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The Turn Around


It's got to happen at some point, right? I mean, as a long-suffering fan of these Washington Redskins, I cling desperately to the belief that at some point my beloved franchise will emerge from the dark tunnel of misery into the glorious light again.

Whether by design, luck, or just sheer statistical probability, at some point the Redskins are going to be good again. Not just for a 6-game stretch, or one magic season, but for an era.

The only real question is – will I live to see it?

I've been watching the Burgundy and Gold for decades, mostly wringing my hands, and gnashing my teeth along with the rest of you. While we've had some great moments, sustained stretches of franchise success have been glaringly absent. Why is that?

You're already giving the easy answer – Dan Snyder and Bruce Allen. It's like I know what you're going to say before you've even begun to open your mouth :)

But is it so simple? What does it really take to become a dominant, elite team?

Here's my list of prerequisites:

1. Talent. It's an obvious factor, but the Redskins have failed to acquire and keep the best talent for decades. They've done it all – given away draft picks like Halloween candy, tried to buy their way to better talent by picking up veteran stars from other teams, alienated and pissed off talented players they have managed to find, and overvalued and held on to mid-tier talent far too long. It's tough to admit, but one of the primary reasons the Skins haven't had a significant stretch of success is simple. We just haven't had a ton of talent on our roster. To really win and win for a long time, we need great talent across all 3 units.

2. Team identity. This is a big one. Great teams, ones capable of dominating their division for years and perennial playoff participants, have an identity. The Steelers are big, strong, and mean. They pound you on the ground and then pound you some more. The Patriots have usually won the game before they take the field, having dissected your tendencies and developed a game plan to exploit your every weakness. The Redskins once had an identity. Under George Allen and Joe Gibbs, fans knew what their team was about, what the coach valued, how the team would be built, and what it would try to do to opponents. Great teams know who they want to be and set about becoming it. It's been a long time since I've had any clear vision of this team's identity. I don't know if you invent an identity, and then go about building a team that reflects it, or if it becomes self-evident as a team evolves into it. I only know we don't have one and haven't for most of the past several decades.

3. Transformational players. There is ‘talent'. And then there are those players who have ‘it'. The WR who makes the improbable circus catch to win the OT game that sends you into the playoffs. The defender who sacks the QB, strips him of the ball, and rumbles into the endzone for a critical touchdown that turns the tide in a huge game. Great teams have those guys, who when you need it most, seize the opportunity and make the plays required to win games and move the franchise forward. We've had a few of these kinds of cats over the past 20 years, but only a few. Santana Moss, London Fletcher, and most recently, Adrian Peterson. But game changing players have been hard to come by. Football fans like to say, ‘that team just knew how to win', but it is those transformational players who fuel consistent winning and allow you to win when you absolutely must.

4. A Franchise QB. Yeah – I know – Trent Dilfer. Any QB can catch lightning in a bottle for a stretch. It happens. But to have a dominant era of sustained success, you have got to have a great QB and keep him, preferably in the same offense for an extended period. During a 22 season stretch from 1967-1985, the Redskins had just 3 primary starting QBs (Jurgensen, Kilmer, and Theismann). Our modern Redskins have had 12 different QBs during the same stretch, shuffling through a myriad of offenses under more offensive coordinators and head coaches than I care to count – and none of them were true franchise QBs.

5. Great coaching. As fans, we tend to think that the head coach is everything. If only we get the right guy leading the way, everything will fall in place. It's probably a fallacy. Having a great coach is a wonderful thing. But even the mighty Joe Gibbs could not bring about sustained success and transform the franchise during his second stint. We give head coaches too much credit when things go well, and too much blame when they don't. While having an outstanding head coach is essential to sustained success, even a great head coach cannot overcome deficits in some of the above critical areas.

Those are the 5 things I believe a professional football organization must have to usher in an era of sustained winning, elite play, dominance, and perennial playoff appearances. We know how the Redskins have fared in those 5 categories up till now, but how are we looking on this front as we head into the 2019 season? Are the Redskins poised to begin an era of sustained franchise-turning success? Or will they continue to sputter along, mired in mediocrity, for the foreseeable future?

When it comes to the first ingredient – talent – the Redskins have improved greatly. Those improvements have been driven by a newfound appreciation for the value of draft picks, and more skilled use of them. On both sides of the ball, the Redskins seem to have gotten better at identifying future talent, particularly in the later rounds. Epic injuries have made the assessment of some of those picks difficult, and there have of course been misses as well, but the 2019 Redskins roster has a ton of young potential talent. While there are still areas of concern, it is possible that with another draft or two this football team will begin to look like one of the better young rosters in the league.

When it comes to a team vision and identity, I cannot give the Redskins high marks heading into 2019. We saw a glimpse of team identity emerging in 2018 with Alex Smith at the helm. Perhaps had he not been injured, that would've continued to evolve. That team played smash mouth, run dominant offense with an emphasis on making fewer mistakes than the opposition and eking out wins in low scoring contests. But since that was really the first year Gruden based his offense on a stout running game, one can hardly herald it as a new team identity. Some have predicted that the next great organizational identity will be based on a dominating physical defense, but the truth is, particularly during the Gruden era, Redskins fans have no idea what to expect from this team. 2019 is no different and that remains a problem.

Does this 2019 team have some transformational players on it – guys who when we need it most, will make those critical plays that change a game's momentum or outcome? We certainly have more candidates this year than in previous years. Payne, Allen, and Peterson are definite possibilities. But we will need for some of our younger additions – Sweat, McLaurin, Quinn, Moreland, Haskins, and others – to show that they can be these types of players in the future. We simply won't know, until we know.

Has our long, enduring search for a real franchise QB ended? We may not find out in 2019. But Dwayne Haskins has a legitimate chance to be that guy. He's big, he's smart, he's unselfish, he's got a great attitude, and he's got the best QB arm we've had since Sonny. But does he have ‘it' – that intangible ability to lead the offense, play his best when we need it most, and elevate those around him? None of us knows that answer yet.

Perhaps the biggest question mark of all is our head coach, not just whether he is capable of being the kind of head coach great teams require, but whether he'll even hold that title 12 months from now. I've made my thoughts on Jay Gruden known many times. I think he's a better coach than he sometimes appears to be and he's easy to root for. But the criticisms of Gruden, that his teams fade most often when the pressure is highest, that his play calling is inconsistent and uninspired, that he frequently gets out-coached, that his teams sometimes look unprepared and undisciplined, are all valid ones. He hasn't had the best of luck and one can argue he's had more than his share of barriers to overcome. But his time is running out. NFL history has plenty of examples of great coaches who started out slow. Many failed in their first NFL gig, and only found major success later. If Gruden doesn't win in 2019, he may get his chance to prove himself elsewhere.

I'd love to say, we've met 4 out of 5 of the requirements for greatness that I defined, and that in 2019, we're going to check box #5 . But there are simply too many questions unanswered. How talented IS this team? Can we stay healthy long enough to find out who good this roster really is and build some real team chemistry? Are any of these players difference makers and how many of those transformational type players have we added? What kind of team are we going to have and continue to build going forward? Is this the year we forge a long-standing identity or will it be yet another approach and look that changes again next season? Is Dwayne Haskins as good as I've characterized him or are we destined for disappointment as we have been so many times before? Will the Haskins era start in 2019 – or will Gruden ride Keenum all year in a desperate effort to eke out enough wins to save his job? And finally, can Gruden show enough coaching moxie and skills in 2019 to get this team to the playoffs and secure himself as the head coach of the future?

That my friends, is a ton of questions.

I'm pretty sure I have accurately defined what it's going to take for the Washington Redskins to usher in a new era of greatness and dominance.

And I'm pretty sure I have no idea how close or far our franchise is to achieving my 5 imperatives or how we will fare in 2019.

I guess we'll all find out together :)
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