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2009 team preview: Washington Redskins
Any psychological hangover from the 2-6 offense-driven collapse that occurred during the second half of 2008 is gone thanks in part to Jim Zorn's relentless upbeat attitude, but the fact remains that the coach (one of 11 candidates to interview for the job a year ago) and quarterback Jason Campbell (whom management tried to replace twice during the offseason) enter the season on very shaky ground.
Not only did Zorn perhaps need that Week 16 upset of the Eagles to save his job last December, but big name-loving owner Dan Snyder is well aware that Super Bowl-winning coaches Mike Shanahan, Jon Gruden, Bill Cowher, Mike Holmgren, Brian Billick and Tony Dungy are all out of the game this season. It's hard to see all of them staying away again in 2010.
As for Campbell, his performance this summer has been as spotty as his first two-year plus as Washington's quarterbacks. And since Snyder and front office boss Vinny Cerrato tried to trade for Jay Cutler and draft Mark Sanchez, the quarterback's future is even more tenuous than that of his coach. What's more, Campbell will be a free agent after the season.
If Campbell falters in 2009, Zorn won't play 37-year-old backup Todd Collins. However, another inconsistent season would almost assuredly mean the Redskins would have a new quarterback in 2010. In fact, if Campbell plays well this year, he could well be gone anyway on his volition to start for another team.
Running back Clinton Portis, fullback Mike Sellers and tight end Chris Cooley all went to the Pro Bowl last season. Left tackle Chris Samuels is a regular and Santana Moss remains a fine receiver. But for Campbell to succeed, the rest of the offensive line has to protect him better than it did in 2008 when he was sacked 38 times and hurried more often.
As for coordinator Greg Blache's defense, it allowed the fourth-fewest yards and sixth-fewest points last year and has improved thanks to the addition of pocket-collapsing All-Pro tackle Albert Haynesworth and rookie strong-side linebacker Brian Orakpo, a superb pass rusher. End Phillip Daniels, back from a year on injured reserve, will stiffen the run defense, which ranked eighth in 2008. And having two-time Pro Bowl cornerback DeAngelo Hall, a November pickup, for the whole season should bolster the secondary.
The Redskins' usually solid special teams slipped in 2008. Coverage aces Khary Campbell and James Thrash are gone and there are major questions at kicker and punt returner. Those problems won't help a team that figures to be in so many close games. New arrival Hunter Smith should be Washington's best punter this decade.
Aside from the rigorous six NFC East games, Washington faces the challenging NFC South and the underwhelming AFC West plus NFC laggards Detroit and St. Louis. If the Redskins can split their division games (as they did in 2008) and beat New Orleans at home, road victories over the Lions and Raiders should leave them at 10-6.
But that's a big task for a team that lost at home to the Rams in 2008 while struggling with the Lions, Seahawks and Browns and has had that good a record just once this decade (and just twice since its last Super Bowl title in 1991).
All of this leaves the Redskins, a playoff wild card team in 2005 and '07, in the mix in the jumbled NFC, but ultimately they seem destined for another 8-8 season, a result that would likely send Zorn and Campbell packing.
COACHING: Jim Zorn, 2nd year, (8-8).
REMEMBERING: 2008 record: 8-8 (4th in NFC East).
PREDICTING: 2009 regular season record 8-8 (4th in NFC East).
Notes and Quotes
The line certainly seems to have progressed from the group that allowed seven sacks to the Steelers last Nov. 3 to start a downturn that continued the rest of the season.
"We've been focusing on our pass protection since Day 1 because we knew we struggled with that last year," said Pro Bowl left tackle Chris Samuels. "We're doing a pretty good job so far. There's definitely been progress, a big chunk, since Baltimore. If we keep heading in the right direction, good things are going to happen for us later in the season."
Sellers had come running onto the field holding the flag before tossing it aside as he reached his teammates. Rookie linebacker Robert Henson quickly picked up the flag.
"I meant no disrespect," Sellers said. "I made a mistake."
--Shaun Suisham was wide left on a 52-yard field goal try against the Patriots -- the only kick over 25 yards for the Redskins this summer. Although coach Jim Zorn and special teams boss Danny Smith downplayed the miss, it didn't help the incumbent's chances of holding off journeyman Dave Rayner's challenge to his job.
"It is very close," Zorn said. "I'm very undecided about the situation. I'm waiting for the last possible minute to have to make that choice because there's no clear-cut guy."
After nailing 83 percent of his field goal attempts in 2007, Suisham slid to 72 percent in 2008.
"That comes into the weighing of that competition, no question about it," Zorn said.
--Jeremy Jarmon is supposed to be starting his senior season at Kentucky. However, the 21-year-old rookie defensive end was the only Redskin who had the guts to ask Roger Goodell a question during the commissioner's visit to the team on Sept. 1. Jarmon wanted to know what the league is going to do protect defensive ends, not just quarterbacks.
"Defensive end is a prized position," Jarmon explained. "In my opinion, it's just as prestigious as quarterback. Our job is to get to that guy. ... Chop blocks, cut blocks, chip blocks. In my short time in the NFL, I've received all of those. I said that chop blocks are illegal and leg whips are illegal, but they're not being called. He assured me that the league would (look into it). They're (talking) about banning the cut block where a running back or a tackle can just cut out your legs. I'll be interested to see what happens."
BY THE NUMBERS: 12 -- Sacks in 2008 by returning members of defensive line.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Stephon's a legit tackle. He's improved tremendously. He deserves this opportunity and he's taken advantage of it. He's a completely different person right now. It means something to him. He's very serious." -- Offensive line coach Joe Bugel on right tackle Stephon Heyer.
Strategy and Personnel
PLAYER TO WATCH: WR Marko Mitchell -- He has proven starters Santana Moss and Antwaan Randle El and 2008 second-rounders Devin Thomas and Malcolm Kelly ahead of him, but the seventh-rounder was the most consistently impressive receiver in camp and in preseason. If Kelly's knee acts up and Thomas remains inconsistent, the rookie just might steal some playing time.
Rd. 1/13, SLB Brian Orakpo, Texas -- Orakpo has been a dynamic pass rusher since ending a 1-day holdout. He continues to work at playing the run and pass coverage after starring at DE in college.
Rd. 3/80, CB Kevin Barnes, Maryland -- Barnes only started 21 college games but has the size to cover big receivers and good enough speed (4.45) to cover the smaller wideouts. He begins his NFL career as No. 5 corner.
Rd. 5/150, OLB Cody Glenn, Nebraska -- Glenn flashed enough to win a spot as a special-teamer ahead of fellow draft pick Robert Henson and rookie FA Darrel Young. Former college RB has yet to become a polished LB.
Rd. 7/243, Marko Mitchell, WR, 6-4, 218, Nevada -- Mitchell is still somewhat raw, but he has the size and speed. He was a standout throughout camp and preseason to easily win the No. 5 receiver spot.
As was true of the entire offense, Campbell's first full season as Washington's starter was really a tale of two halves. During the Redskins' surprising 6-2 first half, Campbell threw eight touchdown passes without an interception while twice topping 320 yards. During the Redskins' ugly 2-6 second half, Campbell threw five touchdowns with six interceptions and only once topped 220 yards. While Campbell is the unquestioned starter, he's still on shaky ground long-term with his contract due to expire in 2010 and management having tried to acquire Jay Cutler and Mark Sanchez to replace him this spring. Collins, the hero of Washington's December run to the playoffs in 2007, didn't play in 2008 and will be 38 in November. Brennan played well in preseason as a rookie in 2008 as he began the adjustment from Hawaii's run-and-shoot scheme but took a big step back in the first three games this summer, putting him in a duel with undersized rookie free agent Chase Daniel, a Heisman Trophy finalist at Missouri, who shone in his lone game against the Steelers.
What was true of Campbell in 2008 was also true of Portis. At midseason, he was the NFL's leading rusher (944 yards and seven touchdowns on 187 carries) and an MVP candidate. But during the second half in which he injured a knee, ribs, hip, neck and back and missed a decent chunk of practice time, Portis produced just 543 yards and two touchdowns on 155 carries while verbally sparring with Zorn. The coach and No. 1 back are copacetic again -- Portis happily had just 11 carries in preseason. At 28, the workhorse can top Hall of Famer John Riggins' team rushing record this fall. Betts ran as well as any back in the league in the second half of 2006 with Portis on the shelf but hasn't done much since. He may see more time as a third-down back in 2009. The bruising Sellers didn't have his best year but still joined Portis in the Pro Bowl. Cartwright is a valuable return man and special-teamer.
It was a weird 2008 season for Cooley even though he went to a second straight Pro Bowl. He set career-highs with 83 catches and 849 yards but after finding the end zone 27 times during his first four seasons, he only scored one touchdown. And that came on an option pass from receiver Antwaan Randle El so Washington's No. 1 quarterback and tight end haven't hooked up for a score since Nov. 25, 2007. Although he's not a great blocker, Cooley is still at the top of his game at 27. Yoder, 31, is a reliable blocker. Davis, a non-factor as a rookie with just three catches after being drafted in the second round, looked better this summer but fumbled twice in the preseason opener before scoring against Pittsburgh. Like, Cooley, Davis is more of a pass-catcher than a weapon in the run game.
Jitterbug Moss, now 30, started out on fire in 2008 with 27 catches, 421 yards and three touchdowns during the first four games but only registered 52 catches, 623 yards and three scores the rest of the way (even including his nine catches, 140 yards and a touchdown at winless Detroit) as defenses realized he was Washington's only downfield threat. With Zorn wanting more size opposite the 5-10 Moss, the 6-4 Kelly appeared to have won the competition with 5-10 holdover Randle El and the 6-2 Thomas. Kelly has bad knees but also has terrific hands. Thomas, like Kelly a washout as a rookie, remains inconsistent. Randle El had a great camp but a quiet preseason. Zorn believes he belongs in the slot as the No. 3 receiver. Seventh-rounder Mitchell has great size (6-4) and hands and scored twice in the first three preseason games.
OFFENSIVE LINE: Starters -- LT Chris Samuels, LG Derrick Dockery, C Casey Rabach, RG Randy Thomas, RT Stephon Heyer. Backups -- C/G Will Montgomery, G Chad Rinehart, T Mike Williams, G/T Jeremy Bridges, G Rueben Riley.
At midseason 2008, Rabach and LG Pete Kendall were getting All-Pro mentions, Samuels was headed to the Pro Bowl, as usual, and Thomas and RT Jon Jansen were receiving praise for their comebacks from devastating injuries in 2007. By the end of the year, Samuels was on injured reserve with a torn triceps, Jansen was battling a sprained knee, Thomas had a herniated disk in his neck and Kendall was showing his age. After the Redskins brought back Dockery, 29, from two years in Buffalo, Kendall wasn't re-signed. Jansen was cut, clearing room for Heyer, who had beaten out him last summer. Samuels, 32, trimmed down following two offseason surgeries. Thomas, 33, also had two operations and missed some camp time with a knee. Rabach, 32 in September, remains a rock. Heyer, 25, is the lone starter with upside on a line that didn't allow the Ravens, Steelers or Patriots to get to Campbell in 35 dropbacks this preseason. Montgomery wowed the coaches this summer. Rinehart, a third-rounder in 2008, remains a project. Reclamation project Williams and journeyman Bridges both missed significant time this summer. Riley figured to win the final spot.
The Redskins ranked eighth against the run thanks in part to this group, which did a nice job of occupying blockers and allowing the linebackers to flow to the ball. However, they teamed for just 19 sacks with Carter leading the way for a third straight year but with just four, the fewest to ever lead the Redskins. The signing of All-Pro Haynesworth to a record seven-year, $100 million deal in the first hours of free agency changed that entire dynamic. He's expected to both make noise on his own and occupy blockers so others can do damage so even though Carter, Griffin and Daniels (who missed all of 2008 with a knee injury at 35) are in their 30s, the line has been upgraded. Former starters Golston and Montgomery are reliable backups. The versatile Alexander and former starter Wynn -- if he beats out youngsters Rob Jackson and Alex Buzbee for the final spot -- will also be in the rotation.
The squatty Fletcher led his team in tackles for a 10th straight year at 33, roaming sideline to sideline to make play. The reliable McIntosh was the No. 2 tackler in his second year as a starter after recovering from knee surgery in December 2007. Orakpo, the athletic 13th pick, is converting from DE to SLB and will play his college position in passing situations. Playing in space remains a work in progress. That's also true of the speedy Wilson, who's making a similar switch. The stubby Blades, who filled in for since-released SLB Marcus Washington in five games last year. Journeyman Thomas, a former Rams first-rounder, and quick fifth-rounder Glenn figure to win two of the final roster spots.
Cornerback was Washington's most loaded and strangest position in 2008. Rogers returned ahead of schedule after tearing two knee ligaments in October 2007 and had a Pro Bowl first half but finished the year as a backup to November pickup Hall and Shawn Springs, who was cut in February after Hall was re-signed to a lucrative deal. Rogers, 28, is looking to make it big in his contract year but missed the latter part of camp with an ailing calf. Smoot, 31, slumped in the second half of 2008 but remains the nickel corner ahead of tiny but improved second-year man Tryon and tall rookie Barnes. Horton was a huge surprise as a seventh-rounder in 2008, smoothly supplanting the injured Doughty in September as a partner for the gifted Landry, who needs to be more of a playmaker. Smoot could steal time at safety from wily special-teamer Doughty and hard-hitting 2008 sixth-rounder Moore.
Heading into the preseason finale, it seemed like journeyman Rayner had the edge on incumbent Suisham in the very tight kicking battle. Rayner's kickoffs in the first three preseason games had been superb and he hadn't missed a placement kick (albeit with just a 25-yard field goal). Suisham had had fewer kickoffs and missed one of his two field goal tries (albeit from 52 yards). Albright is 38 but remains among the NFL's best. Cartwright is an overachiever, but Randle El is an underachiever. The Redskins hope that playing less on offense will energize him on punt returns so Moss doesn't have to take over those duties.