So yesterday, the DMV endured its first large earthquake in many, many years. For some, it was a hiccup in their drive and they wondered when the road they were on got so bumpy (my son experienced it that way). Others had a scary time of it, perhaps sitting in an office building like me, feeling the increasingly hard shaking and rumbling, listening to the noise and taking a few seconds before acknowledging – against all reason – that, “This is a (you supply the word) earthquake!” and trying to remember what we’re supposed to do in that event. Others, unfortunately – and this is who I most worried about – were in precarious situations when it happened, like up on a ladder, and actually got hurt. For those people, I wish you all a speedy recovery.
When serious natural events like an earthquake or hurricane (stay tuned) have ended, introspection sometimes occurs and something popped into my mind as I was going over the day’s events.
This year, probably because of the lockout, the NFL seems to have taken a more cerebral tone. There are a lot of intellectual discussions as if the people involved with the game simply appreciate it more. There are discussions of all things X’s and O’s, of course, but there are other things being considered. For example, we are now into the third week of the preseason and, in the locker room this week, several Washington Redskins players spoke not of the coming contest against the Baltimore Ravens but of their confidence in the current schemes and each other.
Confidence is high in Washington, D.C. And why shouldn’t it be? Their first two outings of the Redskins exceeded the expectations of a lot of people. After this past game against Indianapolis, the team ranked number one in total defense. One can say, “Big deal. Neither team they were playing cared very much.” But don’t forget that Washington ranked close to last place defensively last season. Playing any NFL team and doing well counts. On the other side of the ball, the offense converted on third downs and moved the ball up and down the field under quarterbacks Rex Grossman and John Beck, who supposedly, are battling for the number one spot on the team. Decisions were made quickly. Passes were thrown and caught, running backs broke through holes and yards were made after catches with a precision and at a tempo that this team has been missing for years.
With this truncated off-season, this confidence could well be an intangible element of winning in 2011. All of the teams are going to need every advantage they can get to make up for not being together through strength and conditioning OTAs and mini-camps. I noticed in many conversations with players that, as well as feeling confident in themselves and the schemes, it is important to them that they not let their teammates down this season.
This, of course, is not unusual in the NFL. It’s rare to hear a player say something negative about a teammate. But here in Washington, where there have been so many dysfunctional seasons – the last one in particular – the amount of support the players have for each other is open and noticeable.
In the course of talking to players, when not talking about the aforementioned X’s and O’s, I hear guys exalt the system and each other. Lately, I’ve heard things often like “coming together” and “jelling.” Players were glad to get into training camp this year and, for now anyway, practices.
It seems that, almost to a man, for every returning player, there’s a new guy across from, beside, behind or, in front of him and they all are learning to work together the right way. This results in confidence.
Earlier this week, wide out Terrence Austin talked about how he gets the most out of his return game. He’s been returning balls since he was in college so the act of doing so is nothing new to him. But there is more to this piece of the game puzzle than some might think and getting it done correctly requires doing the right thing by your teammates.
“Obviously you’ve got to plan where you’re going to go with the ball,” Austin said in the locker room. “It’s all about just trying to get to that spot. I’ve got to make it easy for my blockers. I mean, it’s a tough job for them to block as it is and I’m the one that can see everything when I’m returning it. So that’s just how it is.”
As I said, it’s not often you’ll hear a player say something negative about a teammate. But last season, the situation with defensive lineman Albert Haynesworth affected so many players that they would have had to think the media were fools if they had said it had not concerned them. Players like veteran middle linebacker London Fletcher and defensive lineman Phillip Daniels were honest about the feeling that Haynesworth had let the team down although they were typically diplomatic in the way they voiced their opinions.
The offense had their challenges as well with quarterback Donovan McNabb’s dilemma. While that situation was different in that McNabb wasn’t openly (key word, “openly”) to blame for the problems that came with his benching, the situation still affected the rest of the team. Later, a few of the guys told me at the time that they’d had to work harder to focus on the game itself rather than all of the questions – and subsequent circus – surrounding their quarterback and locker room.
The team marched on though through a 6-10 season trying their best to excel in brand new schemes, making the best of a couple of less-than-ideal situations. While I never once heard anyone say anything like, “This is a really terrible situation here,” or “We’re struggling through this state of affairs,” I also never heard anyone say, “Oh yea! I’m loving life! Things couldn’t be better!”
So far, in 2011, I have heard nothing but positive things with regard to teammates, coaches, schemes, etc. from any Washington Redskins player I’ve spoken to.
Most of the excitement stems from two things: 1) being in the second year of the systems; and 2) upgrades/changes in personnel. The result of these circumstances is confidence among the fans, the players and even the coaching staff.
Asked his thoughts on how well he and Kerrigan were playing together, linebacker Brian Orakpo was unwaveringly positive. There is an underlying theme of working for each other and doing what has to be done to help teammates do their part within the locker room. This will inevitably help each guy do his own thing better.
In discussing the impact that nose tackle Barry Cofield and lineman Stephen Bowen were having on the linebackers, Orakpo elaborated on what a plus the two big guys are.
“They [free us up by handling their] run responsibilities,” Orakpo said, “Not jumping out of gaps [and] playing what the defense calls upon them to do frees us up, gives us some one-on-ones, makes things happen on the edge or for the inside backers, makes things happen sideline-to-sideline [and] makes some big tackles and that’s what those guys do for us.”
Asked further about Kerrigan as a line mate, Orakpo was generous in his description of the rookie’s talents and impact on the line. “I’m very impressed,” the Pro Bowler said. “Man, he’s a guy that’s going to come in and help us a lot. As a rookie he’s already improved from day one and he’s just going to get better.”
All of the players are infinitely more relaxed in their roles. They have to think less and are just reacting. Asked about being in this second year of the scheme, the linebacker expounded on the difference it’s made.
“It’s a vast improvement from last year, obviously,” he explained. “You guys can tell that. [We] added a lot of key positions on the defense. We can only get better. We’ve got so many starters out that we haven’t really gone as a full unit yet and I can’t wait for everybody to be healthy, strap it up and continue to build on what we’ve got so far.”
Orakpo gave a great example of the difference seen in previous years to now and how the defense has come out and dominated in these last two games defensively.
“[It’s been very satisfying,” he began with. “We’re not used to it...” But then he caught himself saying instead, “Well, I’m not saying we’re not used to it but it’s a vast improvement from where we were last year. Guys are getting more familiar with the defense, being able to go out there and react and not think so much. Guys are just able to play their game and that’s the most important thing.”
While running back Ryan Torain, rehabbing from surgery on his hand, is only just getting back onto the field, he’s not blind and he has been able to see the improvement of the Redskins offensive line. He is certainly in a unique position to assess how much better they are this year and has witnessed the successes of fellow running backs Tim Hightower, Keiland Williams, Roy Helu, Jr. and Evan Royster because of it.
“Competition makes us great,” the back said this past week. “We’re all going to push one another to be better and we just gotta stay together as a team.
“I see we’re a better team than we were last year. We’re jelling well together and the offensive line is doing good things this year so we’re excited.”
Safety Oshiomogho Atogwe is another veteran who is only just getting onto the field after suffering with a hamstring injury. This week he offered his evaluation of how the defense has performed so far.
“They’ve done great,” the former St. Louis Ram said. “They’ve been an active defense, they’re flying around, eliminating teams in the run and in the passing game so, we’re all excited about what we’ve done thus far and we’ll just continue to work hard and get better.
“Like I’ve been saying throughout, they work hard, they play hard and their very aggressive and that’s exciting for me to join.”
Grossman and Beck both played well in the first two preseason games. Grossman completed 19 of 26 passes for 207 yards against the Pittsburg Steelers and Beck completed 14 of 17 passes for 140 yards against the Indianapolis Colts. Beck was sacked three times but, for not having played in an NFL game since 2007, he looked polished. A member of the media asked tight end Fred Davis about what he thought the differences were between Grossman’s and Beck’s games.
“[Beck] went in there right away and took care of business,” Davis said without hesitation. “These guys both know what they’re doing in this offense. [They’re] both smart and savvy guys. John went in there and did what he had to do too and, I’m just glad I don’t have to make that decision [of who will be the starting quarterback].”
These players like what they see in each other and they are more comfortable within their squad’s systems. This means they can go out on the field, each man doing his part, knowing that his teammates are going to do theirs – and simply do their best. That is an important component of the formula for winning.
Orakpo pretty much summed up how many of the players appear to feel about the team as a whole when he described how he sees the defensive line so far.
“Feels good man,” he said. “Were coming together well, the whole defensive front. Guys are getting after the quarterback, getting hits on them, fulfilling their run responsibilities. The first two preseason [games] we looked very clean out there so we’ll continue to improve and be consistent.”
Maybe it takes something like an earthquake to make you appreciate what you have. In the case of the Washington Redskins though, I think not. I think they just know they’ve got something special going on, which is basically what Mike Shanahan said today at the Welcome Home Luncheon. The confidence that this 2011 team has is going to be important in the coming season. Combined with their talent, hopefully it will serve them well.