Zac Boyer will be entering his third season covering the Washington Redskins for The Free Lance-Star this fall. Make sure to follow Zac on Twitter (@ZacBoyer) for the latest updates or e-mail him with any questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Evaluating The Redskins’ 2011 Season: Taking A Look At The Team’s Future
This is the fourth in a four-part series evaluating the Washington Redskins’ 2011 season.
It has become a worn-out refrain to DeAngelo Hall and to nearly the entire Washington Redskins fanbase.“I’ve been here three and a half years and it’s always been, ‘Hopefully next year,’ so it’s definitely tiring,” Hall said before the Redskins officially wrapped up another losing season a week ago. “Hopefully that won’t be the case next year.”
Washington hasn’t qualified for the playoffs since 2007 and has only done so twice since Dan Snyder purchased the team before the 1999 season. The Redskins have finished in last place in the NFC East in each of the last four years, including a 5-11 mark this season that included a six-game losing streak after a 3-1 start.
While the team won one fewer game than in 2010, head coach Mike Shanahan’s first season in that role, the record is just a number. Many of those within the organization are optimistic that the team, despite several mediocre statistical rankings, is very close to winning, if not contending, the division and returning to the playoffs.
“Hopefully one offseason away,” Hall said. “Hopefully one draft, one free agency away from adding more pieces on offense [and] maybe a couple pieces on defense away from being what we want to be.”
What the Redskins want to be is a perennial playoff team – something that hasn’t been said in two decades. Just how close are they to accomplishing those goals? There are signs already, and with free agency set to begin a little over two months from now and the annual collegiate draft taking place in just under four, a good idea of the future of the team should develop during the summer months.The Groundwork: Shanahan found a team that was woefully unprepared to compete in the NFC East when he arrived prior to the 2010 season. In recent weeks, he has reiterated what he told owner Snyder before he was hired – if the team is to be competitive, he’s going to need upwards of five years to make that happen – but did disclose that the process has taken longer than even he expected.
Still, some players are likely to be the foundation of the team for years. Linebacker Brian Orakpo has grown into one of the better pass-rushers in the league. Free agent signees Stephen Bowen, a defensive end, and Barry Cofield, a nose tackle, played better than expected. And even left tackle Trent Williams, despite being suspended for the final four games for multiple failed drug tests, was growing into a franchise player at the position.
Then there was the draft – a seemingly productive haul that saw the team keep all 12 selected players within the organization all year and could possibly have at least two future stars in outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan and running back Roy Helu. There are players on this team who can assist in a playoff run going forward.The Quarterback: What the Redskins plan to do at the most vital offensive position is uncertain, though there is one guarantee: The team does need to add a playmaker under center. Both Rex Grossman and John Beck had their chances in 2011, with Shanahan famously saying before the season began that he would “stake his reputation” on their success. Neither have worked out; Grossman is a free agent, though Beck, under contract for one more year, is determined to make it count in what could be his final shot in the league.
The team also has its eyes on collegiate quarterbacks – and it will be one of the deepest fields in years when it comes to the position – and with the Redskins selecting No. 6 in the NFL Draft in April, there’s a good shot they can obtain a future star at the position. If there’s one priority for the Redskins entering this offseason, it’s the quarterback position.The Veteran: London Fletcher insists he hears more about his age from those around him and from the news media than he ever thinks about it. But the linebacker, at 36, apparently continues to get better with age. In his 14th season in 2011, Fletcher had 166 tackles – his highest total since the NFL began keeping track in 2001. More importantly, though, is his contribution off the field.
Fletcher took on more of a leadership role to the team’s other linebackers last season, with fellow inside linebacker Perry Riley, in his second year, referring to Fletcher as a mentor, and Shanahan and defensive coordinator Jim Haslett routinely praised Fletcher’s work ethic, conditioning and preparation as models of his excellence. Fletcher is a free agent and both he and the team would like to return, but there’s no price that can be put on what he has meant to the Redskins over the last five seasonsThe Newcomers: The Redskins will enter the NFL Draft in April with at least eight picks, and as Shanahan demonstrated last year, he’s not afraid of swinging a deal to improve positioning and pick up a few extra picks when necessary. The team will likely have its eyes on drafting offensive linemen, a linebacker, a wide receiver and a defensive back or two in addition to a quarterback, though that all depends on the free agent process.
Washington has several players, including defensive end Adam Carriker, running back Tim Hightower, tight end Fred Davis and safety LaRon Landry, eligible for free agency who may not return. One thing is certain – with the team undergoing renovations on defense after last season, including the signing of three new starters – more of the focus will be on the offensive side of the ball. Can a gain similar to what it saw on defense, when the Redskins went from 31st to 14th in total defense, happen on the offensive side of the ball?The Optimism: Shanahan said last week that before injuries caught up with several of the team’s most vital players, he expected the Redskins to have won “10 or 11” games this season. It was a questionable assertion, for sure – Shanahan won just 11 games combined in his two seasons in Washington thus far – but the head coach has to be given the benefit of the doubt. Since Snyder purchased the team, he brought in a variety of different head coaches with different backgrounds: Steve Spurier, the collegiate hotshot; Joe Gibbs, lured out of retirement; Jim Zorn, the offensive mastermind; and now Shanahan, the Hall of Famer.
It’s not as if the Redskins have elsewhere to turn – and not like many other coaches would give a shot at running the team a second look. Progress hasn’t been as rapid in Washington as it was this past season in Detroit or San Francisco, but watching Shanahan and the rest of the Redskins’ decision-makers build a team for a sustainable period of success is a better alternative than the quick fixes of the past.