Here is what you need to know on this Sunday, February 11, 31 days before NFL free agency starts.
The expectations game
The 2017 Redskins season was like a paper sack containing a can of tuna fish, a golf glove, an old sweatshirt, a non-functioning flip phone, a half-full bottle of hand sanitizer, and a roll of duct tape. It was a mixed bag.
That certainly was not the goal going into the season. They wanted to build on their eight-win 2016 season. The organization did not go all-out to try to do what the Eagles just did and win Super Bowl LII. But the plan was to at least be relevant in December and to finish off the season with the playoff spot that had eluded them in Week 17.
What will the Redskins try to do this offseason? Do they think that they are one of the teams that are close enough to win it all, organizations that will do what it takes to bring home the Lombardi Trophy from Super Bowl SIII? Or are they so far away from contending that they should tear things down and start over again?
The right answer is neither. The Redskins are one of the 12 to 15 teams in the muddled middle of the NFL. They are more than just a couple of pieces away from making a legitimate run at a title. But they have enough quality players to have something to build on. The Redskins aren’t close enough to being one of the top handful of teams to take the all-in approach. And the Alex Smith trade shows that they aren’t going the rebuild route.
What the Redskins brass will try to do is what most teams do, which is to attempt to meet reasonable expectations. That will keep the fans interested and energized, the media should be generally positive, and the sponsors will be content.
The question that is generated here, then, is what are reasonable expectations for the 2018 Redskins?
I think that we can agree that any season short of the seven to nine wins they have had the last three seasons would be a disappointment. A return to the land of double-digit losses, which is where they were in five of the six seasons prior to winning the NFC East with a 9-7 record in 2015, would have fans restless at best, rebellious at worst. Swaths of FedEx Field seats that are empty or, worse, occupied by fans of the opposing team would be a common sight.
Even staying the same, entrenched in the NFL’s mass of mediocrity, would lead to discontent. No, the Redskins need to take a leap forward. But how big a leap would constitute a reasonable explanation? Let’s look and see how teams that were in similar situations fared.
Since 2000, an NFL team has gone through three or more consecutive seasons with between seven and nine wins 16 times. The Redskins and Lions have such streaks that hit three years this past season, so we don’t yet know how they did in the fourth year.
The average record for other 14 teams in the fourth year is 8-8 (to be exact, 7.6-8.4). However, this is a case where an average from a relatively small sample size doesn’t tell the story. Only two of the teams, the 2004 Saints and the 2006 Broncos actually finished 8-8. Four teams went 9-7 or better and went to the playoffs. The 2017 Bills went one and done. The 2014 Cowboys, who posted the best post-mediocrity record of this group going 12-4, the 2010 Bears and last year’s Saints each won one playoff game.
The 2013 Chargers finished 9-7 but they did not make the playoffs. The other seven teams went in the wrong direction. The 2009 Bills, the 2006 Vikings, the 2010 Texans, the 2014 Giants, and the 2015 Dolphins all went 6-10. Bringing up the rear were the 2003 Redskins at 5-11 and last year’s Texans went 4-12.
You could see some of those bad seasons coming a mile away. The Redskins had four different coaches during their mediocre stretch from 2000-2002 with Norv Turner, interim Terry Robiskie, Marty Schottenheimer, and Steve Spurrier all manning the headset. Although they kept Spurrier in 2003, the instability of the previous three years caught up with them and they took a nosedive. The Texans looked good early last year but a multitude of injuries, especially ones to J.J. Watt and Desean Watson, sunk their season.
But most of the other teams that went downhill largely stayed healthy and did what you’re supposed to do. They tried to improve enough to be able to take the next step, but it didn’t work out.
The Redskins, of course, would like everyone to believe that they are headed in the positive direction, like last year’s Saints. They were a Minneapolis Miracle away from going to the NFC title game. They didn’t make any major free agency moves but they did have one of those once in a lifetime drafts, landing both the offensive and defensive rookies of the year in RB Alvin Kamara and CB Marshon Lattimore. Oh, and they have a guy named Brees at QB.
Alex Smith is a good quarterback but he’s not Brees. It’s unrealistic to expect the Redskins to get as much immediate help from the draft as the ’17 Saints did; it might be a few years before any NFL team gets that much instant juice.
However, between the players under contract who are coming back from injury, players from last year’s draft who could take the next step, and additions in the draft and free agency, the Redskins do have a reasonable chance of improving.
How much improvement would meet a reasonable expectation? Some might say Super Bowl or bust but, as noted above, that’s not where every team is. With their cap space (~$31 million) and players coming off of IR, a 10-win season seems to be attainable. If they were bringing home a report card from school, that would be like getting an A in art, a B in English class and the gentleman’s C in calculus.
Those aren’t Ivy League grades and 10 wins will not put Washington in with the NFL’s elite teams. In fact, 10 may or may not be enough to make the playoffs. In the last eight seasons, four 10-win teams have failed to play in the postseason. That would not be a satisfactory outcome for many—we’re not talking about a bright line here, it’s more of a continuum—but the team would generally be seen as moving in the right direction. The 2019 offseason talk would be mostly positive, season tickets would get renewed, and the ad sales staff would have no problems selling space in the stadium and in game day programs.
The further they fall short of that the more fan and media discontent would grow. Maybe Jay Gruden could survive another season in the doldrums, but his seat would be very, very hot with a record within a game of 8-8. Falling back into 10-loss territory like many of the teams in the sample discussed above would have all of the coaches preparing their resumes.
Ten is the magic number that will keep most people happy. The job in Ashburn is to build a team capable of hitting that mark.