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5 reasons for optimism/pessimism as Redskins begin second half

The Redskins return from their five-day bye-week break today and are scheduled to practice this afternoon.

They’re an improved team at the halfway mark of coach Mike Shanahan’s first season. At this point a year ago, the head coach was a lame duck and their playoff chances had vanished. Now, Washington is alive in the NFC playoff race despite a run of uneven play.

Let’s explore the reasons for optimism and pessimism entering the second half.

OPTIMISM

1. Tailored roles on defense

Defensive coordinator Jim Haslett spent the first few games of the year evaluating several players, such as Albert Haynesworth and Andre Carter, before tweaking their roles to fit their strengths. There were costly growing pains during that period, but the Redskins are past them now. They’ll play the remainder of the season with those guys positioned to best help the team. Haynesworth has impacted games much more positively with his power since Haslett removed him from the base 3-4 alignment and freed him to attack the ball without making reads off the snap. Carter is much more effective at defensive end in the nickel package instead of in space at outside linebacker. It took a few missed tackles and awkward moments for Haslett to replace Carter with Lorenzo Alexander, but both are playing better now.

2. Portis’ expected return

When running back Clinton Portis tore one of his groin muscles off the bone on Oct. 3 against Philadelphia, many wondered whether he would play again this season. And while Portis’ return still is not guaranteed, he is expected to come back at some point during the second half. That he practiced before the team broke for the bye week—even in a limited capacity—is an auspicious development. It’s clear that the Redskins need Portis, if only for his superior pass-blocking ability. Running backs Ryan Torain and Keiland Williams can’t read opposing pass rushes as well as Portis, and their blocks aren’t as physical or technically sound. The offensive line has regressed since the beginning of the season and the pressure on quarterback Donovan McNabb has disrupted the entire offense. Washington ranks 25th in the NFL in sacks allowed per pass attempt. Portis would help that, at least a little bit.

3. McNabb’s progression in the offense

Quarterback Donovan McNabb’s play has been inconsistent as he continues to settle into the Redskins’ new offense. He has struggled at times recognizing open receivers and making correct reads, not to mention his streaks of inaccuracy. The result is a paltry 57.4 completion percentage and a 76.0 passer rating. McNabb and the coaches have justified his struggles by insisting it will take time for him to settle into the system. That’s fair. McNabb spent 11 years in, basically, one offense in Philadelphia under Andy Reid. At some point, though, it is supposed to click for him. With each play and each read, he gains experience and should move forward. Once the offense becomes second nature, coaches expect him to play like the six-time Pro Bowler he is. The clock is ticking on him, though.

4. The defense is forcing turnovers

Mike Shanahan decided long before he joined the Redskins that he would install a 3-4 defense wherever he landed. He studied the NFL’s trend toward the 3-4 and concluded that it’s the most effective scheme in forcing turnovers. So far, that has proven true on a unit that for years had been unable to get takeaways. Not all of the Redskins’ 19 takeaways have occurred when the defense was in its base 3-4 front, but coordinator Jim Haslett’s scheme is producing. The Redskins rank second in the NFL in takeaways. Yes, you read that correctly. It’s a remarkable turnaround for a unit that forced only 17 turnovers all of last season. The defense was maligned after facing some of the NFL’s best offenses, but it is generally playing better now that players have become more comfortable with their responsibilities.

5. They control their fate in the NFC East

After winning only four games last season and failing to beat a divisional opponent, the Redskins can’t ask for more at the halfway point than controlling their own playoff destiny. And that’s exactly the situation they’re in. Washington already has beaten Philadelphia on the road and Dallas at home. The Redskins trail the first-place New York Giants by two games in the standings with two games still remaining against them. Winning the divisional games is easier said than done, of course, but doing so would create a direct route to the playoffs. The Redskins get the Eagles at home next Monday with two weeks to prepare. They play on Dec. 19 at Dallas, which is a winnable game given Dallas’ downward spiral. And they don’t play New York until Dec. 5, which gives Washington time to sort out some of the problems on offense and possibly get running back Clinton Portis back in the lineup. Whether the Redskins win the division is entirely up to them.

PESSIMISM

1. The quarterback controversy

Coach Mike Shanahan’s decision to bench starting quarterback Donovan McNabb in the decisive moments of the loss to Detroit spoiled any sense of satisfaction entering the bye week with a 4-4 record. The outcome of the Lions game was a setback, but it wasn’t the end of the world. Washington still controls its fate in the NFC East race, and its defense is making strides. But replacing McNabb with Rex Grossman created a myriad of distractions that will hover over the team for the rest of the season. McNabb’s relationship with Mike and Kyle Shanahan is being dissected and scrutinized. Questions about McNabb’s future with the team have intensified. And if McNabb decides that he wants to explore the free agent market in the offseason, will he fully invest himself in picking up an offense that he has struggled to grasp so far? It’s a delicate situation that could unravel, and that would have wide-ranging ramifications for a team that looks to McNabb for leadership.

2. McNabb’s faltering health

Mike Shanahan hates to discuss injuries, so he and Donovan McNabb the last few weeks downplayed the severity of McNabb’s lower body injuries. It turns out, however, that they were bad enough to prompt Shanahan to confront McNabb with the possibility of sitting out the Detroit game. The effects of McNabb’s sore hamstrings were obvious to Shanahan. McNabb’s accuracy has suffered because he hasn’t been able to practice and he can’t consistently maintain a strong, wide base and proper footwork. The main problem here is that McNabb’s legs aren’t going to get healthier down the stretch. It’s just the opposite. As he approaches his 34th birthday on Nov. 25, his leg strength issues will worsen. McNabb has not played a full 16-game season in four of the last five seasons, so history says his injury hiatus is still to come. At least Rex has some snaps under his belt, right?

3. An offensive line encore

The offensive line’s play at the end of October was reminiscent of how last year’s group performed. In case you erased those images from memory—and no one would blame you—here’s a reminder: That’s not a compliment. The line has reverted to hampering the entire offense. The running game was stagnant against Detroit, which statistically is one of the worst run defenses in the NFL. Donovan McNabb did not consistently have enough time to go through his progressions and comfortably make throws in the pocket. Sound familiar? Even though this group has four new starters, the results are too similar. Left tackle Trent Williams hasn’t looked the same since spraining his toe in Week 2 against Houston. Mike Shanahan before the bye week appeared ready to give up on right tackle Jammal Brown. Artis Hicks has showed why he wasn’t a starter for the last several years. In short, the line is a mess, and there’s no outside help coming to save the day.

4. A banged-up backfield

Injuries at running back suddenly became a critical problem when Ryan Torain strained his hamstring against Detroit. With Clinton Portis out since Week 4 due to a torn groin muscle, Mike Shanahan might have to dig further to validate his reputation for turning unheralded running backs into productive contributors. Portis and Torain have proven they can carry the load, so the Redskins should be OK if those two are healthy. The big concern, however, is that both are suffering from leg injuries. This running scheme requires hard cuts, and the offensive line woes mean that breaking tackles is essential. That’s difficult to do with injured legs.

5. Fighting the odds in the kicking game

Considering kicker Graham Gano’s inconsistent accuracy in his first full NFL season and long-snapper Nick Sundberg’s shakiness at times, it seems inevitable that the Redskins’ relative inexperience in the kicking game will bite them at some point. Gano has not established reliability from outside 40 yards or in decisive situations. Mike Shanahan is willing to ride out the growing pains with Gano and Sundberg, but as the magnitude of games intensify, so will the pressure on those two. Until they prove otherwise, there’s reason to believe they’ll falter at a most inopportune moment.

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