Sunday, November 28, 2010

Week Twelve: Par For the Course

Minnesota 17, Washington 13

There's an old southern saying, "water will seek its level," that suggests that, given enough time, you can tell the real from the fiction. It means that, after all of the hullabaloo, subjects always reveal their true nature.

The 2010 Redskins are 5-6, and the record represents the pure mediocrity of the the team. They have the talent to usually be competitive, but will rarely win outright without the timely congruence of multiple favorable circumstances.

On Sunday, the favorable circumstances were present, but the Redskins' lack of talent in all three phases kept the Redskins below .500, exactly where they deserve to be.

For one shining moment--seven minutes and fifty-three seconds, to be exact--Mike Shanahan's offense functioned on all cylinders and looked very much like the squad expected at the beginning of the season. Even without Clinton "Elsewhere in 2011" Portis and a healthy offensive line, DJ McNabb ran Kyle Shanahan's creative offensive attack to perfection. Kyle dialed up the first appearance of the Redskins wildcat (though " warpath" has a better ring to it), the offense was four-for-four on third down, and McNabb was a perfect eight for eight with one touchdown.

...And that was the end of the offensive show. Washington didn't attempt a deep pass until the fourth quarter. The offensive line allowed McNabb to return to his run-for-yer-life mode and didn't open up many lanes for the nameless backup running backs. The Skins produced a very Indianapolis Colt-like 29 yards of rushing...but without the crisp passing and receiving. Santana Moss and the receiving corps weren't much help, dropping far too many catchable passes and not gaining enough separation to be a threat to the Vikings' secondary.

The defense, to its credit, provided the weak offense with multiple opportunities to beat Minnesota. They even took the Vikings' biggest threat, Adrian Peterson, out of the game. But all wasn't roses for Jim Haslett and his squad. On a critical third down, the 3-4 personnel showed its weakness: Favre (who may or may not be fifty years old) is able to scramble for the first down, largely because linebacker Lorenzo saw Favre break out of the pocket...and ran the other way. The only logical explanation is his desire to cover a receiver.
(For the record, this is is just one of quite a few times when Alexander and the other lineman-turned-linebacker, Andre Carter, have blown containment because they've looked awkward in their assignment.) If Alexander's told to simply rush the passer or contain the run, Favre doesn't come near that first down.

And while the defense can be proud that it limited the Vikings' somewhat-potent offense to just 17 points, they did let Peterson's backup, some guy named Toby Gerhart, plow through defenders for his first NFL touchdown...just like the All-Pro did in the first quarter.

And then there's the special teams, who won the game with accurate field goals and continued brilliance from Brandon Banks. That is, until they lost the game with a low-talent penalty by rookie Perry Riley that nullified a Banks touchdown that would've put the Skins ahead.

Perhaps it isn't fair to judge a team by its record. Look at the San Diego Chargers who were once 2-5, then 5-5, then stepped up to future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning and dismissed them on national television. In Indianapolis. The Bolts are a team that has learned to gel using the talent on hand and deserve the respect of a 7-4 or even 8-3 team.

The Redskins should be taken at face value.

OFFENSE: C-. This mere suggestion of a running game is big trouble for McNabb and the offense. It's hard to believe that, six months ago, the Redskins were looking at three Pro Bowl veteran running backs on its roster. Come January, it'll be time to bring in all new talent to compete with Ryan Torain for the starter.
DEFENSE: B. Something doesn't feel right about applauding their success in not giving up 400 yards, but here it is. Congratulations!
Sp. TEAMS: A-. For all the big contracts, big names, and big egos on the roster, it's refreshing that one of the leaders for team MVP is a little guy who joined as an undrafted free agent.
COACHING: C. If this group of coaches can pull a playoff berth out of this current roster, I'll take back everything I've said about them this season.
OWNERSHIP: C. There were an unusually-large amount of empty seats at FedEx on Sunday. Have the fans said that $4000 is too steep a price for mediocrity?

Just for fun, ESPN has Madden 11 run through each week's games and posts the predictions. Nice that they use the current rosters. I'm afraid to download the last update, which removes every semblance of a decent Redskins running game. To the game's credit, it wasn't too off on the final score. with the Vikes victorious: 19-16.

AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Week Eleven: Give Thanks

Washington 16, Tennessee 13 (OT)

The good news for Washington, after their historically bad performance against the Eagles, was that they still have seven games with which to find redemption and finally establish a recognizable identity. Facing the 4-5 Tennessee Titans, fans wondered two questions: how will this team respond? And should I care?

The good news is that the Redskins played with strong effort, displayed moderate levels of competency, and, most importantly, with the win gave fans a reason to not begin eyeing Baltimore Ravens merchandise.

The game certainly started off for the offense like a Monday Night Football hangover: on the first play, DJ McNabb drops back, trips, and it's a 7-yard loss. Next play: incomplete pass to Clinton Portis. On 3rd and 17, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan calls a run. And just like last week, the offense goes nowhere behind confusion, poor execution, and timid play calls. Add in a horrendous 22-yard punt, and within five minutes, the Redskins look like they're prepared to surrender many
more first-quarter points.

Then one of the most significant plays of the game happened. With the Titans in the red zone (they only needed one 14-yard Chris Johnson run to get there), quarterback Vince Young scrambled up the middle to avoid the collapsing pocket. Lorenzo Alexander, the play-any-position standout, came from Young's blind side and purposely slapped out a fumble, which was recovered by Washington. This averting of sure opponent points (though they were earned not much later by the Titans on a punt return) was a much-needed sigh of relief, showing that maybe, just maybe, the Redskins have glimmers of possibility left in the season.

And while the rest of the game wasn't always as inspiring, there was much to be proud of. Mike Shanahan motivated the team in overcome multiple pre-game and in-game injuries and win over a favored opponent on the road. Moreover, the battered and short-handed offensive line was unexpectedly strong, helping Washington to improve in their habitual worst area of performance: third down conversions. The Redskins dominated time of possession (40 minutes to 26) because they were able to convert 50% of their third downs. The o-line were able to give McNabb time to launch his 50 pass attempts, which helped Santana Moss have one of his better games of the season (6 catches, 106 yards, 1 touchdown) and for Joey Galloway, Chris Cooley, and Brandon Banks to actually contribute to the production.

The other piece of good news for the Redskins is that they aren't alone in facing difficult times. The burgundy and gold may not be good, but the purple and gold of Minnesota are on a year-long path of self-destruction. While Washington was considering changes to its coaching staff, the Vikings were nursing the wounds of a Super Bowl birth thrown and fumbled away. Their fans then watched an offseason sideshow featuring coach Brad Childress and the organization toyed with by Brett Favre; they begged him to return with a multi-million dollar bonus, then personally escorted him back. Ten weeks into the season, Favre and the Vikings are the NFL's biggest letdown, and the locker-room and organizational infighting wasn't helped with the month-long hiring of the cancerous Randy Moss. After Sunday's 31-3 home loss to the Green Bay Packers dropped the Vikes to 3-7 , Childress and their post-season hopes were shown the door. Now the team is left to go through the motions and start looking at 2011. And it's only Thanksgiving.

The Redskins faithful should pause during this holiday season and be thankful that even with the prime-time failures and confusion, the team could be a whole lot worse.

OFFENSE: B-. Credit the offensive line again for opening up 100 rushing yards and for giving McNabb the rare luxury of time to throw. The inspired yards after catch by underused tight end Fred Davis
were refreshing to see as well.
DEFENSE: B+. The pundits were sure that Vince Young, Chris Johnson, and the Titans were going to gouge the secondary for 20+ points. It wasn't pretty, and they were helped by facing a rookie quarterback, but the defense got the stops they needed.
SP. TEAMS: C+. How kicker Graham Gano comes up as short as he did on the last kick in regulation is disappointing. That he came back and booted a similar kick to win makes it all better.
COACHING: B. I've been critical of Kyle Shanahan's play calling, but I liked seeing the shovel-pass to Moss, the insertion of Brandon Banks, and the well-executed screens.

What exactly is Mike Shanahan's plan for Albert Haynesworth? Last week #92, the highest-paid defensive player in the NFL, had an embarrassing, nationally-mocked half-effort against the Eagles. This week, facing his former team, he doesn't start and is minimally used. Has he been disciplined for his effort? Is his knowledge of the defense so small that he is no longer considered start-worthy? What's going on?

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Week Ten Part 2: National Embrarrassment. No Joke.

Being a Washington Redskins fan is a torture unlike any other in the National Football League. To root for the burgundy and gold, in the last decade or more, is to wish upon a dream that has long since passed. It is to visit weekly with a childhood friend with whom you now have little in common, except the wonderful memories of sunny days, smiles, and simpler times.

For the fortunate fans who witnessed the Redskins of the 1980s and early 1990s, they saw a franchise that grew from its inconsistent but exciting 1970s into a continual contender. All the Super Bowls, NFC Championships, and playoff appearances produced a pride based in the trust that Jack Kent Cooke, Joe Gibbs, Bobby Beathard, and the front office knew what they were doing. Players like Darrell Green, John Riggins, Russ Grimm, and Doug Williams may not have been the most talented to play the game, but fans could trust that they gave their all on Sunday. And they found ways to give a little more against a division foe. That franchise of those Glory Days earned and kept the respect of the league.

In the last eleven seasons, this franchise has descended below mediocrity, below embarrassment, way down into the once-unimaginable depths of national joke. The mocking barbs once leveled at the Cincinnati Bengals and Detroit Lions now aim toward Washington. It seems that nearly every national sports publication snickers at the Redskins.

And why shouldn't they? Daniel Snyder's ownership has produced seven coaches and two playoff
wins. None of those coaches ended their tenure with better than a .500 winning percentage. The team has spent millions on the retreading of veterans like Jason Taylor, Deion Sanders, Bruce Smith, and, yes, Donovan McNabb. Young talent like Ryan Clark, Brandon Lloyd, and, yes, Jason Campbell were cut by the Redskins and miraculously play better elsewhere. Offseason after offseason the franchise brings in new saviors who either aren't given enough opportunity to shine or never shine at all: Steve Spurrier, Marty Schottenheimer, and, yes, Mike Shanahan. For every Sean Taylor or Brian Orakpo, there are draft choices traded away into nothingness.

Monday night's disaster was further notice that Redskins fans have been duped. While fleecing fans for more money, they have been spoon fed Glory Day nostalgia to believe the next high-priced defensive end is Dexter Manley. Or that Joey Galloway is really Downtown Charlie Brown. The marketing machine creates new anniversary jerseys, runs jumbotron montages, and produces DVDs of days long, long gone.

Then the franchise puts a team on the field that is a mere shadow of those men of respect and ability. And has the nerve to remind the bewildered to vote their favorite player for the Pro Bowl. Maybe fans will get to that when they finish considering where this loss falls in the pantheon of embarrassing Redskins losses. That is, if they can drown out the national chorus of laughter, the charges of aimlessness, and the second-guessing of leadership.

Ah, but the joke is on you too, Daniel Snyder and Washington Redskins. ESPN, ABC and the NFL Network don't continually schedule your team for nationally-televised games because they might win or potentially play well. You're there because your franchise is considered a bumbling circus sideshow whose inevitable failure makes for good ratings and easy, mean-spirited ridicule. Emperor Snyder has no clothes, and the media is laughing all the way to the bank.

As always with this team, there remains a glimmer of hope. Perhaps Mike Shanahan is just rusty in his ability to give plausible reasoning at press conferences. And maybe Bruce Allen really has a plan to build the team with quality young players, not just old ones. It might be that Daniel Snyder isn't sticking his nose in player issues and announcing contracts for maximum media buzz.

At this point, it's doubtful.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Week Ten: Shanahilarious

Philadelphia 59, Washington 28

This loss, before a national audience, wasn't bad: it was historically bad. It was the worst first quarter by a defense in NFL history. Philadelphia Eagle Michael Vick had a performance unseen in the history of the NFL (300+ passing yards, 50 + rushing yards, 4+ passing touchdowns, 2+ rushing touchdowns). The Redskins gave up the most points in a half in their history and allowed the most first quarter points by a visiting team in NFL history. The Eagles celebrated the most points in a half in franchise history.

Even the stats that aren't records indicate a total, Republicans-over-Democrats shellacking: just over fifteen minutes into the game, Philadelphia had five touchdowns (more than Washington would score all night) while the Redskins had run just twelve plays for 23 yards. Vick was his own Human Highlight Reel, finishing the first half with a perfect quarterback rating.

But really, in the end, what matters are two things: how it happened and who is responsible. Fortunately, both questions can be answered with three words: Shanahan's staff failed.

The Redskins coaches, blessed with two weeks to prepare, strategize, and practice, put a team on
the field that looked like it had just finished playing Detroit an hour before the Philly game. They were ill-prepared, unresponsive, and unmotivated.

If Mike Shanahan can't prepare his team in two weeks to play a division rival, at home, on Monday Night Football, then why is he being paid $35 million? How is he any better than quarterback coach-turned-head coach Jim Zorn, who was cheaper and didn't hire his son to run the offense? Spare us ESPN commentator John Gruden's effusing over Shanahan and his Super Bowls ("[He's] a great coach. He managed the bye well..[but it's] his team that has not played..."). The proof is in the pudding, and on the biggest stage the Redskins will see this season, he and his shiny Denver Super Bowl trophies comically failed.

Kyle Shanahan's offense were a phantom success. When the game mattered--the first quarter--the play selections were stale flatulence. How bad did it stink? Here's the first quarter: Vick throws an 88-yard touchdown bomb, Washington calls three run plays. Punt. Vick's offense runs five more plays, all different: touchdown. Washington has a 1-yard screen pass, a rushed 7-yard completion, then an interception as McNabb runs for his life. Vick and offense show variety and the series ends with a shovel pass, touchdown.

Young Shanahan's offense, down 21-0 and on the edge of being blown out, walks on the field and attempts two rushing plays and one pass, which was overthrown. Punt. Total output after three series: 21 yards.

Folks, the game was over right then. Moments later, the icing was on the cake when Philly no-name running back Jerome Harrison galloped 50 yards through a half-hearted defense for a touchdown. Shanahan's eventual offensive response--deep passes--came too late to sufficiently impact the deficit.

As for defensive coordinator Jim Haslett, he was completely outcoached by Andy Reid. Sometimes it looked like Riverdale Baptist high school had invited Boise State to a scrimmage. The defense was on its heels for nearly all of the first half: they didn't stop Philly from scoring at will until 35 points later. But until then, Reid's playbook was completely unstoppable. Reverses worked. Shovel passes worked. Draw plays worked. Deep passes worked. Screen passes worked. Runs up the middle worked.

Haslett has answering to do when his players allow over 1000 yards and over 90 points in two weeks.

The worst moment, in a night filled with horrific moments, came after halftime. ESPN's Suzy Kolber reported that she spoke with both coaches during the half. Andy Reid, when asked what his strategy would be while leading 45-14. "Score more points," was his reply. When Kolber asked Shanahan about his team, he was at a loss in explaining the record-setting first period.

"Do you have any ideas?" was his reply.

Ha ha, coach of a national laughingstock. Hilarious.

OFFENSE: D-. McNabb's strong arm and elusiveness are the saving grace from F-ville. (Sorry Keiland Williams, score your touchdowns outside of garbage time, thanks.) The bigger question is whether those traits are worth a new five year contract...
DEFENSE: F-. This play encapsulates the defense's night: Vick has seven seconds to pass due to no rush, Haynesworth doesn't care enough to get up and pursue, and the nine guys playing the pass let a receiver open for a touchdown. Egad.
Sp. TEAMS: C. Lorenzo Alexander was a lone bright spot, crushing a kick returner as he did last time the teams met. Brandon Banks looked like 75% of his pre-surgery self. He really needs that other 25, apparently.
Give Shanahan a modicum of credit for beginning his press conference with the understatement of the season: "I didn't get the players ready."
OWNERSHIP: F. Daniel Snyder's years of mismanagement earned him the privilege of watching his team play the fourth quarter in front of Eagles fans.

...goes to my brother, who drove four hours from Virginia to attend the game, only to be so disgusted that he left early and drove another four hours back home. "I asked a guy next to me in the second quarter [as fans began streaming out], 'if the Skins score and no one is in the stadium, does it count?' "

Photos courtesy and

Monday, November 01, 2010

Week Eight: Gross(man) Misconduct

Washington 25, Detroit 37

Since taking over a 4-12 franchise, coach Mike Shanahan has enjoyed virtual carte blanche in reshaping the 2010 Redskins. Whether it was in shaping the roster (adios, Rock Cartwright and Antwaan Randle- El), rubber stamping the schemes (hello, 3-4 defense), or choosing his starters, Shanahan's powers have been unlimited and immune to the criticism that his predecessor routinely faced.

But on Sunday, Shanahan pulled a move so bizarre, so
unprecedented, that it defied all conventional strains of football logic. Even more, it guaranteed a loss to the one-win Detroit Lions, dropping Washington to a modest 4-4 record. In legal terms, it wasn't just wrong to do--misconduct--but it rose to the level of gross misconduct: so outrageous that it shocked the conscience.

Here's the scene: with just under two minutes left, the Redskins had the ball at their own 25 with plenty of timeouts. On the previous two drives, Donovan McNabb and the offense turned the ball over and failed to convert a fourth down. Nonetheless the Redskins were down just six points. Shanahan sends in Rex Grossman, not DJ McNabb, to orchestrate a winning drive. On the first play, Grossman is blindsided and coughs up a fumble that is easily returned for a touchdown. The game is essentially over.

Naturally, the first question asked of Coach Shanahan in the post game conference was why he benched a healthy McNabb. Shanahan's explanation was straight from the Andy Reid Short Answer 101 course: he thought that Rex knew the two minute offense better, that Rex gave them the best chance to win, and that his gut told him to do so. That was it.

Gastroenterology aside, this explanation is pure nonsense. Rex Grossman may have more experience in offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan's offense due to his work with the Texans, but he has zero regular season snaps and didn't outplay new-to-the-scheme McNabb in training camp to even be considered the starter.
Grossman's knowledge doesn't trump in-game experience; he hadn't seen the Detroit defense coming at him, except when a play happened to go out of bounds where he was standing with a clipboard and orange Gatorade. Yet he was called upon to walk in, cold, with 1:45 left and win a game.

Has there ever been a time when a coach replaced a healthy starter this way? This isn't baseball, where a hot closing pitcher can be called up in the bottom of the 8th. Even if it did exist in the NFL, Grossman isn't such a specialist. If he were that good, he wouldn't have bounced from Chicago to Houston to Washington.

In short: if Grossman's the answer, you're probably asking the wrong question.

To be fair, it is true that McNabb's performance wasn't great against the Lions. He was out of sync with receivers on some occasions, he awkwardly tripped twice on snaps, and he did little to improve the Redskins' next-to-worst third down conversion percentage. Under his leadership the team is horrific in red zone scoring and touchdown efficiency. And one can deduce that the reason the Washington defense allows so many yards per game is because they tire from being forced on the field by the ineffective offense.

But let's be real: the blame for the Detroit loss falls on many shoulders, not just McNabb's. The offensive line couldn't protect for the pass, couldn't provide for the run. Snap after snap, Detroit was able to get pressure on McNabb, sometimes without blitzing. The FOX broadcast reported that of his 36 dropbacks, there were five sacks, eleven hits, and ten hurries. That leaves just ten passes where McNabb wasn't having to save his hide from
Ndamukong Suh and company. Because the Redskins couldn't run, they faced an average third down of more than ten yards.

If Shanahan wants to truly evaluate McNabb's performance, how about he look at the two dropped two-point conversions by Fred Davis? If he wants to look for scapegoats, why not mention coach Jim Haslett, DeAngelo Hall and the secondary, who apparently decided to let Detroit's best receiver, Calvin Johnson, punk them all day? The "best chance to win" wouldn't have been necessary if Philip Daniels doesn't jump offsides on a field goal or Reed Doughty doesn't negate a kickoff return with a penalty.

Even worse, Shanahan's decision sends a powerfully negative message to his supposed franchise quarterback: I can singularly blame you for the failures of my offensive line, receivers, defensive backs, and assistant coaches. Sure, coach confidently said that McNabb is his starter after the bye week; but his action suggests that McNabb may be on thinner ice than even he realized. And that's just unconscionable.

OFFENSE: C-. Something's very wrong when your longest, non-QB rush of the day is eight yards. And don't look now, but Chris Cooley is quietly having a mediocre season of dropped passes. The o-line should have been made to walk home from Detroit..
DEFENSE: C+. Orakpo and the defense didn't put much heat on a rusty Matt Stafford, which let Calvin Johnson have a career day. Yet they still gave the offense a chance to win.
Sp. TEAMS: B+ Brandon Banks is smelling like a rookie steal. Twenty more pounds on him and he might be able to break more tackles.
COACHING: C. The coaches had little answer for the front four of Detroit, didn't adjust coverage on Johnson, and sent in the backup to win the game. Sadly, they still did better than Zorn's crew from a year ago.

Talk about odd: in my Madden Redskins franchise, I cleaned house of much of the current roster after winning the Super Bowl. (I went 16-1, thank you very much.) I made sure to keep Brandon Banks on the roster for season two, and though he's only a 55-rated wide receiver he's a 95+ speed rating. And just this week I finally got him to score a kickoff touchdown. On Sunday, the real Banks was dominant and finally returned a kick for six. Well done, sir.