Sunday, October 30, 2016

2016 Mid-Season Thoughts

(Josh Norman has been hunting DBs and making his new team be a winner. Image courtesy of RedskinsGraffix. Please check out more work over @RedskinsGraffix)

We're 4-3!!!!

I still have a hard time grasping that concept as I think about the game on Sunday and look back at the first seven games of the season.

Seriously, think about it for a second.

The Washington Redskins have played seven games and have a winning record. Heck, there's a good chance that they enter the BYE week with a 5-3 record. Two games above .500!!!

I know what you're thinking. "So what? We had a winning record in 2015 and 2012."

True. But in both of those season, the Redskins were 3-4  through seven games. The last time the Redskins had a record above .500 through seven, Jim Zorn was the head coach.

Jim F***ing Zorn (Hip, Hip, Hooray!)

Look, it's a pretty big accomplishment. I know the Browns are looking well, like the Browns and the Ravens are having an off year but the Giants and Eagles are playing well at the moment. The NFC East is back and pretty dominant with it being the only division where no team has a losing record. So as we get ready for a London game, let's take a look back at the 2016 season. What has made this team good? What has made this team look dreadful? Where is this team going this year and what's to come in 2017 and beyond? It's time for some Mid-Season analysis Good, Bad and Ugly style.

The Good

1.  Josh Norman
Sometimes when you are trying to change a team's culture from accepting losing to becoming winners, it helps to have someone who knows what it's like to win and what it takes to get there. The Redskins jumped at the chance to get a player like Josh Norman who could bring that attitude to the team. While many in the national media (and non-Redskins fans) claimed that this was another classic Dan Snyder move, the 'Skins fans trusted the wisdom of GM Scot McCloughan and rarely has Scot made a wrong move in his tenure.

Norman has gotten into the heads of some of the best WRs currently in the game. He has made an impact on the field whether he's covering a player or stripping out a ball. Teams do have to game plan for him and it's clear that he makes his teammates around him better. I love the chip on his shoulder and despite being hounded by the NFL each and every week, he brings a flare to the game that makes it fun to watch.

2. Halftime Adjustments
When I think of Joe Gibbs as a coach, the first thing I think of is his ability to make adjustments in a game. It was damn near impossible to beat Gibbs 1.0 teams once they figured out your game plan and how to counter it. What always drove me nuts about Mike/Kyle Shanahan and Jim Haslett was their inability to make in-game changes (if they did, I sure didn't notice them). I would have said the same things about Jay Gruden and his coaching staff, but that's not the case anymore.

They make adjustments and it is noticeable. In their four wins, the defense came out and held the opposing offenses to no touchdowns. A perfect example of an offensive adjustment was last week when the coaches noticed the Detroit DEs crashing in on every play. They called a read option run between the RB and Kirk Cousins late it the 4th quarter while trailing. Cousins kept the ball, fooling the DE who tackled the RB. This lead to Cousins running practically untouched for a 19 yard TD, giving the Redskins the lead.

Jay Gruden has improved as a head coach. The players like him and fight hard for him. Most importantly, I think he's starting to master the little nuances of the game. He's become a pretty good coach so far ( I can't say great just yet or the Gruden haters out there on Twitter will crucify me) and I look forward to his and the other coaches progress as the season continues.

3. Trent Murphy
If I had told you that Trent Murphy would be tied for 5th in the league with sacks, would you have laughed at me a few months ago? I probably would have. That however, is the case as Murphy is tied with a few others (including our own Ryan Kerrigan) with six sacks.

When the Redskins announced during the off season that Murphy was going to put on some weight and move inside to DE, myself and other fans thought that this would be a good move as Murphy is more of a power guy with height than a speedy, pass rushing OLB. Murphy, then had to make the transition back to OLB after Junior Gallette had a season ending injury for a second year in a row.

While fans started shaking their heads, Murphy dominated. Not only did he lead the team in sacks until week six (Ryan Kerrigan tied Murphy during last week's game vs. the Lions), but Murphy has had a solid season as a containing run stuffer and tackler. It took a couple of seasons, but Murphy is turning out to be a highly valuable player from the 2014 draft.

4. Next Man Up
Will Blackmon, Vernon Davis, Spencer Long, Ty Nsekhe are just a few names of players who have had to step up and play significant roles for the team this year. Most of the players listed were not week one starters, but have come into those roles and shined because of need. Injuries happen in the NFL and the Redskins have been plagued with them. Despite this, the team appears to finally have the depth to make up for most of the losses. Credit the front office and GM Scot McCloughan for finding free agents that can start if needed and drafting players that can at least provide depth in their rookie years.

The irony of having the "next man up" mentality has been that some of the backups have played better than the starters that were ahead of them. I'll let the readers come to those conclusions, but I can think of at least 2-3 positions that are better now than they were a few weeks ago.

5. Hogs 2.0
It's nice to have an offensive line that can pass block but is big enough to drive defensive players off the ball enough to get one or two yards when they need it (usually). The run game isn't exactly where I'd like to see it (I'm from the Joe Gibbs era of football, so I expect the team to pound it for 150 yards or more a game) but it has gotten much better. I'd love to see more games like we did against the Eagles this year.

Without a doubt, Trent Williams is the best OL in the league. Moving over to play LG when injuries occurred, a position he had never played before, and dominated. I also really like the youth that is on the line with Long, Scherff and Moses. There is a great deal of depth on the OL and hopefully this will be a strong unit for years to come with the talent on the roster and great coaching by Bill Callahan.

6. Cousins' Confidence
Kirk Cousins has not had the stellar run this season like he had in the final 10 games last season, but he has done things that he couldn't do in the past. Cousins has beat winning teams as a starter, teams that are likely to keep their winning records by the end of the season. He also has gone against some of the better QBs in the league and has fared well against them. Is Kirk perfect? No. Does he have work to do to get better? Even Kirk says yes.

However, Cousins seems to fit well and understand the Gruden/McVay scheme pretty well. As long as the team continues to build around him, Cousins should be able to lead this team to many victories.

7. No Drama
Well, except for some issues with ESPN blowhard Stephen A. Smith, it's been pretty quiet at Redskins Park this season. Yes, there has been some commentary by Chris Baker and Ricky Jean Francois questioning Joe Barry's play calling. However, fans have been doing the same thing all season long. It's nice to have little to no controversy happening daily. Maybe there finally has been a culture change with the franchise.

The Bad

1. Injuries
The Redskins have about 10 players currently on IR. Of those, 5 were originally supposed to be starters. Another big name on this list is 1st round pick Josh Doctson. The good news is that most of these injuries are just unavoidable. The ironic thing is that many of the players filling in have played better than the original starters. This makes me wonder about talent evaluation from the coaches and front office.

2. Joe Barry and His Defense
The defense has improved a great deal during the four game win streak. They even looked pretty decent for most of the Detroit game. That said, I'm still not sold on a one gap 3-4 scheme that is primarily a 4-3 because the team runs mostly in nickle packages. I'm still not convinced that the team currently has the players to run this scheme. Also, I know the draft is about the Best Player Available but it will be crucial for the team to focus on defensive talent in the 2017 draft.

3. Matt Jones
Matt Jones averages 1 fumble per 30 carries. That is just unacceptable for a player drafted in the 3rd round who has been given the starting job. What's worse is that Jones is a big back that should be plowing through defenders. Instead, Jones stops his feet, tries to cut and juke away from defenders and generally is stopped. Other backs on the roster keep driving their feet and plow through players when needed. Even a smaller back with a history of injuries, Chris Thompson, plays more like a power runner than Jones. It's very frustrating because you see flashes of potential followed by fumbles and poor running.

4. Kirk's Inconsistencies 
Kirk has not made it easy to support a long term deal during the first seven games. While his numbers are good in some categories and great in others, he has left a great deal of plays and points on the field. For almost three straight weeks, he threw the same interception to the same spot. Kirk has more work to do to be that 20 million/ year caliber QB.

5. Clock Management
It's gotten better over the last seven weeks, but there have still be questions on use of timeouts and stopping the clock sooner than later.

The Ugly

- Sadly, I don't the the offense has come close to scratching the surface of its potential. The Eagles game was not a fluke or a bad performance by Philadelphia. That is what the Redskins offense should look like when things are clicking and working.

- I'm not worried about Josh Doctson as much as others. Nor am I upset that Scot took him with the 1st round pick. People forget that it's likely that both Garcon and Jackson could be gone by 2017. Doctson is a type of WR that fits the Redskins offensive scheme. But the 'Skins really need to get some upgrades on defense in the off season.

- Still torn about Kirk's future and a long term deal. Is Kirk worth 20 million/year? I really don't think so at this point. Will Kirk get 20 million/year somewhere? Yes. So the biggest question is whether the Redskins should be that team to spend the money or do you start over with a new player. The ramifications are significant on either move.

- Can this team win 10 games this year? Yeah, I actually think it is possible. On the remaining schedule, Dallas is the strongest team. Everybody else has some weaknesses that can be exploited by the Redskins. Weird thing is that a 10-6 record may not win the NFC East in 2016.

Team MVPs So Far

Offense- Trent Williams
Defense- Josh Norman
Special Teams- Dustin Hopkins

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