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Need to Know: Redskins' season reaches a tipping point

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Need to Know: Redskins' season reaches a tipping point

Here is what you need to know on this Tuesday, October 20, five days before the Washington Redskins host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Tandler's Tuesday Take Two: The Redskins’ season is reaching a tipping point

For the first four weeks of the season, all seemed to be going pretty well for the Redskins. They were 2-2 and accomplishing their preseason goals of being able to run the ball and stop the run. Quarterback Kirk Cousins was not lighting the league on fire but he looked like at least a competent game manager with whom the Redskins could have at least some limited success. So little was expected of the Redskins that they were being called a pleasant, if modest, surprise team.

But then the last two games happened. The Redskins didn’t look bad overall in Atlanta but their ability to run ball well came to a grinding halt (51 yards rushing) and they couldn’t stop the run (Devonta Freeman, 153 yards rushing). And Cousins was wobbly with his accuracy most of the day and threw two interceptions, the second of which was returned for the game-winning touchdown in overtime.

That was bad, the Jets game was worse. The Redskins gained only 34 yards on the ground while New York’s Chris Ivory rolled for 146. Jets quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick almost outgained the Redskins as a team, scrambling for 31 yards. Cousins again threw two picks, including one that set up a momentum-changing touchdown in the third quarter.

Now the Redskins are 2-4. Next up they host the Tampa Bay Bucs, a team that beat them 27-7 at FedEx last year in a game that was not even as close as the 20-point margin would indicate. The Redskins take their bye week after that. In November they have two road trips to play the unbeaten Patriots and Panthers. In between those games they play at home against the Saints, who are also scuffling at 2-4 but they have a major advantage at quarterback with Drew Brees. After the road trip they face the Giants, who are shaping up to be the class of the division.

I wrote last week that the Redskins are more a middle of the pack team than one of the bottom feeders and one injury-hampered loss to the Jets doesn’t necessarily change that. But they are coming to a stretch of the schedule where they are facing teams who are clearly better. That is why Jay Gruden declared that this game against the Bucs is a “code red”, as in one they must win.

If they don’t win this Sunday and you figure that the game in New England is a sure loss, that would put the Redskins at 2-6 at midseason and working on a four-game losing streak. A year ago they were 3-5 after eight games and on a two-game winning streak. While Scot McCloughan didn’t necessarily thing that the Redskins would contend for the playoffs this year, he, Bruce Allen, and Dan Snyder were certainly looking for some degree of improvement. Being in what looks like a sinking ship certainly wouldn’t look like improvement.

One game won or lost won’t necessarily change the ultimate fates of Gruden, Cousins, and other players and coaches. But there will be a big difference in the feel around Redskins Park between going into the bye with a win and going in with three straight losses and a near-certain fourth looming their first week back.

A convincing win would be better but perhaps we shouldn’t look for more than baby steps from this team, especially given that they are still likely to have some injured front-line players out against the Bucs.

In any case, Gruden certainly seems to be rallying the troops harder in this one than he has in any of his previous 22 games as a head coach. “Code red” is not a card you want to play often because eventually you lose credibility. But it’s out there this week and we will see how the Redskins respond.

Timeline

Today’s schedule: Player meetings, no media availability

Days until: Bucs @ Redskins 5; Redskins @ Patriots 19; Saints @ Redskins 25

In case you missed it

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How big a need do the Redskins have at running back?

How big a need do the Redskins have at running back?

Do the Redskins have a draft need at running back? It depends on who you ask.

Jay Gruden seems to be very happy with incumbent running back Rob Kelley. Here is what he had to say last month about the second-year back, signed as an undrafted free agent out of Tulane, last month:

“Oh, man, I love Rob Kelley,” Gruden said. “I thought he played great. You throw a rookie free agent into the fire like that and see him play and compete. Not one time did I feel like it was too big for him. Not once. That’s a hell of a thing to say for a kid out of Tulane who only had a couple of carries his senior year. He came right in, he competes on every play.”

[Related: Full Redskins Seven-Round Mock Draft]

Kelley played in 15 games last year and rushed for 704 yards and scored six touchdowns. He started the last nine games and if you project his numbers in this games out over a 16-game season you get about 1,050 yards and 11 touchdowns. That’s not Ezekiel Elliott or Le’Veon Bell production but it’s good for a team that is going to rely mostly on the pass.

Gruden also praised third-down back Chris Thompson and backup Mack Brown. In a telling sign, he acknowledged that 2015 third-round pick Matt Jones is still on the roster but he didn’t have much good to say about him.

Why, then, do you see so many draft analysts listing running back as one of the team’s most urgent needs? Mark Maske, who is the Post’s national NFL writer but also a former Redskins beat reporter, has them taking Stanford RB Christian McCaffrey in his mock draft. “There certainly are issues on defense for the Redskins,” writes Maske. But there also is a need at running back.”

Lance Zierlein of NFL.com said that the Redskins “obviously” need a running back as his rationale for mocking Florida State’s Dalvin Cook to Washington at No. 17.

So, what is it? Is Kelley adequate for the Redskins’ needs considering they call pass plays on over 60 percent of their offensive snaps? Would they run more often if they had a back like McCaffrey or Cook? And if they did run more would the offense improve?

I think that running back is like several positions with the Redskins. If they have to get through the 2016 season with what they have they will be OK. But if there is an upgrade on the board when they are on the clock they won’t hesitate to make the pick if he’s the best player available.

We will see what happens if, say, McCaffrey is still on the board when the Redskins pick at No. 17 and top defensive targets like Rueben Foster and Haason Reddick are off the board. That will be the true test to see how committed Gruden and the rest of the organization are to Kelley, Thompson, and company. 

More Redskins: When the talent is there, Bruce Allen has looked past red flags before

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When talent is there, Bruce Allen has looked past red flags in 1st round of NFL Draft

When talent is there, Bruce Allen has looked past red flags in 1st round of NFL Draft

A four-time Pro Bowler and Super Bowl champ, Aqib Talib has a long and checkered past, which includes multiple arrests and failed PED and drug tests. The problems aren't new either, the talented cornerback was first arrested as a high school student. In college at Kansas, Talib was suspended multiple times and had multiple positive tests for marijuana use. 

Why does this matter for Redskins fans on the eve of the NFL Draft?

Despite all the trouble, Bruce Allen drafted Talib 20th overall in 2008 when the current Redskins general manager was in the same role for Tampa. While Talib's legal troubles and suspensions continued in the NFL, he also proved to be a highly capable cornerback in the pro game. 

The lesson for those trying to determine the Redskins draft board: Allen might be willing to look past red flags if a player presents good value. Talib did in 2008, and there could be opportunities for Washington in 2017.

Reuben Foster jumps to mind, as the talented Alabama linebacker will enter the league in the substance abuse program. While Foster's issues pale in comparison to other allegations about some draft prospects, players like Joe Mixon, Gareon Conley and Caleb Brantley will also present unique circumstances for NFL teams to evaluate. 

GMs are thrust into the unenviable task of determining a player's character, often in short periods of time. As 'Skins director of college scouting Scott Campbell explained, the team grades every player for their football skills first, and only later adds in character information. From Campbell's comments:

When you start to evaluate guys in the beginning, you don’t factor in the character. You don’t grade character, you grade talent. So you don’t throw away somebody early that may have some redeeming quality, or there’s a side to the story you don’t know about. You grade football players as football players first on talent, and then when it comes closer to the draft, you start weeding all that, getting more information, deciding, ‘OK, this guy’s not our kind of guy, this guy’s not a Redskin, this guy could be drafted, but good luck to him.

Thursday night the Redskins will be forced to make a determination on the right player for the team. That decision could include judging a player's character, and that could mean balancing legal or substance abuse troubles with talent and ability.

Talib is only one pick in Allen's long personnel career, but it's one worth noting. 

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