With a completely irrelevant preseason game now under their belt, it seemed a perfectly “poke the bear” time to ask the question…
The Washington Redskins shocked a large portion of the NFL world in 2015, rattling off nine victories en route to winning the NFC East. They will look to build upon that performance during the 2016 campaign, and while the NFC East won’t be as easy to run away with, things at least look good on the improvement front.
Washington didn’t lose anyone paramount on either side of the ball. Alfred Morris is a loss in the backfield, but Matt Jones showed flashes of being a No. 1 caliber running back as a rookie.
Robert Griffin III, meanwhile, hasn’t been an asset under center since his rookie year; seeing him sign with the Cleveland Browns didn’t sting in the slightest—so long as the Redskins and their fans weren’t thinking about the three first-round picks and one second-round selection they gave up to draft him in the first place.
This continuity will play well for the Redskins. Their two biggest questions at the moment: Can quarterback Kirk Cousins follow his career year in 2015 with another one in 2016? And has the defense improved enough to help Washington make the leap from fringe division and wild card contender to bona fide playoff threat?
Getting an encore from Cousins is the most important thing. He piloted an offense that ranked 10th in points per game, 11th in passing yards and 13th in passing touchdowns. That’s a great place to be. But was it a fluke? Last season, his fourth in the league, was the first time he ever registered as a truly above-average quarterback.
Of course, it was also the first time Cousins was given the keys to the offense for an entire year. That matters. So, too, does his otherworldly efficiency. He led the league in completion rate, successfully hitting on 69.8 percent of his passing attempts. He was one of just four total quarterbacks, in fact, to complete at least 68 percent of his air attacks while also throwing for a minimum of 3,900 yards.
His company, according to Sports-Reference: Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger and Russell Wilson. That’s a ridiculous club to join, and it doesn’t just happen on a whim, not even for one season. Maybe Cousins completes fewer of his passes and isn’t as good, but it’s more than safe to say Washington’s offense is in good-to-great hands.
By poaching star cornerback Josh Norman from the Carolina Panthers in free agency, the Redskins also helped shore up one of their greatest weaknesses. They ranked 17th in points allowed per game last year and were even worse when it came to defending the pass. They finished 25th in passing yards allowed and 22nd in touchdowns permitted through the air.
Norman instantly upgrades the secondary. He is an expert at breaking up passes and making reads ahead of time. And he will be joined by two top prospects, safety Su’a Cravens out of USC, whom Washington drafted in the second round, and cornerback Kendall Fuller out of Virginia Tech, who went to the Redskins in the third round.
None of this is to say Washington will be a guaranteed Super Bowl contender. It probably won’t be. Bovada lists its Super Bowl odds at +5000 and its conference title chances at +2000—both of which fall inside the middle of the pack.
Repeating as NFC East champions could even end up being a battle. The Philadelphia Eagles are going through a thorough rebuilding project and the Dallas Cowboys are, once again, wildly overrated. But the New York Giants look markedly better on both sides of the ball, and their divisional odds (+250) are actually better than those of Washington (+300).
When you think about it, though, the Redskins are really only in the early stages of another rebuild. This will be yet another feeling-out year, one in which they decide whether they can assemble an even better team around Cousins over the long haul.
This process is typically punctuated by losses and general ugly transitions, but the Redskins are one of the few teams equipped to parent an adequate balancing act. They can rebuild while still competing for a playoff spot, be it through winning their division or stealing a wild card berth. And even if you don’t believe they’ll ultimately earn a postseason bid, they should be in the thick of the conversation, barring any injuries.
Optimistically, looking at this roster and the division it plays in, Washington will be a nine- or 10-win team. That double-digit victories are within their sights is a huge deal in itself.
That 10-win plateau is also a benchmark for which they should strive. Win 10 games in the NFC East, and you’ve won the division. There isn’t a team among that sector’s four with 11, 12 or 13 wins written on their depth chart.
Maybe the Giants, if they stay completely healthy and find that their defense has been magically cured through free-agency additions, but that’s not a scenario on which any fan or sports bettor should rest their emotional or financial investments.
Consider the Redskins, then, viable division contenders. And given where they are in their development, with so many questions still swirling around their long-term makeup, this is a perfectly fine, potentially great, place for them to be.
Odds To Win NFC East
Dallas Cowboys: +175
New York Giants: +250
Washington Redskins: +300
Philadelphia Eagles: ++400