ASHBURN, Va. -- The Washington Redskins felt good about where they stood after winning at Tampa Bay on Nov. 11, holding a two-game lead in the NFC East through nine games. And then disaster struck. They lost their starting quarterback the following game and his backup two weeks later. They lost their starting guards. They had already lost a top receiver.
A 6-3 record turned into a 7-9 finish.
“We had some ups,” Redskins tackle Trent Williams said, “followed by a lot of downs.”
For Redskins coach Jay Gruden, the injuries make it hard to fully evaluate the season.
“It’s impossible, really,” Gruden said.
The Redskins enter the offseason with plenty of questions -- Gruden said that as of Monday afternoon he had not been officially told about his status for 2019. He has two years left on his contract and typically meets with owner Dan Snyder soon after the season. Previous indications have been that Gruden will return.
Injuries clearly had a big impact on the season: The Redskins placed 24 players on injured reserve after making 23 IR moves in 2017. In their last three games, the Redskins played without five original starters on offense, including quarterback Alex Smith. His Week 11 injury became the turning point in the eyes of many on the team, especially when backup Colt McCoy was hurt two weeks later.
From the time training camp opened and the team was missing players coming off surgery, the Redskins rarely operated with the offense they had envisioned.
"You're talking about really, really good players that didn't play, especially at quarterback,” Gruden said. “How do you evaluate your team when your two starting quarterbacks that you worked the entire season with are out? We just never got everybody together all at once, so it's hard to really say, 'This is where we are.' Because we don't really know how good we can be with everybody in the lineup at the same time."
The danger, of course, is using injuries as an excuse for everything that went wrong. The Redskins can’t ignore the downfall of the defense. They were a top-five unit in yards and points allowed through seven games. They finished 17th in yards and 18th in points. They have to determine if it was personnel or coaching or the offensive injuries having a trickle-down effect. Or all of the above.
Their demise began before Smith was injured. In the two games before he got hurt, against Atlanta and Tampa Bay, the defense allowed a combined 992 yards. From Week 9 on, the Redskins allowed a staggering and NFL-worst 49.1 percent of third downs to be converted. They had good company: Playoff teams Kansas City and Dallas were right ahead of them. But in Weeks 1-8, the Redskins ranked ninth at 36.9 percent.
Losing cornerback Quinton Dunbar for nine games hurt without a doubt, but they also lacked any veteran depth behind their top three corners, and that stems from faulty planning, not injuries.
They also must address the lack of interior offensive line depth that was evident before the season started. Or the lack of overall speed on offense. Gruden brought up needing to be on the "same page as far as personnel, coaching and all that stuff" in his season-ending news conference, echoing a common refrain of others throughout the past year. None of that had anything to do with injuries, and for the Redskins to truly improve -- and if Snyder is intent on keeping the same organizational setup -- then this must get better.
The Redskins, after all, are 59-84-1 in nine seasons with team president Bruce Allen as the primary decision-maker. There are many subjective criticisms; the record is a bottom-line fact. Only four teams have been worse in that time. The Redskins are 31-32-1 over the past four years; 14 teams have been worse. Can they get beyond this point? The injuries give them a reason to say yes, they could have. The reality is that nobody truly knows what would have happened.
"I know we’re close,” Gruden said. “We’re as good as any team we’ve played this year, in my opinion. We have the ability to be as good as anybody we’ve played, without a doubt. We’ll go toe-to-toe with anybody.”
Players echoed that, again pointing to 6-3: “It gives you confidence to know that at full strength we can compete with anybody,” Williams said.
Gruden’s optimism comes with the knowledge that there are questions about Smith’s future because of his leg injury. But Gruden, and the Redskins in general, like what they’ve built along both lines. They have to find a starting left guard, but getting right guard Brandon Scherff back from injury in 2019 will help. And they have four good young defensive linemen under the age of 25.
“When everyone gets back healthy, we have a good nucleus of players, work ethic and talent,” Gruden said. “It starts with the line of scrimmage. We were decimated with one of our strengths on the offensive line and that turned into one of our weaknesses. But I feel optimistic there. The quarterback issues are a little scary, and we have to find more playmakers on offense. But it all starts up front.”
The Redskins’ fan base might not share this optimism, and based on social media, they’re ready for change. The players cling to something else.
“We were really on to something early on,” running back Chris Thompson said. “When Alex went down, it really affected everybody and everything.
“I just knew with that first-half start we were going to win the division. We were going to have double-digit wins this year. Then one thing after another started happening.”