If 2014 showed the Washington Redskins in a state of anchorless drift — toggling between three quarterbacks, losing five games by 20 or more points and beset by the dysfunction and intrigue that have come to define the Daniel Snyder era — the 2015 version, at least in theory, will emphasize stability.
For Year 2 of Jay Gruden’s tenure as head coach, the team hired a proven personnel man, in Scot McCloughan, to be its GM — and more important, gave him full autonomy on personnel moves. The Redskins also announced early in the offseason that Robert Griffin III would be the starting quarterback — ending any controversy before it could begin.
The draft brought an emphasis on size and volume, as the team amassed 10 picks and earned widespread praise in the industry for its strategy. But having won just seven games the past two seasons, and with one winning season since 2007, this probably won’t be a speedy turnaround.
For a coach who came in with a reputation as an offensive savant, Gruden’s first year steering the Redskins’ offense was a disaster. The quarterback position became a revolving door of mediocrity, and the three starters — Griffin, Kirk Cousins and Colt McCoy — were sacked a staggering total of 58 times. Meanwhile the running game, behind top back Alfred Morris, regressed from the year before. Morris, in his third year, saw his carries, yards and yards per carry decline for the second straight year.
But Gruden and McCloughan ended the QB controversy early in the offseason by not only naming Griffin the starter but also picking up his costly option for 2016 — a surprising show of confidence. Then they set about building Griffin a better offensive line. They used three of their 10 draft picks on offensive linemen — including their top pick, fifth overall, on Iowa tackle Brandon Scherff, who is expected to start on the right side, opposite veteran Trent Williams. They also used a third-round pick to take running back Matt Jones out of Florida, a big, punishing runner.
With DeSean Jackson (a league-leading 20.9 yards per reception), Pierre Garçon and Andre Roberts as wideouts and Jordan Reed at tight end, the Redskins have solid skill-position targets for Griffin. The key in 2015 will be protecting him better. If he gets sacked at a rate of roughly four per game, as he did in 2014, it will be another long year.
But despite — or perhaps because of — the faith the Redskins showed in him, this will be a pivotal season for Griffin. If he has any hope of recapturing the dynamism he showed as a rookie in 2012 (if that is even possible after two injury-plagued seasons), it needs to happen in 2015. Griffin has always been big on personal mottos, from 2012’s “Know Your Why” to 2013’s “All In For Week One” to 2014’s “This Is For Us.” But after absorbing copious amounts of criticism for his penchant for oversharing with the media and on his own social-media accounts, Griffin has been determined to scale back in both regards. That may explain why, for a 2015 motto, he appears to be going with, “Talk Small and Play Big.”
With Cousins and McCoy both expected to be on the roster again, Gruden probably won’t wait long to pull the trigger on a quarterback change if Griffin doesn’t play big.
The Redskins have almost totally revamped a defense that badly needed revamping. Change started at the top, when the team parted ways with embattled coordinator Jim Haslett and tabbed Chargers linebackers coach Joe Barry as his replacement. Next, the Redskins severed ties with pass rusher Brian Orakpo, who never developed into the dominant player the team envisioned when it picked him in the first round of the 2009 draft.
The leader of Barry’s defense now is unquestionably outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan, who established himself as arguably the best in the NFC East with 13.5 sacks and five forced fumbles in 2014. To build around Kerrigan, the Redskins turned both to free agency (linemen Stephen Paea and Terrance Knighton, and defensive backs Jeron Johnson and Chris Culliver) and the draft, where they used two of their top six draft picks on linebackers — Mississippi State’s Preston Smith, who could become Orakpo’s replacement on the edge, and tackling machine Martrell Spaight of Arkansas.
McCloughan also turned to his past in bolstering the defensive line and secondary, signing lineman Ricky Jean-Francois and trading for two-time Pro Bowl free safety Dashon Goldson, both of whom he selected in the draft at previous stops.
It is possible, when it all shakes out, that the Redskins could have six new starters on defense, a staggering number — until you realize how bad this unit was in 2014.
It’s difficult to recall a time when the Redskins’ special teams were anything other than abysmal. It’s no wonder the team targeted this area in their draft haul of 10 picks, taking, among others, a potential return man (wide receiver Jamison Crowder), a core coverage man (safety Kyshoen Jarrett) and at least two other players who could have immediate impacts on special teams (linebacker Spaight and receiver Evan Spencer). Otherwise, most of the major players from 2014 — punter Tress Way, kicker Kai Forbath, long snapper Nick Sundberg and primary return man Roberts — all return in 2015. The most immediate question will be whether Crowder, the fourth-round pick, supplants Roberts as the top punt-return man. Don’t be surprised as well if Forbath, an accurate kicker but one lacking in length, finds himself fending off a challenger for his job in training camp.
In previous Redskins seasons, management may have chosen to blow up the franchise by ditching Griffin, trading away picks to move up in the draft and nab the latest flavor-of-the-month phenom signal-caller. To their credit, McCloughan and Gruden avoided that temptation and did exactly the opposite — doubling down on Griffin as their starting quarterback, trading down in the draft to stockpile extra picks and emerging with some new cornerstone players and a lot of added depth.
As before, so much of the offensive success comes down to keeping Griffin healthy and on his feet. If the newly rebuilt offensive line is as solid as the Redskins hope, that will be much easier to envision, and may even deliver a boost to a running game that hasn’t been the same since Griffin stopped being a significant running threat himself.
Defensively, there will be new looks both up front and in the secondary. With Orakpo gone and veteran cornerback DeAngelo Hall likely fighting to keep his job in training camp, the very soul of the defense is in the process of being transformed — which, if you know anything about the Redskins, can only be seen as a good thing.
This probably isn’t a team that can challenge the Cowboys and Eagles atop the division in 2015, but even a finish somewhere around .500 — which is entirely