Monday, October 25, 2010

Week Seven: Cover Your Eyes

Washington 17, Chicago 14

It's funny how life tends to repeat itself. Six years ago, almost to the day, the Redskins played the Chicago Bears and I was unable to fully review the game due to various intrusions into my football watching. (Actually, it was shopping with family.) I worked around these annoyances by employing my then-ten-year-old sister in law to take notes on the game. With marginal results. Nonetheless, the Redskins won by three and a substantial Redskins Review was produced.

On Sunday, the Bears and Redskins met, and again this thing called "life" frustrated the reviewing process. (This time there was a confluence of a sore back, an unfulfilled promise to purchase a new pet, and Comcast's choice not to bother airing the game.) And once again I employed a ghost writer--this time a wee older--to take copious notes on the Redskins' performance. And wouldn't you know it: the Redskins won by three.

Here then, are my brother's notes on the Redskins' very, very sloppy win:

There was a period in time where I wondered who wanted the game less. Started with a pass from McNabb making the rookie mistake of throwing while being dragged down for a pick-6. He didn't look as good as he has earlier in the season.

Thank goodness for the second coming of John Riggins, aka Ryan Torain. He looked great for a lot of the game, when we chose to run. Orakpu is our star on defense, continuing to collapse the pocket, and it looked like the Mad Genius had learned nothing. That didn't last. Martz actually learned by the middle of the second quarter that the long ball was not to be, and went with 3 step drops and quick slant passes. The Redskin D had no answer to it. Thank goodness halftime came, as the defense continued to unravel.

Jay Cutler reverted back to a year ago in the second half. He was our 12th mam, throwing an INT after every miscue of ours. Hall's 4th pick (all 2nd half) was a pick-6 and the last score of the game, as athletic as the INT the Colts had at the end of our last game.

Torain earned his paycheck (as well as Clinton "wish-this-was-two-hand-touch" Portis' paycheck) by running hard and getting 1st downs at the end, where normally we would end up running into a wall 3 times and punting.

Our run game is slowly looking like a Shanahan team. Armstrong isn't quite a go-to receiver yet, with a crucial drop. Moss was blanketed, McNabb's true security outlet. Maybe that was why he didn't play well.

Top performers:
Torain - he should keep the starting job even when Portis is healthy.
Hall - gambled the whole game, and beat the house.

Coach of the game - whoever it is that's in charge of special teams. Never kicked to Hester, ALWAYS out of bounds. Net yardage looked bad (how DO those refs figure out where it really went out of bounds?), usually netting 20-ish yards, but the alternative........

I think Haynesworth has an allergy to leather oblong shapes - you'd see him on the field, but never near the ball.

Well said. A few notes of mine: I like the Ryan Torain/John Riggins reference. Last week I compared him to Stephen Davis, a downhill runner who could plow over defensive backs and had just enough agility to make a man miss. Riggins ran much like that, too, though I can't recall him ever juking a player. He did have that extra, magical gear in his youth that I hope Torain finds. His second 100-yard performance is a great sign.

Second, the Redskins were fortunate that Jay Cutler and his receivers were so awful. Credit DeAngelo Hall, whom I've called good, not great, for his record-matching day. But Chicago's receivers didn't finish routes, didn't come back for the ball, didn't, well, help their quarterback avoid looking horrific.

Third, DJ McNabb is the best quarterback the Redskins have had in recent memory. But he is, as my Pops said, "sporadically brilliant." That means that the rest of the time you're hoping he throws the ball higher than shoetops and doesn't launch deep passes into double coverage. That said, he's a rare quarterback who can avoid a blitzer for just the one second he needs to get off a pass. I'll take that over the Jason Campbell-Patrick Ramsey-Todd Collins statuesque passers who simply took hits from linebackers.

I'll forego the Scorecard this week, instead to pass this important note: this may be the only week when Redskins fans maybe, just maybe, might root for Dallas to win. They face the NFC East-leading Giants on Monday Night Football. A win for the Cowchips puts Washington in a tie for first place.

Photo credit: Johnathan Newton/Washington Post

Monday, October 18, 2010

Week Six: If You're Gonna Lose...

Indianapolis 27, Washington 24

Mike Shanahan and the coaching staff will meet sometime in the film room after Sunday night's loss to the Indianapolis Colts. The coaches will see the Washington defense allow 469 yards of offense, including 170 rushing. They'll watch their offense drop catches and fail to take advantage of multiple Colts turnovers. And they'll have to accept the embarrassment of a prime-time loss on national television.

When the video stops and the lights come up, if they have any sense, they'll crack a small smile
and say, "Hmph, that was pretty good!"

The coaches will say that because they (and their observant fans) know that the 2010 Washington Redskins are of mere moderate talent. While the players have tremendous heart, hit hard, and are
good enough to create some fortune, they don't yet belong in the same class as the NFL upper echelon. Indianapolis has lived in that realm for years now, and they proved it on Sunday. The Colts are deep at receiver, devastating at defensive end, and are lead by one of the best field generals ever to play the game.

But Shanahan has to smile because his flawed
team showed something too: they can not only play with the best of the league, but take them to the wire. Every game has its positive take-aways, but the coaches can pump their fist about these from Sunday night:

(1) Ryan "Rough" Torain is the future running back for the Redskins. How fitting that Torain wear #46, which looks much like the #48 worn by storied back Stephen Davis. Like Davis, Torain is a large, solid downfield runner who simply can't be taken down by arm tackles. Torain showed patience for blocking, held onto the ball, and, unlike Clinton Portis, didn't need to be helped off the field after every third run. Torain, whose name wasn't on the lips of fans during the preseason, has emerged as a key component in the offense's balance. If he can work on his pass blocking, avoid fumbles and stay healthy, he can become yet another in Mike Shanahan's long list of prosperous runners. Even better, he can become everything this offense needs. His touchdowns from Sunday make the NFL films' highlights, but he had multiple plays where he broke away from tacklers to avoid a loss. The Redskins haven't had that powerful a back since, well, Stephen Davis.

(2) The defense, horrid though it may statistically seem, continues to put the Redskins in a position to win. The box scores don't tell the tale of the loss on Sunday. After all the yardage and points allowed, the fact remains that when London Fletcher and the defense needed to force second-half turnovers for Washington to have any chance of winning, they got two fumbles and a sack. When McNabb and the offense needed to get the ball back late in the fourth quarter, the defense forced Manning into a rare three-and-out. Slice it how you like, but defensive coordinator Jim Haslett's
guys are like an old hymn: they may not come when you want them, but they'll be there right on time.

(3) The future is brighter than even the coaches might have thought. The Redskins of previous
seasons (seriously, just pick one in recent memory) wouldn't have had much of a chance in keeping Sunday's game close. Tthose teams were, with some exceptions, stocked with high-profile veteran free agents who were either poorly coached, unmotivated, or both. The team that faced down the AFC Champion Colts wasn't expected by many to take out Dallas, Green Bay, and Philadelphia. And they nearly stole another win, even without Albert Haynesworth, Rocky McIntosh, and Portis. Might unsung players like Anthony Armstrong, Brandon Banks, and Torain be honored at Homecoming in 2025?

OFFENSE: C. McNabb can't ask for a better circumstance than three timeouts, two minutes, 57 yards for the win, 30 yards for field goal range. To come up empty is a reminder that the offense still needs work.
B. During halftime, I tapped a note to myself: "Can we have an error-free 2nd half? No drops? Grab every loose fumble? Can we keep Manning off the field?" Mission, largely, accomplished. Also, I will henceforth refuse to mention Carlos Rogers' name until he gets an interception.

Sp. TEAMS: B-. I love the tone that the Special Teams set, pounding runners and forcing turnovers. I can't remember a year when this squad has had this kind of literal impact.
COACHING: C+. If I were gameplanning against aggressive, sack-happy defensive ends, I would have called draw plays often. It's safer than a play action pass, which may roll into the aggression, and it forces the ends to think about whether to head upfield or hang back. Washington called, by my count, two. One on a throwaway 3rd and long.

B. My Pops and I got to the stadium early, anticipating the Homecoming parade featuring Rick Walker, Darryl Grant, Mark Moseley, and other Redskins greats. I never saw the parade, but I did get ten Hooters wings for $10, the best value of any food at FedExField. Thanks, Danny.

This week's moment is a no-brainer, a catch that only happens when you have the Madden receiver
skills turned up. In fact, it's superior to Randy Moss' effortless one-handed grab while a Patriot earlier this season. Indianapolis Colts receiver Pierre Garcon got open (as he was most of the night), and with a full extension catches the nose of the football in his right hand and completes the reception. It was like watching magnetism at work in a science museum.

Photos courtesy, NBC, and, um, me.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Week Five: Grand Theft Gano

Green Bay 13, Washington 16 (OT)

At some point in the 2010 season, the Redskins will win a game as underdogs over a high-quality opponent. They will do so by coming from behind and, through sheer willpower, create their own lucky bounces. When that happens, it will be celebrated as a team rising to the occasion and
demonstrating its inner strength and character.

For now, a win like the one on Sunday is pure thievery.

The Green Bay Packers had, for much of the game, the dominant defense and the more talented offense. The Redskins looked like their consistently inconsistent selves, unable to run, protect the passer, or slow down their opponent. After the first quarter, the Redskins had a tenth of the Packers' yardage, hadn't completed a third down, and was getting beaten by
backup tight ends and wide receivers. They had no answer for the Packers' blitz. By halftime, Washington was down 13-3, but Donovan McNabb was running or his life from an unrelenting and undeterred Green Bay defense. McNabb's best completion of the half (in which he was again scrambling) was for 52 yards, nearly half of his thirty-minute total. It was a wonder that the game's outcome was still in question.

But in all of this, something odd was slowly occurring: the Redskins' much-maligned defense, one of the worst in the league, bent badly but refused to break. It stood its ground at the goal line, pressured the great Aaron Rodgers into poor throws and influenced receivers into dropped passes. The Washington offense, whose production seemed to be limited to three-and-outs and third-and-longs, found a way to sneak in critical completions of more than 20 yards. A rookie wide
receiver, third on the depth chart, played like a veteran in the fourth quarter with game-saving catches.

And behind the clutch kicking of Graham Gano, the Redskins yanked an improbable, thrilling victory out from under a projected
NFC champion.

Washington had a lot of help from Green Bay: there were stretches where even their veteran receivers couldn't hold onto easy catches; the coaching staff didn't choose to control the clock with the run, and kicker Mason Crosby missed two field goals, one to win the game.

In postgame interviews, the Packers had the dazed look of a man who has an alarm on his Porsche but still woke up to find it sitting on cement blocks. Green Bay just knew they should have won.
“We just let an opportunity slip away,” receiver James Jones said. “There is no explanation for the way we lost this game. We lost it ourselves."

But might it be that the Redskins aren't great, but good enough to pickpocket a win from even the best?

OFFENSE: C+. DJ McNabb is an exciting quarterback. But he's also capable of "spotty brilliance," as my Pops puts it. With the empty running game, offensive production is squarely on his shoulders. He's got to complete more of the easy throws. Anthony Armstrong is a work in progress but he could be the one-on-one jump ball threat that Devin Thomas hadn't become.

DEFENSE: A. Another near-300 yard day by an opposing quarterback? 157 rushing yards allowed? And they get an "A?" Yep. LaRon "Hit Stick" Landry and Brian Orakpo held a strong offense to 13 points and got stops when they needed. A consistent offense would help the defense's rating tremendously.

Sp. TEAMS: B. Punter Hunter Smith and returner Brandon Banks can join Gano in taking a bow.

COACHING: B. The point was made in the radio postgame discussion that Mike Shanahan and the coaching staff are using essentially the same tools Jim Zorn had last season. (McNabb being the notable exception, of course.) But they're getting better results. I agree. In previous seasons, this game's a loss, with Washington allowing catches on tipped balls and giving up critical sacks. Or missing field goals. Or having pass interference penalties. Or dropping interceptions. Or...

OWNERSHIP: A. Wins like these further cement the brilliant idea by Daniel Snyder to let other people run the team while he signs the checks.

I'll suspend my Madden moment this week in favor of the pure hilarity of a postgame moment in the FOX Sports studio. You know who works there: Terry Bradshaw, Howie Long, Michael Strahan, Jimmy "Extenze" Johnson, and the guy in James Brown's seat. In their round-robin about the game, Terry, Howie, Michael and Jimmy all went on about Green Bay's loss due to injuries, penalties, third down conversions, and solar flares. No mention of the Redskins, you know, playing well enough to take advantage of all those mistakes.

When they finished lamenting Green Bay's loss, the guy in James Brown's spot said, in effect, "Guys, last week we said the Eagles lost because of no Michael Vick. This week we're saying that Green Bay lost to the Redskins because of no Clay Matthews. When are we going to start taking Washington seriously?"

What erupted was a cacophonous five seconds of blubbering, side-stepping, faint praise, and empty sports cliches from all four commentators. "Oh yeah, well coached...lot of heart...McNabb...stepping up...I've always thought...a Shanahan team always...great victory..." I haven't seen this much shufflin' since the '85 Bears.

Photo courtesy Getty Images

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Week Four: Better to Be Lucky...

Washington 17, Philadelphia 12

Here's the awful truth about the Redskins' win over the Eagles: as well as they occasionally played, Washington was once again very, very beatable. Another game that could have been favorably finished by the early fourth quarter came down to one heart-stopping play. At 2-2, they are one holding penalty and one strangely dropped pass from being 0-for-everything. That's nothing new for the 2010 Shanahan Skins, whom my wife described thusly: "win or lose, you need Alka-Seltzer and
Tums just to watch them."

On the other hand, here's the glorious, unexpected truth: the Redskins aren't 0-4. They sit atop the NFC East with wins against arguably their strongest division opponents. Factor in that one of thos
e was against the stinkin' Cowchips and other was on the road and Redskins fans have to be happy with their team.

This is a team, however, that has yet to define itself in consistently positive terms. (The negative terms, sadly, are very consistent. More on that in a moment.) One week Donovan J. McNabb is unstoppably accurate, nearing 500 yards of offense. This week he's skipping passes off the turf and leading open receivers out of bounds on deep throws. For half this season, Clinton Portis and the running game is a laughable non-factor; this week he and Ryan "Rough" Torain are breaking off ten-yard runs like it's the Joe Gibbs era. One week the defense gives up just seven points, the next two weeks they give up 30 each.

This inconsistency means that no lead or great performance should be taken for granted while time remains on the game clock. At halftime, the narrative for the Redskins' first half performance was "The Redskins Reach Shanahan's Expectations." The first nine minutes of the game were a complete flip of the pitiful nine minutes in St. Louis: a 51-yard put return, a red zone touchdown, and a crushing ground game.

The second half was thirty minutes of offensive futility and defensive fatigue, it's narrative: "Let's Hope They Get Lucky." Just like the previous three games, Washington failed to run the ball well enough in the second half to tire their opponent. And don't bother asking them to score after halftime: they have just one touchdown and two field goals out of all four games.

Meanwhile, the defense has given up--get ready--five touchdowns and six field goals in the second half of those games. For those mathematically challenged, that's 13 points for the Redskins, 53 for them. Not to put too fine a point on this, but Washington has been outscored by 40 points after halftime. Fatigue has to be a factor, but let's not discount that the personnel in Jim Haslett's 3-4 looks as ill-fitting as Denise Huxtable's faux-Gordon Gartrell. (Ask Theo.) Former pass rushers Andre Carter and Lorenzo
Alexander are now in pass coverage and have little chance of keeping up with slot receivers, much less snatching an interception. They look slow, plodding, and vulnerable.

So, yeah, it is better to be lucky than good sometimes. On Sunday, the Skins were fortunate that the dynamic Eagle Michael Vick went out with an injury, fortunate that backup/starter Kevin Kolb was rusty, fortunate that the referees saw more significant penalties by Philadelphia, and really fortunate that a last-second hail mary pass fell into DeAngelo Hall's arms.

The 2010 Redskins will take wins any way they come.

OFFENSE: C+. Clinton Portis seems to be getting hurt after every other rush; perhaps that's why his role in the offense seems unstable. Might his body be showing signs of decline?

DEFENSE: B-. What's scary is that when an opponent desperately needs to move the football, the Redskins' defense lets them. But holding Philly to no touchdowns until three minutes remained is admirable.

Sp. TEAMS: B-. Hallelujah, there were no missed kicks, no fumbled snaps, no unblocked rushers, and a sparkling return from 5' 7", 155-pound Brandon Banks. But the punting left much to be desired.

COACHING: C. As noted above, Shanahan and company were outcoached in the second half for the fourth straight game.

The last-second hail mary drop by Jason Avant manages to best even a Madden moment. In the video game, receivers have a tendency to make a catch and, as an immediate tackle graphic occurs, drop the ball to the turf. I've often watched the game replay, wide-eyed, saying to no one in particular, "He HAD the ball! How did he drop it?" Philadelphia said that very thing on every FOX slow-motion replay of Avant. I watched it and said "He got not one but TWO gloved hands completely on the ball. How does he not catch that?" Shocking, considering that, according to reports, Jason Avant doesn't drop anything! Maybe that's only during drills.

Redskins photo courtesy: Toni L. Sandys-Washington Post