The Redskins Just Can't Be Bad Or Can They?

There are not many certainties in this world, but one thing I have always been certain of is a professional football team coached by Jay Gruden cannot be counted on to be great but can absolutely be counted on to be fine. Without looking at the numbers, would you suspect that Gruden has hovered around .500 every year in Washington? Yes, right? Outside of a rough 4-12 first season in the nation’s capital, Gruden has kept the Redskins afloat. If Gruden were to stick around in D.C. for the next 10 years, what the Redskins’ future look like? I imagine it would look a lot like the Marvin Lewis era in Cincinnati where they have a special season every now and then, are loaded on both sides of the ball for a couple of seasons, but still never find themselves in the elite category. When they go 10-6, it will still feel like they went 8-8. When they go 7-9, it will feel like they’ve been going 7-9 every season. Can the Redskins actually be a bad football team with Gruden and an above-average coaching staff around him? Unlike in previous years, I could finally see it. Maybe?

One of the things I loathe about the shift in the way baseball is played in 2019 is uniformity in offensive-style from team-to-team. It seems as though nine at-bats out of 10 end in a strikeout or home run. There is no moderation, and if you’d like to know if your team is good just look at the current leaders in home runs: Minnesota, New York, Boston, Los Angeles, Houston and Atlanta. If you hit dingers there is a very straightforward to contention. The same is true in football, just a bit different, in that if you have a good quarterback and a great offensive line, it's really hard not to be good at football. People love the Philadelphia Eagles, New Orleans Saints, Green Bay Packers, Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh Steelers and the New England Patriots this season because these teams all have elite quarterbacks and a potentially elite offensive line to pair with them. Sure, you could get more granular with J.C. Jackson and Stephon Gilmore’s impact on the Pats’ defense; you could get more granular with Alvin Kamara taking over as the league’s best all-around back; you could get more granular with the importance of the Devin White pick in Pittsburgh as the new anchor of that defense. These are all important, to be sure, but it’s that these teams have offensive lines and quarterbacks you believe in that leads to dripping optimism.

USATSI_12832469.jpg

If the marriage between Trent Williams and Washington didn’t look as destined for a split as it does now, the case for the ‘Skins as a sneaky Cleveland-type team from 2018 wouldn’t seem so improbable. As great as Baker Mayfield was as a rookie, the change in offensive coordinators along with a top-5 offensive line, per PFF, cannot be overlooked as to why Cleveland is getting so much buzz this offseason. Washington, if Trent Williams were to play this season, is looked at as a top-10 offensive line, per PFF, but he the guy who hasn’t allowed a pressure or a sack in 36 years, doesn’t seem like he’ll be there this fall to protect Dwayne Haskins’ blind side. The absence of Williams changes everything about how you look at Gruden’s group. With him, along with a healthy season from the rest of their starting o-line, there is a path to the Redskins sneaking into a wild-card spot in the NFC. Not to mention, the possibility of a Kevin O’Connell bump from longtime offensive assistant Matt Cavanaugh is in play, similar to what happened in Cleveland last season with Freddie Kitchens. You just have to have Trent Williams at left tackle. You just do.

Williams suiting up again for the Redskins is a wild card. O’Connell as an offensive genius a wild card. Perhaps my favorite wild card is the return of Derrius Guice, who, prior to a devastating season-ending injury last season, looked like the next great all-purpose back who could do everything the Skins have looked to get out of Adrian Peterson, Chris Thompson and friends. Had Guice, not gone down last season, are we looking at this team entirely different? Are we still as concerned about that anemic wide-receiver room? Are we still as concerned about the health of this offensive line? Maybe, but the Guice Is Going To Be Great hype from last summer was warranted, as D.J. Swearinger was quoted last July saying Guice would be a top-three rusher in 2018. Guice should excel as the leading back in a weirdly crowded running back room, with his elite pass-catching and bouncing-off-defenders ability. The Redskins can still be a terrible football team and Guice can be a fantasy-football superstar in 2019, but the latter makes the former seem even less likely.

The defense in Washington, perhaps the team’s strong suit, still employs defensive-line whisperer Jim Tomsula and their commitment to drafting every good Alabama defensive lineman looks to be not not the worst strategy for Washington. The Redskins were seventh in sacks in 2018, and with another season of Ryan Kerrigan, the addition of Montez Sweat and his 23.5 sacks in college, the ‘Skins will get pressure on teams again in 2019. But Josh Norman is still on this team. Reuben Foster and his extremely high-upside is still there once he returns from a torn ACL. This front office signed Landon Collins away from the Giants this offseason. This is not the Jim Haslett defenses I grew up with, this is a group that has talent everywhere and still somehow finished 27th in defensive DVOA, per Football Outsiders, a season ago. It seems like this defense should be better in this department, and if it struggles early, Greg Manusky could be out a job and Tomsula could get elevated to that defensive coordinator spot. Would it really be all that surprising to see this defense make the leap from 27th into the middle-of-the-pack zone? There is too much talent to rule it out.

It’s pretty crazy to have written over 1,000 words on the Redskins and not mention Alex Smith. If Smith doesn’t go down to one of the more gruesome injuries you’ll see in sports, is there even a debate about my thesis: The Redskins just can’t be bad? Before he went down to injury, the Redskins were 6-4 with the veteran former Utah star at the helm. Smith may not be Tom Brady, but Smith wins regular season games, baby. Since 2011, Smith has gone 13-3, 6-2-1, 11-4, 8-7, 11-5, 11-4, 9-6 and most recently 6-4. This guy hasn’t had led a bad team since 2010 and that was almost a decade ago. There is consistency, and then there is Alex Smith-level consistency. If that injury doesn’t happen and the Skins still wind up with Haskins on draft day, do we look at this situation in Washington more favorably? Do we love the possibility of Haskins sitting and waiting behind a winner and insanely efficient quarterback for a year or two while this offensive line gets sorted out and the wide-receiver room gets a little bit more appetizing? Of course we do.

This is important, because, as it stands right now, it seems highly unlikely that Haskins doesn’t start a lot of football games for the Redskins in 2019. Sure, Case Keenum is probably the perfect veteran quarterback to play behind a potentially horrid offensive line -- shoutout to that 2017 Minnesota Vikings team -- but with the kind of season Washington had a season ago, along with just how expensive this offensive core has become, you can’t have Keenum under center for the majority of the season. Still, Haskins playing behind an offensive line that doesn’t include Williams in 2019 seems like a recipe for disaster. Ereck Flowers is slated to be the team’s left guard. Coming out of college, the biggest concern from draft experts about the former Ohio State star was his decision-making when defenders get in his face. Without Williams and the existence of Flowers on the left side of the o-line, Haskins is going to get a lot of defenders in his face. He’ll get hit a lot and he’ll throw some pick-sixes like he did early on this preseason. If Haskins is going to be their next franchise quarterback, he has to deliver when pressured and he has to deliver in a clean pocket, but only one of those options might be readily available this fall.

But why I am doubting Jay Gruden? Outside of year 1 in Washington, where he made Sean McVay his new OC, went through three different quarterbacks, and employed Haslett as his DC, Gruden wins just enough. There are not many things in this world that Gruden loves more than going 9-7. This year six of Gruden in DC and he has won less than seven games exactly once. He has also won double-digit games exactly, erm, zero times. When he coached the Orlando Predators in the Arena Football League he won multiple titles and never had a losing record. In his brief USFL stint, he went 5-3. This guy gets just enough out of his group to not be terrible. But Trent Williams is no longer in the fold. Guice needs to be fully recovered from his season-ending injury. Manusky can’t put together another defense that lands at 27th in defensive DVOA. Haskins has to look like the next great NFC East quarterback. I just don’t know, and I have always known with Jay Gruden and the Redskins.

Chase Thomas is an independent sportswriter based out of Atlanta, GA who has been published in SI, VICE Sports, ESPN TrueHoop Network, SB Nation and many more publications. Question? Email him at chasethomaspodcast@gmail.com.