"Step right up, step right up, and see plenty of amazing circus acts! In the first ring, we have an amazing illusionist, the man who magically sweeps problems under a rug as if they're not even there - the Owner! In the second ring, we have a man with a stubborn will of iron, able to make poor decisions that ignore the scrutiny of dozens of fans, hundreds of shareholders, even millions of fans - the Head Coach! And in the third ring, we have a player with an ego 10 times the size of a normal man's, with more pride than knee ligaments - the Quarterback!"
From the outside looking in, this past year in our nation's capitol looked like a complete sideshow, complete with rumors of over-the-top narratives and comically ludicrous in-fighting. The sad thing is that it all ended up being absolutely true.
What can you take away from a season in which the worst thing that happened probably wasn't their 3-13 finish? Washington still has on its hands a major controversy and scandal over the team's official nickname. Mike Shanahan and owner Dan Snyder let private disagreements turn into a public feud. And star quarterback Robert Griffin III was lambasted for his play, his leadership, and his work ethic, all while forcing the team to play him for the first six weeks on a still-bum knee.
At least there wasn't a dull moment for this year's Washington team.
But we can't simply focus on the negatives, and here at numberFire, we don't buy into storylines and media narratives. We dig deeper into the facts to figure out what went right, what went wrong, and how it can get better. So, buck up, Washington fans! Even if 2013 was a complete clown show, there's always hope that next year will be merely an annoying mime that will stop trying to lasso you if you give him a dollar.
The receiving corps is a unit that showed major flashes of hope this year, but also took some fairly large steps backward. Young speedster Leonard Hankerson snatched a starting spot and shone in a few games, then tore his ACL and LCL late in the year. Rookie tight end Jordan Reed became RGIII's biggest security blanket, but suffered a major concussion in Week 11 and hasn't yet shaken the after-effects of it.
But again, we're less concerned about the stories, and more about the numbers. How did this group really perform? The first number that leaps out is their Target Net Expected Points (read more about Net Expected Points here), a measure of how well a player performed on all targets. Jordan Reed and Pierre Garçon, the top two options in this offense, ranked 25th and 41st among all pass-catchers (wide receivers & tight ends) under the metric this season. Two top 50 options is nothing shabby, nor is Garçon's 14th-place finish in Reception NEP, as his high volume of targets made him a great producer for the team. Reed only finished at 62nd in this metric, but was on-pace to finish in the top 30 prior to his season-ending concussion (bear in mind, he also played infrequently early in 2013, so this could have been even higher).
So, this unit's top two options were actually fairly reliable and valuable. Reed even ranked fifth in Reception NEP per target among qualifying receiving options this year, showing that he was one of the most efficient and valuable receiving options in the league each time the ball was sent his way.
The much-maligned defense of Washington actually improved, as well. From only 20th in the league in 2012 in Adjusted Defensive NEP, they rose to nearly the middle of the pack at 18th. This was mostly on the strength of a pass defense that improved from 24th in pass defense to 19th this season, due to the team's cornerbacks performing much better. DeAngelo Hall ranked as the top CB in EPA/G this season according to AdvancedNFLStats.com, and his partner-in-crime, Josh Wilson, was just outside the top 10 in the metric.
But really, that's about it for the good.
The ideal for an NFL team is to achieve a perfect balance - neither offense nor defense should outweigh the other phase of the game, and both rushing and passing game planning should find a happy medium too. Unfortunately, in practice that doesn't always happen, which leaves us with teams that excel in one phase of the game while being terrible in another. One thing is certain: when the one excellent facet of that team falters, the whole team plummets.
The defense this year still only ranked 18th in the league in Adj. Defensive NEP, thanks to the shockingly lackadaisical play of safety Brandon Meriweather, who ranked 32nd at the position in Advanced NFL Stats' Expected Points Added per Game metric. Meriweather just barely qualifies as a hypothetical "starting" safety in the NFL. The run defense, too, was stagnant, repeating a 16th-place finish in rush defense. But the defense wasn't the only problem this year.
In his rookie campaign, Robert Griffin put together a Total NEP score of 132.92, good for sixth among all quarterbacks in the league. Where he really did damage to opposing defenses was with his ability to make plays happen on the ground. In his first year in the league, Griffin had a 59.29 Rushing NEP, best in that category for all players in 2012. To put it in a historical perspective among quarterbacks, only Michael Vick's 2004 season earned a better Rushing NEP score than Griffin's 2012 since we've started tracking the metric.
With a busted knee, though, Griffin was nowhere near the offensive dynamo in 2013 that he was last year. We saw it in his play, but the numbers back our eyes up here. In 2013, Griffin's own Rushing NEP plummeted to a mere 7.62, good for 18th in the league among quarterbacks. And yet, that's not the full extent. The team rushing offense sunk from 71.35 (1st in 2012) to 3.13 (14th in 2013). Without the threat of a read-option or play-action, due to Griffin's limitations, Alfred Morris' efficiency dropped too, from ninth among running backs to 25th.
What Do They Do?
Shoring up a middling defense that is getting older and more expensive by the day will be important. The defense is a major sore spot that will need to be addressed in the draft or free agency, especially as three-time All-Pro linebacker Brian Orakpo may depart the team via free agency in the spring. This unit is in desperate need of impact players on the defensive line (16th against the run), and the secondary (19th against the pass). Griffin may get the most attention from the cameras, but he's not getting picked on nearly as much as his teammates on the other side of the ball.
Washington also must find explosive playmakers for their franchise quarterback to get the ball to on a consistent basis. In 2012, RGIII did quite a lot with very little, but in 2013, that clearly caught up to him. Washington needs to add receiving playmakers to complement their young star this offseason.
Lastly, they need to make sure their quarterback is completely healed before they let a single one of his cleats touch the sideline. So simple, yet such a feat if they can pull it off. Fortunately, new head coach Jay Gruden has gotten more success out of a less-talented quarterback than his new signal-caller, so I'd look for him to make over this offense and bring in some true consistency.
Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls. Now that 2013's show is over, send in the clowns.