Remember how everyone fretted about the Washington Redskins would navigate a brutal second-half schedule? Then remember how everyone pulled off the panic throttle as some of those fearsome foes appeared vulnerable? Turns out everyone was right the first time.
With their season-ending/cratering 19-10 loss to the New York Giants, the Redskins finished 8-7-1 on the year. They also went 2-4 over their last six games. Seeing as Washington was 6-3-1, such a finish seems almost unfathomable. That is until we're reminded of those original projections.
The thinking many moons ago was something like this: The Redskins needed to start strong because once they got beyond their Week 9 bye, there would be trouble in River City. Minnesota and Green Bay were the likely top NFC North contenders. Three straight road games with 2015 NFC finalist Arizona sandwiched between meetings with NFC East rivals Dallas and Philadelphia. Then came defending NFC champion Carolina with another NFC East game against New York after a winnable road game in Chicago.
Then the Vikings lost Adrian Peterson, the Packers' defense lost their way while the Cardinals and Panthers simply lost more than expected. When Washington handled Minnesota and Green Bay, playoff thoughts became more than just mere hope.
So, what happened?
On some level, the Redskins offense, specifically the ground game became exposed against impressive defenses during the second half, which hampered their defense.
* Six of the final eight opponents finished among the top half of the league in defensive ranking based on the common method of yards allowed per game.
* Washington went 4-0 when rushing for at least 100 yards, but 0-4 when under. All four of those losses came against teams which finished the season ranked among the top 10 in run defense: Dallas (1), New York (T3), Carolina (6), Arizona (8). Green Bay finished ninth even though the Redskins rushed for 151 yards. Clearly the Packers, who won their last six after losing to the Redskins, figured things out from there.
* Robert Kelley finished as the team's leading rusher (671) with a healthy 4.3 yards per carry. In those final four losses, 2.8 (49 for 141). What made the rookie standout, beyond his non-fumbling, was the ability to make something out of nothing. Problem: Avoiding defenders in the backfield shouldn't be the norm. Kelley could get away with that against Minnesota (20th) and Chicago (27), but less so when facing elite fronts, the kind Washington's offensive line couldn't always handle
* When the run game struggled, balance went awry. Washington finished 1-5-1 when quarterback Kirk Cousins threw for 300-plus yards, including losses to Dallas (2) and Carolina.
* The best help the offense could provide the defense was simple: Maintain possession. Through eight games, the Redskins won the Time of Possession battle five times with all five coming in Weeks 3-8. Over the final eight weeks, Washington finished 2-6 with the two (Green Bay, Chicago) coming in wins.
Less effective running put more pressure on Cousins, who does his best work in a system that doesn't require him to shoulder the major burden. Less effective running kept Washington's defense, one that gives up gobs of rushing yards while not often winning the turnover battle, on the field more than desired. Less effective running helped keep the Redskins out of the playoffs. Not the only factor, but one that became a greater issue against those teams with strong defenses over the final eight weeks.
So, what happens next? Good question. Here's a guess: Fixing the offensive line becomes more of an offseason topic than most expect. They've got 3-4 months to figure out how.