With training camp a month away, now is the prime time for some optimistic evaluation of the Washington Redskins and their prospects for the 2010 NFL season.
There's a new coach in town and he's brought in a new quarterback. There's a new attitude and plenty of new faces at Redskins Park, and quite frankly it's an exciting time.
Washington has been active once again this offseason, but they went about signing free agents and making trades with a more cautious approach. Each step was calculated and measured, leaving the 'Skins with extra money and 2011 first-round draft pick intact.
So with all this goodwill gushing forth from our Nation's Capital why wouldn't everyone anticipate a good season?
Without question, the 'Skins are much improved from last season, but just how much of a push can they make towards the Lombardi trophy?
It really all depends on the following factors.
1. Donovan McNabb's Health
McNabb is the only player on the roster who has experience as a key component to a perennial play-off contender. Losing him can't happen if the Redskins want to make a serious push.
For starters, the depth behind McNabb is questionable at best. Rex Grossman, Colt Brennan, and Rich Bartel won't get anyone's vote of confidence. Grossman has faded since his days with the Bears while Bartel and Brennan have zero NFL starts between them.
If that's not an indicator that the season rests squarely on McNabb, then how's this?
Washington has little to boast of in terms of skill players on offense. They have one of the worst receiving corps in the league, and a stable full of has-beens at running back.
However, all those players become a whole lot better with McNabb under center. In Philadelphia, McNabb led the Eagles to three straight NFC Championships throwing to the likes of Todd Pinkston, Freddie Mitchell, and James Thrash.
McNabb will elevate the play of the entire offense and give them something to believe in. Never in the past ten seasons has any QB been able to give the Redskins confidence that they can score 20+ points a game on a consistent basis. McNabb gives them that confidence.
Washington has been offensively challenged for much of the past decade, but with McNabb they finally have a QB who finds ways to make plays and score points. McNabb isn't without faults, but for the first time in what seems like forever, the Redskins have a leader they can depend on.
So long as he stays healthy.
2. The Offensive Line's Chemistry
This is essentially key 1a.
The offensive line's performance goes hand-in-hand with McNabb's health. If they can keep him upright, then consider their job done.
After several major injuries, McNabb can't move like he used to. He is aging and won't be able to take the pounding of a 46-sacks allowed season like the Redskins had last year.
Fortunately, the Redskins actually addressed their offensive line this offseason, bringing in six new linemen, including first-round pick Trent Williams and veteran Jammal Brown.
Williams and Brown will play left and right tackle respectively while free agent pickup Artis Hicks will play right guard. Casey Rabach and Derrick Dockery are holdovers from last season. Rabach will play center and Dockery, left guard.
The primary concern will be Williams at left tackle. Thus far, he has drawn rave reviews for how quickly he's adjusted to the pro game, but he will be lining up against a ton of big name pass rushers, i.e. Dwight Freeney, Trent Cole, Jared Allen, Demarcus Ware, etc.
With those nightmare matchups coming nearly every week, Williams will have to adapt quickly or the Redskins might have to have Brown move from the right side over to the left.
Overall, the line is light years ahead of last year's edition, and it doesn't hurt that Shanahan is a blocking whiz. His zone blocking schemes have long been the key to his success and it will be again this year.
3. The Transition to the 3-4 Defense
The Redskins were ranked 10th in total defense last season, but the numbers fail to tell the whole story.
Former defensive coordinator Greg Blache failed to make the most of his talent, employing an ultra-conservative 4-3 front that featured vanilla blitz packages and soft cover schemes.
Washington played tentatively on the defensive side; scared to give up a big plays. The results were not pretty to watch.
Not only did the secondary suffer several horrendous breakdowns in coverage in the second half of the season, but opposing teams averaged a 40 percent conversion rate on third downs.
The secondary's uninspired effort was the main cause for the defense struggling to get off the field on third downs. Too many times we saw a ten-yard cushion on a third-and-five.
Blache was fired at the end of 2009, and now the Redskins are turning to Jim Haslett and the 3-4 defense.
The 3-4 is presently in vogue in the National Football League. Everyone is using it to combat the pass-first trend that is taking offenses by storm. Thus, the 'Skins turn to Haslett, hoping to successfully adopt the 3-4.
Haslett has experience with the 3-4. He ran it in Pittsburgh, New Orleans, and at points in St. Louis. His version emphasizes versatility and aggressive play, something the Redskins are in desperate need of.
A major switch in defensive philosophies won't easy to undergo in just one offseason, but initial reports reveal that the Redskins are loving the new format after wasting away in Blache's system.
Guys particularly in need of a rebirth are safety LaRon Landry and corner Carlos Rogers. Both are better suited to an aggressive style, and Landry is moving back to his more natural strong safety position.
The front seven features a bevy of talented linebackers. London Fletcher is still unsure of who will team up with him in the middle, but the Redskins have a host of outside linebackers led by youngster Brian Orakpo who is coming off an 11 sack rookie campaign.
Yet the biggest key to a 3-4 is the nose tackle. Washington has to be hoping that Albert Haynesworth decides to show up ready to play because without him, the Redskins might not have another dominant force in the middle who demands constant attention.
The new scheme is a bold move, but it's one that should add some excitement to the defensive unit. The defense lost its edge in 2009, and it's up to this new tenacious style to bring that swagger back.
4. Consistency at Wide Receiver
Since 2005, Santana Moss is the only Redskins receiver who has hauled in over 1,000 yards in a single season (he has done it twice in that time frame).
Aside from Moss, not one other wide out has emerged as a consistent threat. Antwaan Randle El is the only other wide receiver on the team since 2005 to have over 700 yards receiving and that has left Moss subject to constant double teams.
Moss isn't getting any younger and as of now he still remains the Redskins best receiver. Washington is once again depending on the combination of Devin Thomas and Malcolm Kelly to break out.
Thomas had one huge game against New Orleans last season, but other than that he was simply average, catching 25 balls for 325 yards and three TDs in 10 starts. He has shown signs of developing into a solid number two WR and if he can overcome nagging hamstring issues, then he could be the answer.
Kelly, on the other hand, has been a huge disappointment. Given his 6-4 frame, the Redskins have long hoped he would become a red zone threat, but Kelly has never been able to create separation from defenders.
Kelly has good hands and an ability to make catches over the middle, but his lack of speed and overall failure to show signs of progress has many wondering if he will ever live up to his second-round draft status in 2008.
Thomas and Kelly are the only legitimate hopes to make an impact as secondary targets for McNabb. The remainder of the receivers on the roster range from ancient vets (Joey Galloway) to young hopefuls (Anthony Armstrong).
Its not a pretty situation at receiver, which is why the Redskins' name has popped up in the Vincent Jackson sweepstakes, but having McNabb will certainly help mask any deficiencies the 'Skins have at WR.
5. A Happy Locker Room
Under Jim Zorn, the Redskins were split up into small factions that all had different agendas and goals.
Now with Mike Shanahan, the Redskins have no choice but to unify. Shanahan is changing the mentality at Redskins Park, and little by little everyone is falling in line.
Carlos Rogers reconciled with the team after talking out his concerns with Shanahan; Clinton Portis has kept his mouth shut since bashing former starting QB Jason Campbell; and even Haynesworth has announced he'll come to camp.
There are plenty of egos on the roster and so Shanahan will have to work hard to maintain the level of control he has at the moment. The team is relatively happy as of now, but if the losses start to pile up, things won't be pretty.
There's a delicate balance Shanahan has to sustain. The crowded backfield featuring Portis, Larry Johnson, and Willie Parker will all demand their fair share of touches; Moss may have to deal with a suspension for his involvement in an HGH case; and of course there's no telling what will happen with Haynesworth.
Shanahan has to deal with all this on top of preparing a team for 16 weeks of football. That's a tall order for anyone.
The Haynesworth decision is undoubtedly the toughest move Shanahan will have in 2010. Keeping him would improve the defense immensely, but it could also leave the rest of the locker room with a bad taste in their mouths.
It's a fine line that must be walked if you have "Super" dreams. Shanahan will have to be right on point if the 'Skins want to even remotely sniff success.