It seems that suffering in the NFL lives rent-free in Landover, Maryland. Less than three decades ago, The Washington Redskins were among the constants of the NFL’s elite, a proud franchise boasting two Super Bowl victories in half a decade when Joe Montana and Bill Walsh’s San Francisco 49ers were the inevitable team to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.
They were a cohesive and dominant unit led by a resilient and uncompromising head coach in Joe Gibbs who used traditional “smash mouth” football to create an advantage on the line of scrimmage, as well as a complimentary deep passing game that was aided by the presence of talented and versatile receivers in Art Monk, Gary Clark, and Ricky Sanders.
The magnitude of the team’s collective excellence, even without a true star at the quarterback position, was unquestionable. Gibbs was forced to leave his post as the Redskins head coach for a decade and a half as his health began to deteriorate following the 1992 regular season.
Since his departure, the Redskins have constantly found themselves at the crossroads of mind-numbing mediocrity and abject misery. The few and isolated sources of hope in the following quarter-century reflect unfulfilled potential. Robert Griffin III, the former quarterback phenomenon and Heisman winner from Baylor University, was selected with the St. Louis Rams’ 2nd overall pick by Washington in exchange for a veritable king’s ransom of first round selections.
After mortgaging their future, prospects seemed surprisingly bright, as Griffin’s presence was electric at FedEx Field during his rookie season, winning Offensive Rookie of the Year en route to a surprise Wild Card round appearance in the NFC playoffs. However, his agility and quickness was gradually compromised by a series of leg injuries as a result of his reckless style of play starting during his successful rookie season.
After reinjuring his LCL and ACL in the Wild Card Game, Griffin could never recapture that magic from his first year, as he left Washington in 2016 following three more futile years, each more frustrating and filled with headlines of his demise than the last.
Even with the brilliant promise of his rookie season, most Redskins fans only remember the agonizing knee injuries created by Griffin’s refusal to slide, the onslaught from the national media from trading much of their war chest for a player that was so severely flawed, and the perpetual question of what if?
“What if?” seem to be the two words that best define the fortune of the Redskins since Gibbs’ first departure (He would later return back to the Redskins in 2004 for four years with no truly memorable achievements to follow).
What if their potentially generationally-talented safety in Sean Taylor had not been shot as a victim of a home robbery gone wrong in 2007? What if the team had been under the care of anybody other than the highly controversial Daniel Snyder during the past quarter century? What if Kirk Cousins and the front office of the Redskins did not have as tenuous and hostile of a relationship as they did in 2017?
Every critical juncture for the Washington Redskins seemingly exemplifies the butterfly effect, a series of hypotheticals that define the difference between immortality and impunity. Reality shows a team that finished with a putrid record of 3-13 last season. Ironically, the sentiment around the Redskins seems to be exactly the opposite, as doom and gloom has been replaced with cautious optimism in Landover, Maryland.
It goes without saying, but context is always important. The Redskins 3-13 record came after the organizational structure of the team had essentially capsized after week 5, when then-head coach Jay Gruden was axed following an 0-5 start and a 33-7 shellacking at the hands of the New England Patriots.
The struggling stopgap quarterback in Case Keenum forced Gruden’s hand too early before he got fired as they had to play their new franchise centerpiece in Dwayne Haskins by week 4 against the New York Giants, with no evident effort to build or tailor an offense that worked to his strengths as well as incredibly poor protection that would become a recurring theme for the duration of his rookie season.
Simply put, it seemed as if the Redskins were in no position to compete, with much of what was left to salvage being manifested in a top draft pick in 2020.
However, it was not if the team was completely bereft of young talent, as Haskins’ preferred college receiver Terry McLaurin had a remarkable year at the professional level, with 2019’s sixth-rounder wideout Kelvin Harmon finishing strong after an almost non-existent start.
Alongside the now nearly archaic Adrian Peterson on the teams RB chart lay two blue chip running backs with question marks regarding their health in Derrius Guice and Bryce Love. Not to mention, defensive tackle Da’Ron Payne and freak of nature Montez Sweat stand out on the other side of the ball.
Now, the steady hand of Ron Rivera has been brought in to right the ship for the Redskins as he did in Carolina. Simply put, Rivera is the perfect influence to bring into a locker room full of young, impressionable men. Rivera is seen as a players’ coach, first and foremost, who was beloved by those around him. However, he preaches discipline, preparation, and attitude as important tenets in building a truly successful football team, something that Gruden and many of the leaders of the Redskins in the recent past simply have not been able to drive home as a point of retention.
Rivera held his first full team meeting a bit more than a week ago on May 18th over Zoom. Some of the Redskins best players took notice of his bold first impression. Pro Bowl punter Tress Way remarked that “Now everybody knows the standard that is set… And I’m telling you, in and out, this dude went through a few slides, there was no ifs, ands or buts. There was no confusion. You could not have misunderstood.” Way said to NBCS Washington.
In an organization often characterized by ambiguity and a lack of vision, Rivera represents clarity, a sight for sore eyes as Redskins fans would recognize it. Between his influence as well as that of respected veterans such as long-tenured linebacker Ryan Kerrigan and one of Rivera’s personal favorite linebackers from his time in Carolina in Thomas Davis Sr., the effort to build a sustainable winning culture is now present.
Alongside Rivera arrives Scott Turner, the son of well-respected coach Norv Turner, who worked under Rivera in Carolina in multiple stints (as an offensive quality control coach in 2011-12 and the quarterbacks coach from 2018-19, the latter of which he worked alongside his father who was the offensive coordinator).
Although he only called four games officially, Rivera believes he has been given sufficient reason to trust the pedigree and ability of the younger Turner. Having Turner available gives Haskins the ability to have an offense tailor made for him by a fresh perspective, allowing him to build on an encouraging last four games of his very-mixed rookie season.
In interviews, Turner has stated that he has been incredibly impressed with Haskins’ preparation and will to learn the new offense, as his conceptual retention has improved drastically. He can tell that Haskins has been working out and studying the playbook more than ever before, and believes that he will be able to blossom if he is confident in both his abilities and the system that he is trying to create
Of course, amongst all these new faces lies perhaps the most recent reason for hope. Little more than a month ago, Ohio State defensive end Chase Young was drafted with that high first round pick that came as a result of the trainwreck that was the previous season. The only questions that seem to loom about Young are whether he will average 12 sacks per season or 15 sacks per season in a career year that has already been deemed one that is going to be successful beyond measure by many within the NFL.
His almost impeccable combination of quickness, technique, and versatility makes him unlike most in the league, and opposite Montez Sweat, the Redskins have arguably the most athletic pass rush in the NFL, and one that will give the Redskins well-renowned defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio ample flexibility in how many people he blitzes or drops into coverage.
However, the Redskins draft does not end at the marvelous Young, as they further addressed the need to put more playmakers around Dwayne Haskins. Antonio Gibson, the Redskins third round selection from Memphis, has the capability to line up at wide receiver and running back and looks to project in a swiss-army knife type of role in the pros. His balance and ability to maneuver in the open field is what sticks out most on film, as he can provide security in the form of a short-to-intermediate threat for Haskins.
Antonio Gandy-Golden, the Redskins fourth round selection from Liberty, adds a direly needed height-weight guy that can win jump balls outside the numbers for Haskins, whose selection within itself provides excellent value in a player that some deemed to be the most potentially fulfilling project in a deep WR class .
Alas, with the possibility of a modified season hanging in the balance, uncertainty seems as present as it ever does in Washington. But, hope springs eternal for the franchise that may have potentially found their finest defensive player in years. Is there a guarantee that a resurgence to the Gibbs’ years is inevitable? Far from it. However, with this generation of Redskins, the world is theirs.
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