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Higher expectations--but high enough?

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Higher expectations--but high enough?

Can the Redskins thrive under the spotlight of higher expectations?

A year ago, the Redskins were coming off of a 5-11 season, their third straight year with a double-digit loss total. Even though they had a new quarterback that everyone knew would be good eventually, the conventional wisdom was that it would take him a while to bring the Redskins back to respectability.

That was the conventional wisdom in Last Vegas, at least. The sports books there set the Redskins over-under for wins at 6.5. That line said that there was at least a 50-50 chance that the Redskins would endure another season with 10 or more losses.

As the team went into the bye week, it looked like those who took the under would be cashing in their betting slips. The Redskins were 3-6 and with a tough slate the rest of the way they appeared to be headed towards another lost season.

As we all know, the Redskins tore off seven straight wins to close out the season and the bettors who had the over are the ones who got paid. The young quarterback, Robert Griffin III, had one of the best seasons any rookie quarterback has ever had. RG3 and a rushing game revitalized by fellow rookie Alfred Morris propelled the Redskins to 10 wins and the NFC East title.

This year, the expectations are somewhat higher, although there doesn’t appear to be any irrational exuberance expressed in the Vegas line. The Atlantis sports book became the first to post their 2013 over-under lines and the Redskins’ number is nine.

I know that some will be offended by this and will point out that the Redskins won 10 games last year so that should be the starting point for figuring the over-under. And that’s fine and you might have a case that if Griffin’s knee is mended he should be better in his second year, the defense should be improved with some additions in the draft and by some player returning from injury and they learned how to win, so the Redskins should be better than they were in 2012.

And that’s a perfectly rational case, but what if Griffin’s knee gives him trouble during the season, if other key players are lost to injury, and the rookies face too steep a learning curve to offer much improvement this year? Will they still be a better team?

The Redskins line of nine wins is quite respectable. Only 10 other teams have higher over-under win totals. Of those 10 teams, all but three won more games than the Redskins did last year. One of those teams, the Ravens, won the Super Bowl. Their line is just half a game better than the Redskins’. The other two are the Steelers, who beat the Redskins in 2012, and the Saints. If you want to quibble about New Orleans being ahead of Washington, you might have a legitimate case.

The top of the NFC East is pretty tightly bunched. The Giants over-under is also nine wins (the same total they had last year) and Dallas is at 8.5. Philadelphia will have to exceed expectations to avoid the division cellar; their line is 6.5.

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Redskins Playbook: Cousins, Gruden remain quite confident in offense. Maybe they're right

Redskins Playbook: Cousins, Gruden remain quite confident in offense. Maybe they're right

One of the best offenses in 2016, the Redskins early returns so far in 2017 rank somewhere between underwhelming and underachieving. That does not mean good games aren't coming in the future, however, at least according to head coach Jay Gruden and quarterback Kirk Cousins. 

"I would like to think that as the year goes on the offense gets better and better," Cousins said Wednesday. "Hopefully we take those steps going forward and we just hit our stride and play much better than we have the first two weeks."

RELATED: FIVE REDSKINS UNDER PRESSURE VS. RAIDERS

In the first two games of the season, a loss at home to the Eagles in Week 1 and a win in Los Angeles over the Rams, Cousins hasn't played particularly well. Against Philadelphia, he played poorly, accounting for three turnovers and completing just 57 percent of his passes. In LA, he showed progress. No turnovers and his completion percentage jumped up nearly 10 points. 

More importantly, Cousins shined on the final drive of the game, going 3 for 3 and throwing the game-winning touchdown. It was that drive, and a number of near misses in both games, that has Gruden optimistic. 

The coach called the Redskins passing game "very, very close" to hitting on all cylinders.

"There is a lot we can improve on in the passing game, from Kirk to the routes to the protection. It’s a work in progress, but we will get there," Gruden said Monday. "We have total faith that we will get it done and his numbers will get better."

Considered in a certain way, he's right. 

In Week 1, the Redskins offensive line struggled and Cousins was sacked four times. The run game got nothing going, generating just 64 yards on the ground. Cousins was able to throw for 240 yards, and despite all the turnovers, the offense still had a chance to steal a win late in the fourth quarter. 

In Week 2, the Redskins line blocked better and the run game produced at a high level. Cousins' yardage total was quite low, only 179 yards, but a big gainer got dropped and a few other opportunities were missed. 

Cousins supporters will scream about passes being dropped in Weeks 1 and 2. Cousins detractors will scream about passes missed in Weeks 1 and 2.

READ MORE: KIRK COUSINS' HITS AND MISSES FROM WEEK 2

The truth is likely in the middle. There is a solid baseline of production from Cousins from the last two seasons, and clearly Gruden expects that to come. Perhaps Week 3 against Oakland will be the opportunity. 

"We’re just going to keep sticking with the plan, getting these guys open the best way we can and hopefully we give Kirk the protection and he sees the throws and makes the throws," Gruden said. "But we’re right there, really. I like the group that we have."

The 2016 Redskins finished third in the league in total yards gained. Obviously the team lost a ton of production with the exits of DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garçon. Don't discount that, or the departure of former offensive coordinator Sean McVay. 

Despite all that, Cousins still has weapons. And talent. He knows he can be better, and knows he needs to be better.

"We have still done some really good things the first two weeks and have moved the ball, but I think there is more in the tank there that we have got to bring out,” Cousins said. 

To beat the Raiders, the Redskins will need to bring everything out of the tank. That likely means a 300-yard passing game from Cousins along with multiple touchdowns. 

The quarterback and the coach think the offense is ready, and close to a breakout game. Maybe they're right. 

Want more Redskins? Click here to follow JP on Facebook and check out @JPFinlayCSN for live updates via Twitter! Click here for the #RedskinsTalk on Apple Podcastshere for Google Play or press play below. Don't forget to subscribe!

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Jay Gruden presser recap: Enough is on Chris Thompson's plate already

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Jay Gruden presser recap: Enough is on Chris Thompson's plate already

Here is a recap of Jay Gruden’s press conference on Wednesday:

—The injuries are covered in a separate post here. Jordan Reed was the only non-participant. Gruden said his status is “wait and see.”

—Gruden doesn’t see them playing Chris Thompson more than they do now. He noted that in addition to being the third-down back he also returns kicks and comes in on second and long plays. “It’s important for us to keep him healthy,” said Gruden. “He’s not a guy that I personally want to give him 30 carries a game.”

RELATED: MUST-SEE PHOTOS FROM REDSKINS' WIN IN LA

—In a year, Matt Ioannidis has gone from being on the practice squad to being a key member of the defensive line. Gruden was impressed with his play against the Rams. “Against the Rams, he played very well,” he said. “He had pressured the quarterback four or five times, he hawked down Tavon Austin on a jet sweep, which was a big play on the first play of the game. If he gets out of there, it could’ve been a 70-yard touchdown.” Gruden said that work in the weight room with help from fellow DL Ziggy Hood helped in Ioannidis’ transformation.

—Gruden said that the Rams game might have been the best of Jordan Reed's career despite gaining just 48 receiving yards on six catches. “Yeah, Jordan was awesome,” he said. “I thought he had the best all-around game he’s had in a while. I think, not just route-running, but blocking. He was outstanding in blocking. Had a key block on the touchdown Chris Thompson had on the second series of the game, was physical and did a great job.”

MORE REDSKINS: FIRST LOOK AT REDSKINS VS RAIDERS

—The Su’a Cravens situation was dismissed rather quickly. The Redskins will not be adding another safety to the roster. “No, we have Fish [Smithson] already as our fifth guy on the practice squad and he’s doing a good job, so we’re OK at safety spot,” said Gruden. “As far as Su’a’ is concerned, we just have to put it behind us, move forward and let him take care of his personal life and let us take care of this season.”

Stay up to date on the Redskins. Rich Tandler covers the team 365 days a year. Like his Facebook page Facebook.com/TandlerCSN and follow him on Twitter @Rich_TandlerCSN.