When it comes to predicting how the Washington Redskins will fare during the 2018 season, as the saying goes: “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”
I love the fact that, by and large, the Redskins continue to fly under the national radar, even after acquiring a Pro Bowl quarterback and recently signing one of the biggest name running backs in NFL history (even though the latter is likely well past his prime).
Once again, nine out of 10 NFL broadcast or podcasts act like the NFC East has only three teams: Philadelphia, because they’re defending Super Bowl champion, with a Super Bowl MVP quarterback (Nick Foles) keeping the seat warm for the guy who would’ve been the regular season MVP last year (Carson Wentz); New York, because they have a new head coach, a fancy new toy at running back, and an exorbitantly-paid WR; and Dallas, because for no other reason than they’re Dallas. By sheer math, any division championships or wild card spots would only come from one of those three teams, then (you can’t give a postseason spot to a team that doesn’t exist, at least in their minds).
Sure, there are handful of well-reasoned NFL analysts — not just located in the DMV — who believe Washington is a legitimate contender for a playoff spot this year. But as usual, there are just as many who believe that the Redskins will (somehow) finish with a record worse than the one they had last year, even though the only changes made to the team this offseason might’ve been for the better.
And you know what? At this point in time, it’s hard to say either of them are definitively wrong. Even as someone who prides themselves as being completely pragmatic and non-homerrific when it comes to the Redskins, for the first time in a while, I can just as easily convince myself that this team could finish the season with an 11-5 record as I could convince myself that they’ll finish with a 5-11 record.
Don’t believe me? Let’s make arguments for both outcomes, and you be the judge:
The “Glass Half-Full” Scenario For The Washington Redskins in 2018
Offense: Quarterback Alex Smith’s leadership, reduced turnover ratio, and overall professionalism translates to more consistency from the quarterback spot on the field. Adrian Peterson, after tallying less than 200 carries over the last two years, has one last 1,000-yard season left in the tank (it’s not impossible; Frank Gore — running behind a far-inferior line in Indianapolis — ran for 1,000 yards in 2016, after turning 33, which is the same as Peterson’s current age).
After finally feeling as close to “100%” healthy as he’s ever been in the NFL, Josh Doctson takes a big step towards becoming a true “WR1.” Smith continues to build on his rapport with Jamison Crowder, as the latter builds off a second-half of 2017 when he caught 38 passes for 517 yards in the final eight games of the season. Jordan Reed, himself coming into camp as healthy as he’s been in years, gives us 12-14 solid games this year, and Smith — who threw the ball plenty-often in the direction of his athletic tight end in Kansas City (Travis Kelce) — directs a ton of targets in Reed’s direction as well. Paul Richardson puts up numbers that are at least in the neighborhood of what he had in Seattle last year (44 catches, 703 yards, six touchdowns). Jay Gruden schemes up different ways to get guys like Vernon Davis, Maurice Harris, and Trey Quinn the ball, knowing opposing defenses won’t pay a ton of attention them.
The injury-ravaged offensive line reverts back to the NFL median for injuries, meaning they get far more continuity this year than they had last year. Chase Roullier continues to emerge as one of the more underrated young centers in the NFL, and makes us totally forget about Spencer Long. Shaun Lauvao just stays the same, and doesn’t get any worse (than he already is).
Defense: Washington’s defense is buoyed by its defensive line, which — when healthy — helped the Redskins rank among the top 12 teams in the NFL against the run (as opposed to their dead-last finish after Jonathan Allen went down with a season-ending injury). Allen, Da’Ron Payne, and Matt Ioannidis emerge as one of the most relentless defensive groups in the NFL, while guys like Tim Settle and Anthony Lanier provide depth in obvious running or passing situations.
Ryan Kerrigan finishes with double-digit sacks and at least two forced fumbles, like he’s done three times in the past four years. On the other side, Preston Smith, who’s come into training camp in absolutely ripped shape, flirts — or finishes — with double-digit sacks himself, given that he’s in a contract year. Ryan Anderson takes a big step forward as a key ‘edge-setter’ on running downs, and Washington coaxes four more sacks from Pernell McPhee (he’s had at least four sacks in each of the last two seasons). Zach Brown continues to play like his hair is on fire, finishing among the top 10 in the NFL in tackles.
Quinton Dunbar represents zero drop-off from Bashaud Breeland. A now-healthy Fabian Moreau uses his fantastic physical tools to become a steady nickel cornerback. Montae Nicholson builds on all the promising flashes from his rookie season, with the coaches trusting his athleticism enough to where Washington can play DJ Swearinger to play closer to the line of scrimmage, where he’s best suited.
The “Glass Half-Empty” Scenario For The Washington Redskins in 2018
Offense: Alex Smith turns back into Charlie Checkdown, showing why he averaged less than 7.43 yards per attempt in each of the four seasons prior to 2017 (for reference: 10 starting quarterbacks averaged more than 7.43 yards per attempt last year).
Adrian Peterson runs out of gas sometime in early-to-mid October, Rob Kelley continues to look like a below-replacement-level running back, and Samaje Perine runs with the ferocity of 233lb ballerina (when he doesn’t manage to fumble the ball). Smith’s unwillingness to throw into tight windows — he was 31st in the NFL in passing attempts to receivers with less than a yard of separation — turn Doctson and Richardson into high-priced or high-profile decoys. Richardson becomes an $8 million-per-year “JAG” (just a guy). Doctson and Jordan Reed, who again found themselves on the injury report in training camp, continue to struggle staying healthy all year. After missing weeks of practice in training camp due to a concussion, Maurice Harris gets buried into oblivion on the Redskins’ depth chart.
Trent Williams, who admitted that his bothersome knee from last year still isn’t fully healed, misses even more time this year, and Geron Christian — Washington’s 3rd round pick in this year’s draft — isn’t close to ready to fill in for Williams. There’s a noticeable step down from Spencer Long to Chase Roullier. Shaun Lauvao continues to play like a human turnstile.
Defense: We overestimate the assembled talent on the defensive line, given that we still don’t have a genuine “blue chip” player along the line (yet, at least), leading to opponents pushing this defensive line around all season long.
Preston Smith underachieves, Pernell McPhee turns out to be worthless, and nobody besides Ryan Kerrigan presents a meaningful pass-rushing threat. Zach Brown makes “splash” plays but allows opponents to rip off chunk plays because of his penchant to freelance and blow his assignment.
Fabian Moreau, who’s still raw as tartare, gets burnt more often as the slot cornerback than microwave popcorn in freshman dorms. The rumored beef between Josh Norman and DJ Swearinger comes to a head and the secondary falls apart from within; as a result, Norman mails in the latter part of the season as he looks forward to potentially being a free agent next offseason. Quinton Dunbar or Moreau get hurt, and the younger corners — 7th-round pick Greg Stroman, supplemental draft pick Adonis Alexander, and/or undrafted free agent Danny Johnson — show understandable struggles in their first NFL season. Montae Nicholson gets hurt (again), forcing Washington play Swearinger as more of a free safety, where he also gets torched. Washington has to play nowhere-near-ready Troy Apke at safety for any meaningful amount of time.
Tell me that either scenario isn’t completely viable?
It’s even harder to predict how things could shake out, when you juxtapose all of the above with Washington’s schedule in 2018.
One one hand, even though the Redskins finished with the third-best record in the NFC East, the schedule-makers — once again — did the Redskins zero favors, giving them a Bye Week preposterously early in the season (Week 4), and six matchups against teams who made the playoffs last year over Washington’s last nine games of the season (and one of those three games against non-playoff teams includes a matchup with Houston, who could very well make the postseason this year).
That’s not even mentioning the fact that four of their last six games are on the road (including yet another Thanksgiving Day matchup against Dallas), and that they rendezvous against the AFC South the one time when that usually-terrible division has three potential playoff contenders (two of whom they play on the road in December — Jacksonville and Tennessee).
But on the other hand, Washington starts off this season against two teams who could finish among the bottom five teams in the NFL this season (Arizona and Indianapolis). They could very well beat Green Bay at FedEx in Week 3, considering the Packers are 5-6 over their last 11 road games in which Aaron Rodgers starts (and finishes) the game (including that beautiful Sunday Night game in 2016, when the Redskins beat Rodgers and the Packers by double-digits). Washington gets the notoriously “Dr. Jekyll on the road, Mr. Hyde at home” Atlanta Falcons at FedEx in Week 9, will play the moribund Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 10, at least split their games with the New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys (the latter of whom could be a really bad football team this year), and maybe even take advantage of the Week 17 game at home against Philadelphia.
Oh, and most importantly: Washington has ZERO Monday Night Football games at home this year (the Redskins could play a D-III college football team at home on Monday Night, and I would still pick the Redskins to lose).
Final Thoughts and Prediction
Two months ago, before I found myself starting to drink some of the “positive vibes Kool-Aid,” I penciled this team down for a 7-9 record. That was basically splitting the difference between the 8-8 record I predicted after scrutinizing the schedule, and the 6-to-7 wins that the advanced analytics, and Vegas Sportsbooks, had concluded.
But here’s the thing I keep coming back to: Washington was 7-9 in 2017. And last year’s team was one that 1) went 4-4 over the first half of the season (though two of those losses were against the eventual Super Bowl champion); 2) found new and inventive ways to shoot itself in the foot (especially in their two crushing losses against Minnesota and New Orleans in Weeks 10 and 11 last year, which arguably changed the arc of their season); 3) was absolutely slaughtered by injuries (the Redskins were dead last in the NFL in Football Outsiders’ Average Games Lost to injury metric last year).
Given all of that, are we actually expecting Washington be the same as last year, or even worse? That would effectively mean that you think Washington’s roster is as flawed — if not more flawed — than last year’s roster, and will suffer the same talent deficiencies that they did last year, due to injuries.
I call BS.
This team improved itself in the offseason. There’s continuity, with the team coming into year two with the same offensive and defensive staff and schemes. By the sheer law of averages, this team simply can’t be ravaged by the injury bug in the manner that they were last year. And even with all the seemingly formidable opponents on their schedule this year, the teams we think are “good” in August could have a very different assessment by October.
* But I don’t think they make the playoffs.