WASHINGTON — This is indisputably the worst sports week of the year, but it is always darkest before dawn. Football will soon be here to save us from the doldrums of summer. Redskins training camp begins July 28 in Richmond, and the defending NFC East champs will begin the 2016 campaign with fewer questions marks than previous seasons, but higher hopes. Now that the team has shown competence (thanks, Scot), it has become the expectation.
Training camp stories tend to focus on three topics: injuries, rookies and position battles. These topics do not interest me in July; what do interest me are the stories the media isn’t talking about. What’s different this season than in years past? Here are the four battles keeping me up at night two months before the first meaningful snap of the season.
1. Cousins vs. The ghost of RG3
Yeah, yeah, I know, we aren’t supposed to mention Robert anymore. He’s moved onto Cleveland, we’ve moved onto Kirk, and, according to Internet commenters, we’re supposed to forget that the whole thing happened like a bad marriage.
For better or worse (definitely for worse), RG3 will always be a part of this team’s history. Although his fall from grace will become less relevant as time passes, you’ll still see fans wearing his jersey to games, you’ll still hear people calling radio stations to blame the Redskins for mistreating RG3’s injuries and breaking his confidence, and, until the end of time, people will compare Cousins to Griffin. No one can accurately describe the relationship between the two quarterbacks, but it’s safe to presume that they were never pals. Did RG3’s presence help Cousins develop as a quarterback, or was it what held him back from blossoming until the 2015 season?
For the first time in five years, RG3 will not be the lead story entering training camp. It’s a breath of fresh air, but it is also uncharted territory for our new signal-caller. Kirk Cousins has never entered the preseason as a starting quarterback. While it will be exciting to see his progression with an entire offseason to prepare, it’s also concerning to see how he will handle the pressure that comes with elevated expectations and sole possession of the media spotlight.
The biggest battle this season is between Kirk Cousins and himself. He performed like a top-10 quarterback for the last two months of the 2015 season, but it still wasn’t persuasive enough for the Redskins to sign him to a long-term deal. The team has until July 15 to sign Cousins to an extension, but all signs point to him playing this season under the franchise tag and waiting until next offseason to negotiate an extension. In 2012, the Redskins thought they had their quarterback of the future; the following season they went 3-13 and were back to the drawing board. Both Cousins and the Redskins are under pressure to exercise those demons and make sure that history doesn’t repeat itself.
2. Su’a Cravens vs. The memory of Sean Taylor
Sean Taylor is and always will be my favorite Washington Redskin, and I know that I am not alone in saying that. He played the game with an instinct and fury the likes of which modern football will never see again. There will never be another Sean Taylor and it’s not fair to compare any player to him.
Since his passing, Taylor’s legacy among fans has become mythical. Some fans miss him so much that they’ll always be looking for the next Sean Taylor. Save your time, there will never be one.
To this point, Su’a Cravens has said all the right things in regard to being drafted by the Redskins. He’s never compared himself directly to Sean Taylor, but the first stories reported about the rookie safety from USC highlighted that he wore No. 21 in college because of Taylor, and he will wear No. 36 for the Redskins in honor of Taylor who wore No. 36 for his first season in Washington. Needless to say, he took the fast track to endearing himself to fans. The only downside is that fans will now expect him to be a human missile on the field, a ballhawk who eats lightning and craps thunder. Fans won’t care that he doesn’t play the same free safety position Taylor played, nor that he will likely be used in a linebacker-strong safety hybrid role, they will expect him to be everywhere.
When the 6-foot-1, 222-pound Cravens takes the field wearing No. 36, we’ll all be a bit nostalgic (Taylor was 6-foot-2 and 212 pounds), my hope is that fans will temper their expectations and give the rookie time to develop and create his own legacy.
3. Matt Jones vs. Gravity
The only thing standing between second-year running back Matt Jones and the top of the depth chart is Sir Issac Newton. Aside from Newton’s law of universal gravitation, he famously said, “To every action there is always opposed an equal reaction.” If Jones repeats his rookie season fumbling action, the equal reaction will be his permanent benching.
Jones averaged one lost fumble for every 36 carries his rookie season — a fumble rate that must improve if Jones wants to stay in the league. Aside from fumbling, Jones doesn’t have much to worry about — his competition is slim. Chris Thompson should serve as Jones’ primary backup, but his diminutive frame doesn’t appear capable of carrying the load of a starting running back.
Behind Thompson there are only questions marks — a 7th-round pick with a bionic knee and two undrafted rookies. How about fullbacks, you say? What fullbacks? In all probability, the team will enter the season without a traditional fullback on the roster (undrafted free agent signing Joe Kerridge will have a tough time making the 53-man roster). A bulked up Niles Paul, Logan Paulsen and/or Derek Carrier could line up in the backfield on occasion, but you aren’t going to see many I-formation sets from the Skins in 2016.
Normally this lack of depth and experience in the backfield would be a glaring concern, but the Skins don’t seem to be concerned. All of which points to the obvious fact that Gruden plans on making Cousins earn his next contract by throwing the ball 35+ times per game.
It’s probably safe to say that 2016 probably won’t be the season a Gruden rushing attack breaks the top-19 for the first time.
4. Junior Galette vs. His own expectations
If it weren’t for his masterful tweeting, you may have forgotten that Junior Galette was on the roster. After shaking up Redskins training camp with his signing late last July, Galette seemed to be the missing piece that the Skins’ pass rush had been looking for. He looked poised, motivated and fast — God, he looked fast.
Then, before he was able to suit up for a game, he tore his Achilles in practice, forcing him to miss the entire season. Fortunately, Galette is back and saltier than ever before. You have to give the man credit for putting his money where his mouth is — with his heavily incentive-based contract, he is literally betting on himself (special thanks to the Saints, who are still paying him).
The Galette doubters are still out in full force, saying things like, “Junior Galette? Will he be able to stay healthy or out of trouble?” Fortunately Galette is fueled by the haters. People are justifiably expecting big things from Preston Smith this season, but the rushing attack remains an area of concern and flashes of the 2014 Galette — who had 10 sacks for New Orleans — could make the Skins rushing attack one of the team’s strengths.
There is already no shortage of doubt facing the 2016 Redskins: Eexperts believe that the team won the NFC East by default last season, experts rank Cousins as the 23rd best quarterback in the NFL, experts say the team will win fewer than seven games this season. In 16 days the Redskins will take the field for the first time, and two months from today the team will have their first chance to prove the experts wrong, again. Hold tight, football is coming. #HTTR
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