The Redskins begin their offseason workouts in Ashburn today with two huge differences from this time last year and surprisingly few from when their 2012 season ended a little over three months ago.
The obvious big changes from recent springs are that the Redskins are coming off their first playoff appearance in five years and their first NFC East championship in 13 years.
Hope springs eternal for every NFL team in April, especially these days when going from worst to first in one season has become almost mundane. However, in the wake of the 7-0 run to the 2012 playoffs, there’s more confidence inside Redskins Park than at any time since the 2005 wild-card victory or perhaps since that 1999 division title.
Of course, the other significant difference for the Redskins is that they have a franchise quarterback that the entire organization believes in for the first time since Joe Theismann in the early 1980s.
If Robert Griffin III’s surgically-repaired right knee heals in time, the reigning Rookie of the Year will become the first quarterback to start consecutive season openers for Washington since Jason Campbell in 2007-09, but even if the 23-year-old isn’t ready in early September, he has still slammed the long-revolving door shut for the Redskins at the sport’s most critical position.
While RGIII is the engine that turned the Redskins from also-rans into winners, the return of every important member of his supporting cast, save Pro Bowl special-teamer Lorenzo Alexander who signed with Arizona, is also a major positive.
Washington didn’t lose 2010 Pro Bowl cornerback DeAngelo Hall nor playmaking tight end Fred Davis to lucrative, long-term deals with other teams as feared. Left guard Kory Lichtensteiger and right tackle Tyler Polumbus, two fifths of the surprisingly effective offensive line that powered the NFL’s top rushing attack, also re-signed.
In fact, other than Madieu Williams, who faltered as the fill-in replacement for suspended free safety Tanard Jackson, all of coach Mike Shanahan’s 2012 starters are back. So are two-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker Brian Orakpo, reliable defensive end Adam Carriker and athletic strong safety Brandon Meriweather, who combined for just 12 quarters of football last fall before suffering season-ending injuries.
While long-time special boss Danny Smith left for Pittsburgh, coordinators Kyle Shanahan and Jim Haslett return for their fourth seasons in charge of Washington’s offense and defense, respectively.
The presence of Griffin, Alfred Morris –- who set the franchise rushing yardage mark as a rookie in 2012 –- and Pierre Garcon (receiving yards) and Josh Morgan (catches) means that the Redskins will have their leading passer, rusher and receiver all back for the first time in four years. Ageless Pro Bowl inside linebacker London Fletcher, who led Washington in tackles and interceptions, and outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan, the pace-setter in sacks, also return as do kicker Kai Forbath and punter Sav Rocca.
All told, an organization that churned through six head coaches, seven defensive coordinators, five offensive coordinators from 1999-2009, and 11 quarterbacks from 2000 to 2011 (not counting injury-prompted changes), finally has some much-needed stability with Shanahan in command and Griffin as the focal point.
Washington didn’t win the free agency competition this year as has been the case so often under owner Dan Snyder. Remember the Over The Hill Gang led by Deion Sanders and Bruce Smith of 2000, the JetSkins featuring Laveranues Coles and Randy Thomas of 2003, and the $30 million club starring Adam Archuleta and Brandon Lloyd of 2006? In fact, the Redskins –- who were slapped with an $18 million penalty by the NFL for alleged previous cap improprieties, only added one player who was a regular last season, cornerback E.J. Biggers, who won’t be a starter for them.
And yet that lack of excitement during the past month was just fine. Washington had a winning offseason simply by keeping the reigning NFC East champions virtually intact. Which is why there will likely be smiles all-around as everyone gathers today in Ashburn for the first time since they said their farewells on Jan. 7, the day after the playoff loss during which Griffin injured his knee.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin.