; Philip Thomas

As you can see, there are obvious areas of concern, specifically at both safety positions. There would also be an unaccounted for LB spot. With foresight, it's very likely that Brian Orakpo is not on the team next season, EJ Biggers may well be on the outs. Ryan Clark may be looking at his final professional game against Dallas this weekend, so he would be a surprise return and potential longshot to make the 53-man roster barring major disappointments in the offseason. That's a Defensive End, and Outside Linebacker, a Cornerback, and a Free Safety. Add to that the possibility of Cofield not being kept by Washington and you could be looking at another defensive lineman needed.

So what do you think? Did we get anything wrong? Did we miss anything? Who would be viable in the draft or free agency?

Monday, December 15, 2014

Washington Redskins - Change and Growth?

Yet another week, yet another Washington Redskins embarrassing loss.
Wherever you go, there you are. - Some asshole somewhere, sometime.

Like much of the past two decades, the Washington Redskins have dissolved into a puddle of obscurity before season's end. There were bad plays. There were bad penalties. There were bad attitudes. There were bad play calls. There were bad decisions by players. There were bad decisions by coaches.

In New York, Washington was bad like they have been in Washington. Like they were in Indianapolis before that. San Francisco before that. Minnesota before that. Wherever they go, there they are.

The problems are bigger than any one person, or any one group. The Redskins are bad by collection--and I mean that more than saying it's on everyone. I mean--literally--the pieces that the Washington Redskins have collected have made them bad. From hiring GM's, presidents, assistant presidents, public relations, coaches, assistant coaches, scouts, free agents, to drafting players. The Redskins have--for all the hate I have in the world for a term ruined by internet--failed, at building anything other than an inflatable practice-bubble a-la Mike Shanahan and making a complete mockery of the very name they vehemently attempt to defend.

Daniel Snyder has not built himself anything but a national embarrassment. He has turned the Washington Redskins into a circus rather than the football franchise and dynasty it appeared Jack Kent Cooke and Joe Gibbs had begun to establish in the 1980's and 1990's. The head coach turnover rate is a mockery, and the fact that Dan Snyder continues to surround himself with best friends and yes-men shows exactly why he--and the Redskins football team by association--will continue to fail.

One of the biggest problems with the Washington Redskins is Senior Vice President (who also somehow runs the Public Relations department as well as the social media platforms) Tony Wyllie. Wyllie has been nothing but confrontational in his entire tenure, and that was poetically on display following the Redskins' week 8 victory over the Dallas Cowboys. Wyllie famously shoved McCoy away from a post-game interview on the field, shouting "no means no!" He later tried to explain he did not want McCoy missing Jay Gruden's post-game locker room speech, but that begs the question - why did you make the situation so difficult? All Wyllie had to do was step in, tell McCoy "your coach is about to speak to the team, this interview is over." What he did was shove the quarterback without McCoy realizing who it was and causing a major scene on national television and becoming the butt of more jokes.

Then we have Bruce Allen, who notoriously suggested publicly when "sworn in" to the Washington Redskins front office that he would always be accountable and available to media, has all but shied away from football matters when approached by a microphone or recorder. Perhaps it was the fallout of everything that happened with Robert Griffin III's injury and the poor handling of the young quarterback's image, but that Allen has not been available or accountable publicly has caused the fans to question the integrity of a man who they thought was "all in" for them.

The scouts? The drafts? I should not have to go into depth to explain to you why there is nothing to be proud of in either department. The scouts have been lauded for their intelligence and talent evaluation. There have been rumors to suggest they have been overruled time and time again in the past. It may still be happening. So why do these people even have a job if nobody is letting them do their work?

The Washington Redskins have failed to build. Few players in Washington have been developed. When you look at the players drafted in the last decade, few have grown into stars for the team. Some have gone on to other organizations and rebuilt themselves as reliable, capable teammates. You can not have this many regimes and keep having the same results and blame it on the players on the football field any more than you blame everyone from the top down.

The only brightness in Washington is to realize there is a foundation to build upon. This is a strong organization with a ton of influence, money, history, fan support, and (despite the discussions and debates) a name and image which resonates proudly with fans of the team and even fans of the sport.

The same can be said of the talent on the field. Robert Griffin III has come under intense fire from every angle by people suggesting he is not capable of playing and succeeding in the National Football League. Others who say he just can not do it with Jay Gruden. Others who say he just can not do it with the Washington Redskins. He has a strong foundation from which you can build, and all of the athletic tools you look for in a professional athlete. Question his durability, but it is not as easy to question his ability. RGIII is not flawless. His mistakes on and off of the field are not to be ignored or denied. But you know what he can do athletically, and you know that you can coach him to become a polished professional quarterback. That is exactly why the team must re-brand themselves and in doing so, re-brand RGIII the football player.

I do not mean re-brand by changing names and changing logos and changing uniforms. The Redskins need to re-brand themselves as a football team devoted to winning Lombardi trophies and dominating the scoreboard. The Redskins need to re-brand themselves as an organization to be an ideal destination for hungry, talented players. It may seem like a tough task, because it is. However, the blueprint is not far from home. In fact, the blueprint lies with the professional basketball counterpart in the Washington Wizards.

John Wall, much like RGIII, was highly touted in college and entering the draft. He had limited experience, he was young, and he came with questions. His durability was tested, his growth and ability were questioned, and many outcast him for not being the one-man championship appearance that some insane, manufactured image suggested he would be.

I do not know where John Wall is headed in his future, but it looks bright. I do not know if Robert Griffin III can put it all together the same way John Wall did. But when you see those flashes and you consider he is still in the early stages of his "put-it-together" years, you would hope you can achieve something with the kid in the near future. It paid off with the Wizards, in large part because the team re-assessed how they branded themselves and the players on and off of the basketball court. The Wizards re-committed their focus to being all about basketball, and brought in help from big guys to depth to smart draft picks to veterans in order to help Wall grow on the court and start to show the world who he is off the court. The Wizards are developing players with excellent, capable leadership, a front office who realizes they need to push the on-court product, and trust.

Of course, you only do this if you believe it can work with Robert Griffin III, and that means assessing the mistakes he has made, and continues to make, and figuring out if you can work those issues out. Maybe the coaches decide they can not, or do not want to, but for a guy who was not in a pro-style offense, did not have a second offseason and battled through his rehabilitation period to be on the field with teammates, and then lost the opportunity to work on his timing with receivers this season due to his injured ankle, perhaps the opportunity is deserved to give everyone a fair chance. But you have to build a team around him. You have to tailor to his strengths. You have to let him be himself. You have to make Washington Redskins football the priority and focus.

Maybe that's all wishful thinking and too much to ask. But the simple fact that the Wizards did it and they are practically your roommates in professional sports suggests it can be done. If not? Wherever the Redskins go, there the Redskins will be... a mockery.

Monday, December 1, 2014

It Sucks Being a Redskins Fan

January 26, 1992 – I was 4 years old and my mom brought me down to her family's house to watch the Washington Redskins play in Super Bowl XXVI against the Buffalo Bills. My whole family was excited. They were certain the Redskins were going to win, but they bickered over every dumb play and watched with the nervous equivalent of reckless abandonment. My uncle sat on the right side of the room yelling at the idiot miscues. My aunt was being optimistic telling him that Mark Rypien would settle down and get in a zone. I was enamored by how important all of it seemed.

The Redskins went on to defeat the Bills 37-24. My uncle was a nervous wreck until the final play even though it was clear the game was already over. My aunt was ecstatic from the moment the Redskins got their final possession of the game to run the clock down. The rest of my family celebrated together. Me, growing into a Skins fan myself, could not believe just how much better this win felt to everyone than any other. My uncle—right on time—explained to me why a Super Bowl was so much more important. "It's the final game of the year. The best team wins. You get to brag until next year that your team is the champion." The word "champion" explained all of it to me, being that I was also a wrestling and boxing fan.

Just like that, I was locked for sure. It was certain to me at that point that I would always root for the Redskins. I "liked" them enough at that point that I wore t-shirts and watched with my family anyways. But with 3 championships in 9 years, there was a certainty about the team.

Fast-forward just shy of 23 years, and the Redskins have gone from a celebrated powerhouse to a snowball of jokes. Every offseason, there is/was a major signing or pair of signings which was "sure to put the team over the threshold" and make the Skins contenders. Every season, we watched as those signings didn't pan out and then fell right back into obscurity.

Things were supposed to change when Joe Gibbs came back, hopefully ending the highest coach-turnover rate in the NFL since the Redskins won the Super Bowl and Daniel Snyder bought the team. Gibbs' teams did some okay things. The Redskins had one of the most promising players in the history of the NFL in Sean Taylor. When Taylor was murdered in his own home, the team had a miraculous turnaround on the season and got into the playoffs, but fell flat, emotionally drained, in the fourth quarter of a playoff game in Seattle against the Seahawks. Gibbs retired a second time and fans were left wondering, "what next?"

Next was a bigger circus than what we had ever experienced before. Seattle's quarterback's coach was hired, presumably, to be the Redskins' next offensive coordinator. But when nobody took the job as head coach for fear of already having an offensive coordinator picked out for them, the Redskins were forced to appoint Jim Zorn as the head coach. Taking on a struggling Jason Campbell who had never had a consistent scheme or offensive coordinator, Zorn got off to a fast start his first season. But then injuries piled on as Clinton Portis fell with a concussion after having one of the best starts in NFL history. Others fell and the lack of a run game magnified the flaws of Campbell at quarterback.

The struggles continued into the next season as everyone wondered if anything could go right. The Redskins even pulled Sherman Lewis out of calling numbers at a bingo hall to call plays for Jim Zorn's struggling offense. Vinny Cerrato was fired from his position of General Manager mid-season and Bruce Allen was hired to replace him immediately. Rumors were abundant with who the next head coach would be, but seemingly the entire world was certain that Mike Shanahan was the next guy.

Those rumors turned out to be true as Shanahan was almost immediately hired to take over as the head coach of the Washington Redskins. Mike gave Campbell his word he'd be the starting quarterback for the Washington Redskins, and in a heartbeat, Shanahan did the unheard of and traded within the division for Philadelphia Eagles' QB Donovan McNabb. The defense was horrible immediately. The offense wasn't far behind from falling apart as injuries mounted and players realized they were not a fit for Mike Shanahan's scheme. Then came the year of Rex Grossman and John Beck. Then came the first-of-it's-kind trade for the right to draft Robert Griffin III at QB out of Baylor.

Robert Griffin III gave Redskins fans what Mike Shanahan could not even give them… hope. Perhaps the fans put too much pressure onto Robert Griffin's shoulders, but RGIII was asked constantly about being coined a savior and he always seemed as if that was a burden he was willing to try to shoulder. He was confident he could attempt to help the Redskins rebound. And from the moment he stepped onto an NFL field as a starting quarterback in a meaningful game, he wowed. Electrified. Owned the burden and seemed to be conquering it.

Then every Redskins fans' worst nightmare was realized when RGIII was injured in a late-season game after some of his most exciting performances in Baltimore. All of those rookie-season records, team records, and league records that RGIII had acquired, were all suddenly insignificant. But then it was ruled a sprain and he wouldn't miss a lot of time. But they brought him back and he did not look as though he was the same player. Then in the playoffs, after having won the division for the first time in 13 seasons, Robert Griffin III went down vs. the old foe Seattle Seahawks. The whole offseason, during any availability, Mike Shanahan was asked about his decision to leave RGIII in the game. He blamed Robert and the medical staff. Robert blamed Shanahan. This was all just a hint of things to come.

Robert was "all-in for week 1"… and everyone from the top down had signed off on it being a sure thing. Even Mike Shanahan. Mike could have sat Robert until he was 100%. He chose not to. Structurally, there were no problems, but strengthening was an issue. But the player was not mentally ready. Everyone could see it. Mike Shanahan chose not to make the decision to leave Robert on the sideline to heal. They wanted to teach him on the fly. The Redskins struggled. Then came rumors. Then came leaks. Then came what all can agree was Mike Shanahan's attempt to assassinate the character of each and every individual in the organization, except for his son.

Shanahan was fired. In comes Jay Gruden. In stays Jim Haslett. Robert Griffin III is fully healthy and returning with a happiness that did not exist at the end of 2012 or at all in 2013. DeSean Jackson was acquired through free agency in addition to Andre Roberts. The offense is supposed to flourish with all of these changes.

It is now week 13, heading into week 14. The Redskins are 3-9. In week 2 against the Jaguars, RGIII went down with a dislocated ankle. In came Kirk Cousins, who all but destroyed any trade value he may have had left with untimely interceptions, pressing with plenty of time left, and overall just horrible accuracy on some of the easiest throws to be made. Colt McCoy was inserted into the lineup and finished the game vs. the Titans, and helped secure the lead and victory in large part to Pierre Garcon's ability after the catch. Colt McCoy then started the game vs. Dallas and thanks to the best performance the defense has had all year, the Redskins came away with the upset victory.

Robert Griffin III was healthy again, and came back to play the Vikings in week 9, when two late leads were squandered by the inability of the defense to play sound in critical moments of the game. While Griffin was not spectacular, the performance was not horrible considering he was coming back from injury and managed to connect on passes to 7 different receivers. Again, Griffin managed to enter the fourth quarter with a 20-14 lead, and then managed to get a response TD in the fourth quarter. The defense crumbled immediately after to lose the game.

Following the bye week, the Redskins hosted the Buccaneers and the defense was, again, abysmal. That's not to say the offense did not play a part in the loss, but RGIII was not the only problem. Yes, he held onto the football too long—a recurring theme throughout his career—but he also did not get help from his teammates on his two interceptions. Both were drops by the intended receiver. An issue with the defense also assisted Tampa Bay in the victory, but I will touch on this issue in a moment.

Following the loss to Tampa Bay, the Redskins went on a road trip to San Francisco to take on the struggling 49ers. It was, without question, the worst game of Griffin's career. But it was also not the team effort you would expect of any NFL franchise. And while it was not a brilliant game by RGIII or anyone else for that matter, the Redskins did manage another lead in the fourth quarter that was immediately squandered by the defense.

Then came the change from RGIII to Colt McCoy heading into the Redskins game at Indianapolis against the Colts. The talk all week was that McCoy gave the team a better chance to win against the Colts, that players could be evaluated more appropriately with Colt in there as the more capable quarterback, and that the same mistakes that Griffin had been making would not be a factor.

Immediately it was clear that the same mistakes were going to keep happening. It was also clear that there was no better chance to win vs. the Colts. There was no chance at all. Colt did make plays eventually, but there was also a lot left on the field and he was incapable of making easy plays because the offensive line continued to struggle as they have since the start of the 2013 season. Robert Griffin III may very well be a problem. A problem. But this is a team where problems extend from the inability of receivers to separate or catch; coaches dialing up the correct plays in the right situations; players committing stupid penalties or playing with no urgency; defenders taking poor angles or whiffing on tackles; defenders not playing their responsibility in zone or when rushing the passer/collapsing the pocket. The issues go beyond just the players, but also to the coaches.

Robert Griffin III is not a pocket quarterback. Not yet, at least. Perhaps he never becomes one. Maybe he needs a fair shake with full health and focus solely on his offense. Maybe he needs another camp with his receivers down in Texas like he did prior to his rookie season. No matter the case, it should not be coaches forcing a round peg into a square hole. Griffin has a very specific skill set and a team built to run the football and make plays off of the run. Work to the ability of your players.

But my focus is more on the defense. For almost 5 whole seasons, Jim Haslett has failed miserably at putting his players in position to win football games. Outside of a few bright performances against Dallas, the Redskins have struggled mightily. Sure, they have never been able to address safety, even though they brought in Ryan Clark to shore up the back end a bit and provide a "sure" tackler and a veteran leader. There is no communication in the secondary. DeAngelo Hall is out for the year, and that has hurt this team in unimaginable ways, no matter how popular it is to hate on Hall (unjustifiably), he factually is one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL. The pass rush is nonexistent at times, and when it is there, there is no consistency, in large part because the offense has been unable to stay on the field and build a lead.

But back to the communication. Every week there is an error where the opposing offense sends their best receiver in motion and he gets lined up on Perry Riley in an obvious mismatch. Riley is not a bad player, but his weaknesses have been magnified and amplified by Jim Haslett's inability to adjust to the entire league running the same look, motion, and play, leaving Riley to get embarrassed and look as though he is responsible for every major mishap on the defense. There is no communication when corners try to play over the top and a safety bites on an underneath route. Or when a corner jumps on an underneath route thinking he can leave his man to the safety who has also bit on the underneath route. The corners have struggled in zone coverage, because they are press-man corners who Jim Haslett insists on having play 7 yards off of their man every play.

The Redskins coaches put good players in bad positions. They do not teach their players how to communicate with one another, obviously both on and off of the field. While Robert Griffin III may have had no right to call out the entire team (if you believe that's what he did), his point was accurate. Nobody is playing up to their potential, and a large part of that falls on everyone being put in the wrong position. Yes, players still have to know innately how to play to their responsibility. A coach should not have to drill week after week how to get to a specific depth or stance or how to read what their teammates are doing while also reading what their assignment is doing, but the fact that these mistakes keep happening week after week suggest it is more than just miscommunication between player and player. There is a clear miscommunication or disconnect between player and coach.

If players have to be held accountable, coaches have to be held accountable also. The general manager and owner have to be accountable. Will that ever happen?
Hail to the Redskins.