I have spent this past week digging through so many football stats I started to dream of numbers spiraling through an immense blackness. I am filled with confusion at what all these numbers mean, what story they tell. A stat is useless unless it tells a story, contains meaning. The numbers I have looked at tell what has happened so far in the Redskins season. The numbers tell the story of a much improved team. The Redskins are a team who are controlling the game, but how much of an impact what has happened on what will happen remains a mystery.
People smarter than me have compiled and analyzed these numbers against past history and against the strength of schedule to deduce that the Redskins have a 43.3% chance to make the playoffs. Before the season began most people would have guessed that percentage to be much closer to zero, and now it is just a bit below the odds of a coin flip. There are still those that say the Redskins have no shot at the playoffs, and this baffles me. I have never understood how some can make such declarative statements about something as unpredictable as sports. The Redskins 3-1 start is no fluke as they have outscored their opponents by a 20 point margin. Mostly on the strength of their defense.
The defense has easily been the most improved unit for the Redskins. A lot of that has to do with the continued growth of Brian Orakpo and the emergence of rookie Ryan Kerrigan, but free agents brought in in the off-season cannot be ignored. Barry Cofield and Stephen Bowen have anchored a defensive line that couldn’t help but be pushed backwards in 2010. Now the defensive line is occupying linemen and allowing the linebackers to make tackles or get into the backfield in the pass rush, and Josh Wilson and OJ Atogwe are keeping receivers covered longer in case the pass rush is slowed. The Redskins defense already has 15 sacks. They had 29 all of last season. The pass defense is tied for 7th in the league in yards allowed with 848, 4th in completion percentage against with 54.6% of passes against them completed, and is 7th in yards an attempt at 6.7 yards allowed per passing attempt.
The Redskins run defense has not been as good but has faced the second fewest attempts against in 2011. They have allowed an average of 4.3 yards an attempt which ranks them 21st in the NFL, but because of the low number of attempts have held opponent rushers to 84.5 yards a game which is good enough to rank 6th in the NFL. The overall defense has allowed just 63 points and 1186 yards which ranks them 3rd and 5th respectively.
Combine the strength of the pass defense with the low number of rushing attempts made against the Redskins defense and it is a vastly improved unit. The offense has been the weakness of the Redskins in 2011, but it has also been a hidden strength. In all obvious overall offensive stats the Redskins rank near the middle to bottom of the league, but if broken down it is clear the Redskins know their strengths and weaknesses and are playing to highlight the strengths and hide the weaknesses.
The Redskins are one of the worst passing teams in the NFL having passed for the 21st most yards in the NFL with 917, and rank 20th in yards per attempt with 6.1. The strength of the Redskins offense is not the passing game though and no one has to look far for the reason. Rex Grossman has been an inconsistent quarterback prone to turning the ball over his entire career. His history and flaws don’t need to be gone over much more than they already have. The Redskins have done well to hide this weakness as they have run the ball 123 times for 507 yards which ranks them 4th and tied for 6th respectively, and in short yardage situations near the goal line or on 3d down the Redskins are successful 83% of the time when they run the football.
The most important offensive area in which the Redskins find themselves near the top of the league is in time of possession. The Redskins rank 2nd in the NFL by controlling the football for 33 minutes and 40 seconds a game. The other important area in which the Redskins are doing well is special teams, mostly punting. 12 of Sav Rocca’s 21 punts have ended up inside the 20 yard line. This is by far the best in the NFL and has helped the Redskins to hold opponents to an average starting position around the 27 and a half yard line which is 9th best in the NFL despite Rex Grossman’s turnovers.
Controlling the clock is important because the Redskins defense is able to stay rested on the sidelines, and when the Redskins have the ball their opponents do not. Controlling field position is important because it makes it that much further that the other team has to drive for a score. By controlling these two aspects of the game the Redskins are making sure their opponents have a long way to go and not a lot of time to do it. In fact only 234 plays have been run against the Redskins defense and opposing offenses have only been able to manage an average of 23.02 yards a drive. Good for 4th and 3rd best in the NFL.
With the Redskins at 3-1 what does this all mean? Or the better question might be can they continue to have success in those areas in which they have been among the best in football early on in 2011? I am not afraid to admit that I do not know the answer to these questions. It doesn’t seem that hard to imagine the Redskins to continue to run the ball more than most other teams, and for the strong leg of Sav Rocca to help the special teams to continue to win the battle for field position. The real questions will be if the pass defense can continue to keep teams at bay, will it even matter if teams begin to take advantage of a Redskins defense that has allowed 4.3 yards a run, and can Rex Grossman limit his mistakes or will his inconsistencies catch up with him more after the off week.
The duo of Kerrigan and Orakpo should continue to get to the quarterback as offenses can only double team one of them and if they try and get too fancy Landry can sneak up to the line and come on a safety blitz. The secondary still has question marks but Josh Wilson and OJ Atogwe have helped to improve that unit, and with the Redskins pass rush putting pressure on the quarterback nearly every time they drop back the secondary’s job is only made easier. Barring injury the Redskins defense should continue to be one of the better units in the NFL.
As much as everyone knows the issues with Rex Grossman they cannot be ignored. The NFL is a quarterback driven league, and it is tough to win with a quarterback as below average as Grossman. It isn’t impossible though, and it shouldn’t be ignored that Mike Shanahan routinely went to the playoffs with Jake Plummer as his quarterback, and that hose Broncos teams had many of the same strengths as the 2011 Redskins.
The stats indicate that the Redskins are an old fashioned kind of football team. They run the ball, control the clock to keep the ball away from the opposing offense, win the battle for field position, and rely on a stifling defense to shutdown their opponents ability to score points. All metrics show that the Redskins 3-1 start is not a fluke, but nothing shows that it translates to future success either.
It feels weird to write all these words and present all these stats and the only conclusion I can derive from them is the Redskins have an identity that has similarities to teams that have won in the past, and while everyone is focused on complaining about Grossman they have missed the good things the Redskins have done. But none of this means anything. Football stats do a good job of telling us what has happened, and it is hard to tell to any discernible degree if these past successes will continue with so many factors changing week to week in the NFL.
The big question during the bye week is can the Redskins build on their early 3-1 record in order to shock everyone by making the playoffs, and while I would like to be able to provide an answer the unpredictable nature of football leaves me at a loss. The best advice I can offer is to enjoy the ride and hope for the best. It has been fun so far and fun isn’t something Redskins fans have been accustomed to in recent years.