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Are Redskins whistling through the graveyard?

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The Sports Xchange

ASHBURN, Va. — So much for the best laid plans, even in Washington, where the Redskins are more perplexing than the federal government. Despite a series of setbacks, the leaders of the football team are still smiling about the results.

Robert Griffin III, who began and ended training camp as the starting quarterback, was ineffective in the first two preseason games before suffering a concussion, missing the last two games and being demoted.

Receiver DeSean Jackson and outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan, the Redskins’ top offensive and defensive performers in 2014, did not even get on the field during preseason because of a shoulder and a knee, respectively.

Outside linebacker Junior Galette, expected to form a devastating pass-rush tandem with Kerrigan; newly named starting tight end Niles Paul and backup Logan Paulsen; special teams captain Adam Hayward and reserve running back Silas Redd all suffered season-ending injuries.

And yet, Redskins head coach Jay Gruden exited the field after the 17-16 home loss to Jacksonville in last Thursday’s preseason finale with a 3-1 summer record and a smile.

“The whole process – training camp, knowing what to expect, knowing the players a little bit better the second time around, the staff, schedules – it’s been a smooth deal for us all,” said Gruden, whose Redskins open the season on Sunday at home against Miami. “(The) coaches have done a great job. I feel like the players have been prepared and they play hard. They’re competing. That’s what I like about our guys – we compete every day at practice and it carries over (to) the game(s). If we just continue with that approach … great things are going to happen for this franchise.”

That’s difficult to expect given the Redskins’ six finishes in the NFC East basement during the past seven seasons. The exception was 2012 when Offensive Rookie of the Year Griffin led them to the division title — and their 4-12 record during Gruden’s 2014 debut.

Since then, Washington hired Scot McCloughan as general manager while retaining Bruce Allen solely in his team president role, replaced defensive coordinator Jim Haslett with the more aggressive Joe Barry and offensive line coach Chris Foerster with power football-loving Bill Callahan while adding a quarterbacks coach, Matt Cavanaugh.

The Redskins have a new right side on the offensive line with fifth overall pick Brandon Scherff at guard and 2014 third-round pick Morgan Moses at tackle. There are two new defensive line starters — former Chicago left end Stephen Paea and former Denver nose tackle Terrance Knighton. Add to that three new starters in the secondary — ex-San Francisco cornerback Chris Culliver and safeties Dashon Goldson (Tampa Bay) and Duke Ihenacho, whose 2014 season ended after three games with a foot injury.

Quarterback Kirk Cousins, who replaced the injured Griffin in Week 2 of 2014 but was benched five games later in favor of Colt McCoy after committing 11 turnovers, won the job this summer with a strong preseason that belied his career 2-7 regular-season record.

McCoy, the only one of the three quarterbacks Gruden brought to the Redskins, also sparkled in the games that didn’t. And Griffin remains a favorite of owner Dan Snyder, who was criticized in acquiring him with the second overall choice in 2012 after a trade with St. Louis.

So is it realistic to expect Cousins to become the first quarterback to start all 16 games for the Redskins since Jason Campbell in 2009? That is a rhetorical question. Probably.

What is realistic is for Washington to get off to a decent start. Four of its first seven games are at home and none of those seven foes (Miami, St. Louis, the New York Giants, Philadelphia, Atlanta, the New York Jets and Tampa Bay) made the playoffs last season. Only the Eagles — with whom the Redskins split a pair of three-point games — had a winning record.

After a Week-8 bye, Washington faces defending Super Bowl champion New England. The second half of the season includes three more games against division champions Dallas and Carolina, the rematches with the Eagles and Giants, a contest with Buffalo, which was 9-7 last year, and matchups with New Orleans and Chicago.

The Redskins have weapons on offense and a Pro-Bowl left tackle. They should be better on defense with their additions plus the return of three-time Pro Bowl cornerback DeAngelo Hall, who suffered a season-ending torn Achilles in Week 14. Punter Tress Way and kicker Kai Forbath are fine. Gruden seems more in command this year, especially with his decision to bench face-of-the-franchise Griffin.

Those are all positives, but this is the franchise that made the playoffs fewer times during the 15 seasons of this millennium (three: 2005, 2007 and 2012) than it made the Super Bowl in a decade under Hall-of-Fame coach Joe Gibbs from 1982-91 (four: 1982, 1983, 1987, 1991).

A .500 season would be a triumph for Gruden and the Redskins in 2015. A repeat of last year’s 4-12 record could mean that Gruden, Griffin, Cousins and plenty of other coaches and players could be shown the door next winter.

–Quarterback Robert Griffin III’s poor play in the first two preseason games and the concussion he suffered in the second one that sidelined him for the final two helped knock the presumed starting quarterback to backup status behind new starter Kirk Cousins. However, contrary to some expectations, Griffin wasn’t cut or traded. He’ll start his fourth season with the Redskins, his first as a backup.

Head coach Jay Gruden said that Griffin will hopefully be cleared when he sees an independent neurologist again early this week. When that happens, Gruden will determine whether Griffin or McCoy is second string or third string.

“We feel like he’s a quarterback that’s young and talented that’s done some great things,” Gruden said. “We like to have three quarterbacks in the building that are capable. This is a violent game and quarterbacks are at risk back there so when you have three you want to hold onto them.”

Gruden denied that having Griffin as a backup will be a problem, saying, “We don’t feel like he’s a distraction at all.”

–No player took more advantage of his opportunities during preseason than Rashad Ross. The 25-year-old receiver led the league with 25 catches, 266 yards and four touchdowns. Ross returned five kickoffs in two games with Chicago in 2014 before getting into two games on special teams for Washington.

“They brought me back for a reason,” said Ross, who also spent time with Kansas City and Tennessee without getting into a game. “I feel in the past I was just a guy. (The Redskins) actually give me a chance to get out there and show my ability. I got brought back here and I just thought to myself I don’t want to be cut no more. I (was) just going to give it my all.”

Gruden was impressed enough with Ross to keep him over sixth-round draft choice Evan Spencer, who was known as a superb special teams coverage man in college, for the sixth and final receiver spot. The coach called the decision to keep Ross a “no-brainer” because he made so many plays during preseason.

“We talk about taking advantage of opportunities,” Gruden said. “Even in practice he makes splash plays every day. Last year he was … unclear of where to go, how to line up, what routes to run. Now he’s got a lot more confidence. When he knows where he is going he gets there in a hurry. He shows no fear. He caught a couple inside-breaking routes, took some hits. Obviously we know he can run outside. … He might be our best kick returner, too. … I’ve just been very impressed with him.”


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