(Sports Network) - Washington Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan sure has a way of motivating his players.
When the Redskins were 3-6 at one point last season, Shanahan said it was time to evaluate who is worthy to wear the burgundy and gold. The players responded by winning seven in a row to finish 10-6 and return to the playoffs for the first time since 2007.
The Redskins also won the division for the first time since 1999 and one player made the difference for that to happen: quarterback Robert Griffin III.
Griffin is aware of Shanahan's motivational tactics and is also abreast of his coach's tendencies to err on the side of caution. Griffin, of course, spearheaded Washington's 2012 revival as a rookie, but was knocked out of a wild card game versus the Seattle Seahawks with tears to both the lateral collateral and anterior cruciate ligaments in his right knee.
RG3 targeted training camp to get back to work and is hoping to play Week 1 versus the NFC East-rival Philadelphia Eagles. Expectations are quite high for the Redskins and Griffin is the reason why. He denied reports that he and Shanahan were at odds for his participation in training camp or lack thereof.
"I just want everybody to know that if there's any questions about a rift between me and coach, or if there's a conflict, there is no conflict. Coaches coach, I'm a player," Griffin said. "Coach has a plan and I'm abiding by that plan. I'm doing everything that they ask me to do. I trust those guys. They want me to have a long career and that's what this part of this plan is about."
One cannot fault a guy for wanting to play, but Shanahan knows how vital Griffin is to this team and even admires the former Heisman Trophy winner's desire to get back to work with his teammates. It's about being smart and cautious and Shanahan understands he'll be in a world of hurt if his deadly weapon sustains a setback in this rehabilitation process.
"I love it when somebody wants to be out there; that's a good problem to have as a head coach," said Shanahan, who said there's no possibility Griffin will play in the preseason. "But my job is to make sure that we do the best thing for Robert. And that's what I'm going to try to do."
With RG3 under center in his freshman NFL season, the Redskins' offense sizzled. The 'Skins were first in rushing yards (169.3), fourth in scoring (27.2 ppg) and fifth in both total yards (383.2) and touchdowns (52), including the second-best rushing total at 22. Besides Griffin, fellow rookie Alfred Morris shined to the tune of 13 rushing touchdowns. Running backs tend to achieve a lot of success in a Shanahan-led scheme and Morris took off. Shanahan would like to see Morris more involved outside of the backfield, too.
"A lot of people come out of college and they just don't spend the time on catching the ball. He has spent a lot of time in the offseason catching the football, running routes and you can see that hard work has paid off because he's a lot more natural," Shanahan said. "It gives you another dimension."
The Redskins are one of two favorites (New York Giants) to win the NFC East and have the offense to accomplish the feat. However, the defense will always be an issue, especially playing against the Giants, Eagles and Dallas Cowboys twice a year. That didn't seem to hinder Washington last season, as the team recorded a 5-1 mark in division play, finished 30th in pass defense (281.9) and fifth against the rush (95.8).
Washington's stop unit was supposed to have two solid contributors back in linebacker Brian Orakpo and defensive end Adam Carriker. Orakpo suffered a pectoral tear in the second game of the season and Carriker's season came to a close that day because of a quad tendon tear.
"He can do it all," Shanahan said of Orakpo at the time. "He's everything you look at in a Pro Bowl linebacker."
Carriker, though, was back under the knife for a third time to repair a right leg injury and a timetable for his return is unknown. He will be forced to miss the first six regular-season games since he's on the PUP list.
Orakpo is now dealing a with a thigh bruise that isn't deemed too serious. In Orakpo's absence last season, linebackers London Fletcher and Perry Riley finished with 139 and 128 tackles, respectively. With Orakpo back, Fletcher and Riley should have a lighter load.
2012 RECORD: 10-6 (Won NFC East)
LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2012 (lost to Seattle Seahawks Wild Card round)
HEAD COACH (RECORD): Mike Shanahan (21-27 in four seasons with the Redskins, 167-125 in 19 seasons overall)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Kyle Shanahan (fourth season)
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Jim Haslett (fourth season)
KEY ADDITIONS: LB Nick Barnett (from Bills), LB/DE Darryl Tapp (from Eagles), CB David Amerson (draft), T Jeremy Trueblood (from Buccaneers), WR Donte Stallworth (from Patriots), C/G Kevin Matthews (from Titans)
KEY DEPARTURES: LB Lorenzo Alexander (Cardinals), CB D.J. Johnson (released), CB Cedric Griffin, S Madieu Williams, OT Jammal Brown
QB: Griffin (3,200 passing yards, 20 TD, 5 INT) played a large role in Washington's turnaround campaign last season. The worst-to-first revival was made possible by Griffin, who recorded a 102.4 QB rating and completed 65.6 percent of his passes. Other teams are well aware of Griffin's talents and will have system designed to stop the elusive Baylor product. Griffin has the awareness in the pocket to scramble and pick up yards, and set the single- season rushing record for a rookie quarterback with 815 yards. RG3 is hoping to be ready by Week 1 and it wouldn't be a surprise if he's ready to go in less than a year since the injury. His durability may come into question, but not his heart and work ethic.
If Griffin is unable to go for the season opener, which could be a possibility, Kirk Cousins (466 passing yards, 4 TD, 3 INT) will get the nod. Cousins is obviously not as talented as Griffin, but does serve as an admirable backup.
RB: The Redskins had the top rushing attack last season because of two players: RG3 and Morris. Morris (1,613 yards, 13 TD) was second behind Adrian Peterson for total rushing yards and yards per game with 100.8. He is not the fastest or most talented back in the league, but Morris knows how well running backs fare in a Shanahan system. Morris busted out on the scene in 2012 with seven games with 100-plus yards rushing, including a 200-yard, three-touchdown effort on Dec. 30 versus Dallas in a must-win situation. Whether Morris can duplicate his success from his rookie campaign is unknown.
Roy Helu and Evan Royster will battle for time behind Morris, while Chris Thompson was drafted in April out of Florida State and Jawan Jamison from Rutgers. Darrel Young (60 yards) seems to have the edge at fullback.
WR: Nothing helps a quarterback more than having a reliable set of hands. That's what Pierre Garcon brings to the table in his second season with the Redskins. Garcon was limited to 10 games in 2012 and returns as Griffin's go- to receiver. Garcon (633 yards, 4 TD) caught 44 passes last season, his lowest output since four receptions back in 2008. The speedy wideout, who was bothered by a foot problem, will have to stay healthy in order to help the Redskins become an even more dangerous offense since Santana Moss and Donte Stallworth are aging.
Moss (573 yards, 8 TD) led the core in TD catches and played in all 16 games. So did Leonard Hankerson (543 yards, 3 TD) and Joshua Morgan (510 yards, 2 TD). Aldrick Robinson is another option for Washington's no-name receiving bunch and Devery Henderson failed to make he roster in training camp. He may re-surface down the road.
TE: Could this be the year tight end Fred Davis finally puts it all together? Lost in Week 7 of last season, Davis (325 yards) managed to haul in 24 passes before landing on injured reserve with a torn Achilles. Davis is a talented player who has yet to break out of his shell, but the Redskins aren't giving up hope he can make an impact in their offense. Davis played the 2012 season under a franchise tag.
Logan Paulsen (308 yards, TD) took over duties and appeared in all 16 games. Jordan Reed was drafted out of Florida in April as insurance if Davis, who agreed to a contract in March, is not 100 percent. The Redskins will need someone to step up since they did not produce a pass catcher with more than 700 yards. That is something Washington isn't used to, having won Super Bowls with wideouts Art Monk, Gary Clark, Ricky Sanders, etc.
OL: Griffin was sacked 30 times last season and Cousins three times. If RG3 can limit his recklessness and learn how to slide or run out of bounds consistently, then the Redskins will be in good shape. When he's not making plays with his feet, Griffin needs that precious time in the pocket to make the proper reads. Left tackle and Griffin's blind-side protector Trent Williams is back and right tackle Tyler Polumbus was re-signed in the offseason. That's a welcoming sign for an offense that needs to retain stability up front.
Kory Lichtensteiger and veteran Chris Chester will start at left and right guard, respectively, while Will Montgomery will handle snaps with Griffin once again. Montgomery has seven years of experience and is part of a line that helped pave the way for Morris in his fantastic rookie season. Tackles Tony Pashos and Jeremy Trueblood were added this offseason for depth.
DL: The Redskins were a tough team to run against in 2012, holding opposing ground attacks to just 95.8 yards per game (5th in NFL). In Jim Haslett's 3-4 scheme, nose tackle Barry Cofield serves as the ideal run stuffer. Cofield (36 tackles, 2 1/2 sacks) played in all 16 games last season, but slowed down toward the end of the regular season and playoffs.
Defensive ends Stephen Bowen (26 tackles, sack) and Jarvis Jenkins (25 tackles) aren't household names except in the Redskins' family. Jenkins, though, was suspended for the first four games of the 2013 regular season for testing positive for a banned performance-enhancing substance. The two ends have the toughest jobs playing in a division with talented quarterbacks and running backs. But in this pass-first league, it's very important to put pressure on the QB and this front line failed to do so in 2012. Brandon Jenkins was drafted in April out of Florida State, but can also OLB.
LB: The strength of Washington's defense comes from the linebackers. Fletcher (139 tackles, 5 INT) seems to get better with age and is the stop unit's captain. Fletcher may be getting up in years, but his knowledge for the game and his opponent cannot be matched. Fletcher, although undersized, plays downhill and is a beast against the run.
He will be joined inside by Perry Riley (128 tackles, 3 1/2 sacks), who's another run-stuffing defender with enough quickness to drop back in coverage. Having Orakpo back will just make it more difficult for offenses to block Ryan Kerrigan. Kerrigan (54 tackles, 8 1/2 sacks) led the Redskins in sacks and plays with a high motor. He tends to over pursue at times and brings an animalistic side on gameday. Kerrigan, who will probably be used as a down lineman in some packages, is still young and learning what it takes to be a dominant pass rusher and is expected to have an even better season than last. Washington's linebackers will make up for a porous secondary and the addition of Darryl Tapp, Nick Barnett and improved play from Rob Jackson adds to a healthy crop of middle defenders.
DB: The Redskins endured plenty of criticism for their secondary play in 2012, and were 30th in passing yards allowed (281.9). Seasoned veteran cornerbacks DeAngelo Hall (95 tackles, 4 INT) and Josh Wilson (74 tackles, 2 INT) will not only serve as pillars to the defense, but mentors to rookies David Amerson and safety Bacarri Rambo.
Rookie safety Phillip Thomas suffered a torn Lisfranc ligament in his left foot and will likely miss the rest of the season. Thomas was hurt in the Redskins' 22-21 exhibition victory over the Tennessee Titans last Thursday and a timetable for recovery is four to five months.
Hall, meanwhile, battle an ankle injury in training camp, while Wilson had missed the start of camp while recovering from offseason shoulder surgery and was put on the active PUP list.
Rambo will most likely start at free safety and shined in his days with the University of Georgia. A hard-hitting safety, Rambo will play alongside Brandon Merriweather, who appeared in one game last season because of a knee injury that required surgery.
Reed Doughty (69 tackles, INT) and DeJon Gomes (40 tackles, INT) are fighting for playing time.
SPECIAL TEAMS: With Billy Cundiff playing for the New York Jets, Kai Forbath will handle kicking duties. Forbath made 17-of-18 attempts last season in 11 games and nailed 11-of-11 from between 40-49 yards. His longest was a successful 50-yarder and he made 33-of-34 PAT attempts.
Punter Sav Rocca is back for another year and averaged a career-high 43.9 yards on 68 tries in 2012. Heading into his seventh NFL campaign, the former Australian Football League standout has averaged 43.1 yards per kick against only three blocks over 433 attempts in 96 games with the Eagles and Redskins.
Niles Paul is slated to return kickoffs and had 13 of them last season, averaging 21.8 yards. Brandon Banks did most of the work a year ago with 22 kick returns for 527 yards (24.0) and 26 punt returns for 178 yards (6.8). Richard Crawford, who is pegged to be the main man on punt returns, had eight for and average of 19.5 yards last season. Rocca will be the holder and Nick Sundberg is back as the longsnapper.
COACHING: Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan was even irritated that Griffin was being eased back into practice by his father and understands his QB's frustrations for not being on the field with his teammates.
"I understood his frustrations. I am just as frustrated," Shanahan said of Griffin. "The whole team, everybody wants him out there. Your starting quarterback, we all want him out there to play and it's hard. Me being young and everything, I want him out there the very first day. I don't have much experience in this. The main thing is we can't risk him getting hurt. As hard as it is, as frustrating as it is for him, myself, the head coach, every player out here, it is what we have got to do."
The Redskins will find it tough sledding offensively this year with their opponents aware of what they like to run. Will Griffin be a different player or more hesitant to take off when plays break down? It's not certain. His coaches know he needs to play smart if he wants a long career in the NFL and they have to put him in position to make plays.
As for the defense, that could be the Achilles heal of the team. But Orakpo is back for Haslett's unit and the Redskins added some young talent via the draft.
THE SKINNY: The Redskins' 2013 season boils down to the health of RG3 and whether he can stay on the field for the majority of the season. If that happens, the Redskins appear poised to make another run at an NFC East title and win in the playoffs for the first time since 2005.
All of the pieces from Washington's impressive run a year ago are back in the fold, but some have more gray hairs than others. Overall, this is a fairly young crop of Redskins who will prove last season's success was not a fluke.