Reporting David Elfin
The day that Redskins fans have been waiting for since Washington’s 14-0 lead over Seattle evaporated in the divisional playoff game eight months ago is finally here.
For all of the fuss over record-setting quarterback Robert Griffin III’s right knee, cornerback DeAngelo Hall’s release and subsequent return and another offseason with an NFL-mandated $18 million less to spend, the Redskins are basically intact.
Twenty of the 22 players who started last year’s opener in New Orleans will be on the field tonight in Landover with free safety Madieu Williams, who wasn’t re-signed, and left defensive end Adam Carriker, who has been sidelined for nearly a year with a quadriceps that won’t heal, the only exceptions.
The only departures that coach Mike Shanahan didn’t ordain were those of special teams coach Danny Smith and Pro Bowl special-teamer Lorenzo Alexander. They were replaced by Keith Burns, who spent 10 years under Shanahan in Denver, and Bryan Kehl, who, like Alexander, has made a career out of covering kicks. Kehl was actually signed during the 2012 season as was kicker Kai Forbath, who’s a major upgrade on Billy Cundiff, the veteran who had that job for the first five games.
Washington has added young talent in the secondary with safety Bacarri Rambo, who’ll start tonight against Philadelphia, and cornerback David Amerson, who might get the nod over veteran Josh Wilson. Another rookie, running back Chris Thompson, will likely return punts.
Griffin, Pro Bowl outside linebacker Brian Orakpo, No. 1 receiver Pierre Garcon, starting tight end Fred Davis and backup running back Roy Helu are all healthy after being banged up for a good portion of last season. Even oft-injured safety Brandon Meriweather might play tonight.
All that adds up to the Redskins being a better team than the crew that won its final seven games last season to finish 10-6 and capture the franchise’s first NFC East title in 13 years.
The September schedule is as kind as it gets in the NFL with three games against foes that were 4-12 in 2012: Philadelphia, Detroit and Oakland, the first two at home. Visiting Green Bay on a short week will be very challenging, but Washington hasn’t won in Wisconsin since the Reagan Administration, no matter the circumstances.
Meanwhile, Washington’s NFC East rivals have health and continuity issues. The Eagles and the New York Giants lost receiver Jeremy Maclin and safety Stevie Brown, respectively, to season-ending knee injuries. Dallas will be without top defensive lineman Jay Ratliff at least five more weeks and just lured 36-year-old guard Brian Waters out of retirement to help shore up its offensive line. Rookie coach Chip Kelly’s Eagles have new offensive and defensive systems while the Cowboys have switched to a 4-3 defense under new coordinator Monte Kiffin.
So, the Redskins will just roll to another NFC East championship and then towards the Super Bowl, right?
Not so fast. Any Washington fan who’s out of his or her teens has seen this movie before, as they say.
In 2000, owner Dan Snyder opened his wallet wide to add aging Hall of Famers Bruce Smith and Deion Sanders as well as veteran quarterback Jeff George and safety Mark Carrier to a Redskins team that had gone 10-6 and won its first NFC East championship in eight years. The Super Bowl or Bust bandwagon started off 6-2 as franchise icon Darrell Green was benched for Sanders and Snyder made it clear to seventh-year coach Norv Turner that he preferred George to 1999 star quarterback Brad Johnson. The dysfunctional atmosphere caught up to the Redskins who wound up 8-8, a plunge that cost Turner his job.
Six years later, the Redskins were coming off their first playoff appearance since 1999 thanks to a 5-0 finishing run. Not satisfied with that success, Snyder spent large again, importing receivers Brandon Lloyd and Antwaan Randle El, defensive end Andre Carter and safety Adam Archuleta while letting glue guy Ryan Clark walk. Lloyd and Archuleta were locker room cancers. Randle El wasn’t the playmaker that Washington expected and Carter was pedestrian. The Redskins lost their first two games and when they hit their bye at 2-5, they were history. The defense was awful and Washington finished 5-11, the worst of Hall of Fame coach Joe Gibbs’ 16 seasons.
Those kind of wild swings don’t only happen to the Redskins, of course. Each of the four NFC East teams finished first once during the past four seasons. The 2004 Eagles are the last team to successfully defend their division title.
Despite its rugged reputation, the NFC East didn’t produce two playoff teams in any of the past three years after sending three members to the postseason as recently as 2007. And given the seeming strength of San Francisco and Seattle in the NFC West, Atlanta and New Orleans in the NFC South and Green Bay and Chicago in the NFC North, don’t count on a wild card emerging from the East this year either.
The Redskins also play a first place schedule. Once they return from their Week 5 bye, they sandwich a visit from the Bears around trips to Dallas and AFC favorite Denver. Later, they play the defending NFC champion 49ers and the Giants within six days. Washington’s final three games are at the Falcons, at home against the Cowboys and at the Giants. The Redskins won at the Meadowlands in December in 2007 and 2001, but if New York’s going for the division title in the finale…
If Griffin, Garcon, star running back Alfred Morris and the thin line stay healthy on offense, Orakpo and 38-year-old captain London Fletcher do the same on defense, and the rookies shore up the laggard secondary, the Redskins could indeed be Super Bowl-bound for the first time in 22 years. But those are a lot of ifs.
To me, Washington has the look of a 9-7 or 10-6 team that will teeter on the edge of winning the NFC East/gaining a wild card or just missing the playoffs. A critical turnover – don’t expect only another franchise record-low 14 this year – could make all the difference. In any case, as usual, the Redskins’ season should be fascinating to follow. After eight months, it’s more than about time to get the adventure started again.
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