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5 Things to Watch For...

As the Redskins tip-toe towards the start of perhaps their most important season in 20 years, there’s plenty of hype to wallow in. The storyline for today’s Redskins-Colts matchup? It’s an epic preseason clash between two budding stars, the 1st and 2nd picks of the 2012 NFL Draft, Robert Griffin and Andrew Luck. It’s also the home debut for RG3 and his first quasi-official performance on the turf at Fed Ex Field in front of his already adoring fans.

But all of that’s relative nonsense. This team, front office, and coaching staff has work to do.

Ignore the hype. Griffin vs. Luck matchups may matter someday, but for now, it’s just eye candy for fans and an effortless headline for the sports mediots. Instead, look for some real stories. There are guys desperately trying to make this 2012 Redskins squad, and their success or failure will be life-changing.

In their 3rd season, Mike Shanahan and Bruce Allen have finally stopped playing 3 Card Molly, abandoned the ruse this team can 'win now’, and fully embraced the rebuilding of a historic franchise. The most important piece of that puzzle? The acquisition, finally, of a true franchise quarterback. Fans may bemoan the exorbitant cost of that move, but in a quarterback-dominated league, it had to be done.

It will be years before anyone can intelligently rule on the question dominating today’s pre-game conversations – Griffin or Luck – who will prove to be the superior quarterback? Whatever happens today, the one thing we can be certain of is that it won’t answer that question.

So if Griffin vs. Luck isn’t anything more than a tease to boost TV ratings for today’s preseason 'showdown’, what compelling storylines might be a reason for Redskins fans to ensure they’re tuned in at 4 p.m. today?

Here are my 5 Things to Watch For…

#1- The Offensive Line
One of the major negatives in paying a king’s ransom for the rights to this year’s Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback was that it robbed the Redskins of picks sorely needed to build a competent supporting cast around him in the coming years. Coupled with the ludicrous and underhanded decision to strip the Redskins of millions in cap-space on the eve of free agency for the invented crime of exceeding the cap in an uncapped year, and the Redskins have truly been hamstrung. The Redskins have been muddling through with a patchwork offensive line for years, but with a franchise QB you expect to be the face of the franchise for the next decade under center, it’s just not a sustainable approach. While we can acknowledge that you can’t rebuild a team at every position in a season or even several, Redskins fans are most nervous about their O-line, and whether or not the 2012 version will be able to keep the angry defensive hordes from ransacking RG3’s inaugural castle.

Last week, the Redskins O-line looked like a sieve and the Bears spent more time in the backfield than Robert Griffin did. Yeah…I know…it’s the preseason. Still, I’ll be watching intently today to see if our no-name group of journeymen can provide our rookie star some time and protection. If they can’t, Redskins fans may have reason to worry.

#2 – Griffin’s Feet
Anyone who’s spent more than 60 seconds watching RG3 highlight reels knows one thing – the kid can move. One of the most attractive aspects of Griffin’s resume is his athleticism and escapability. But Redskins fans only need to look northward, to Philadelphia, where Michael Vick’s career should serve as a cautionary tale. No QB has ever shown more speed and elusiveness than Vick. But Vick’s spectacular jaunts downfield occur, more often than not, not by design, but out of desperate necessity. Vicks inability to stay on the field and healthy is a direct result of his gambling, reckless propensity to take off under pressure.

Griffin risks a similar career trajectory.

Speed and elusiveness are wonderful things to have in a quarterback. But the Redskins need Griffin to be calm, cool, and collected out there, to pass first and run by design. Every quarterback will find himself in harm’s way during the course of the game, and will have to choose between taking a sack, or taking off. And when it happens, it’s great to have a superior athlete with the ball. But the key to taking advantage of Griffin’s physical gifts is to use them when we decide to use them, not under duress. Last week, I saw signs of 'happy feet’. Griffin took off repeatedly, and not by design. He failed to get out of bounds several times and took hits. He tried to rescue a doomed play and fumbled the ball away unnecessarily. That’s not the QB running game we want. I’ll be watching today for a calmer, steadier, and more conservative RG3, a guy who has a long career ahead of him, not one who reminds me of Michael Vick.

#3 – The Logjam at Wide Receiver
Beyond Pierre Garcon and Santana Moss, there’s a logjam of undervalued talent at WR this year for the Skins: free-agent pickup Josh Morgan, promising Leonard Hankerson, Anthony Armstrong, Terrence Austin, and rookies Dezmon Briscoe and Aldrick Robinson. One of the most intriguing areas of competition is at WR because we’ve seen flashes of talent from every one of them. Perhaps the Redskins coaching staff has already decided who they’ll keep and who they’ll relegate to the Practice Squad or release. But I’m betting it’s still an open question. My dark horse candidate? Aldrick Robinson continues to impress. Keep your eye on him today. Another standout performance and I’m betting he rises up the depth chart and will surely be on this roster when the dust settles.

#4 - The Bubble Watch
Conventional wisdom says that there are a couple of sacred cows that the Redskins coaching staff just can’t seem to bear to slaughter. Rex Grossman, the only veteran quarterback on this year’s squad, seems to have an inexplicable hold on the Shanahan’s, despite consistently flawed play that has cost the team a number of wins during his tenure. If the team is to hold on to Sexy Rexy as a wily vet ideally suited to teach RG3 and Cousins how to be an NFL quarterback, the obvious question is, what the hell can he possibly teach them? On a team with multiple needs and fragility at some key positions, the intuitive move would seem to be to enter the 2012 season with two rookies, particularly given the impressive play of presumed backup Kirk Cousins to date. Still, one can't help but feel Grossman continues to have some supernatural hold on the Shanahans that will guarantee he remains on the roster. Watch closely over the next two preseason games…if Rex doesn’t get a snap, it may be a sign that his Medusa-like hold on this coaching staff has finally been broken.

The other guy to watch closely is Brandon Banks. Yeah, I know, he returned one for a TD last week. I get it. He’s always been a preseason star. Problem is, he hasn’t been able to show the same impact when it counts, and kickoff rule changes have made it harder than ever to do so. On a team with numerous needs elsewhere, and given Banks near zero impact as a wide receiver, I think it’s time to send Mighty Mouse packing. If he can return another kick or two to the house in the next couple weeks, maybe that changes, but it’ll take heroics of epic proportion for him to make this team.

#5 – The Lonesome Kicker
Who’s it going to be, the talented, but inconsistent Graham Gano, or veteran but aging star Neil Rackers? Rackers started this season with a legitimate chance to unseat Gano and send him packing, but has squandered opportunities to distance himself. Rackers missed a 54 yarder last week that might have gone a long way towards ensuring Gano’s departure. One of these guys will step up over the next 2 weeks and impress. On a team that in recent history loses more games by 3 points or less than any other in the NFL, the outcome of this 2 man competition is more critical than most Redskins fans think. Kickers matter. I’ll make a bold prediction that Gano finally gets it together and has a couple of impressive kicks to close out the preseason and nail down the job.

Griffin vs. Luck? Sure, I’ll watch and grade them both, but it’s these 5 Things to Watch For that really make tuning in today worth your time :)
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