2014 Is a Make-or-Break Year for Jim Haslett in Washington

Aidan ReynoldsContributor IIIFebruary 21, 2014

Jim Haslett had little to smile about in 2013, and faces a battle to retain his job.
Jim Haslett had little to smile about in 2013, and faces a battle to retain his job.Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press

It may sound obvious, but Redskins defensive coordinator Jim Haslett is on thin ice in Washington this year. Carrying the dubious honor of coordinating the franchise’s worst defensive effort in 50 years, he is running out of arguments for the continuation of his employment.

With Jay Gruden taking over the reins as head coach, Haslett has a fresh opportunity to save his reputation. He and Gruden have a history together that stretches back to Tampa Bay. No doubt the need to surround himself with familiar allies contributed to Gruden’s decision to keep Haslett on, but the DC in D.C. can’t keep producing substandard units.

Last season was a poor year all around, but nowhere more so than on defense. Maybe the argument could be made for special teams, but no one really expected much from them to begin with. The 2012 defense played a huge part in Washington’s surprise seven-game win streak to end the season, and the expectation was that they had turned a corner.

Ultimately, of course, they regressed. The problems with the starting safeties continued, and they extended to the corners. Only cornerback DeAngelo Hall seemed to have any memory of his unit’s success from the previous year, which has resulted in his new contract.

Rookie David Amerson showed some spirit among the expected errors, but Josh Wilson struggled against almost every slot receiver he faced. E.J. Biggers didn’t exactly set the world alight, while Richard Crawford suffered a knee injury early on that ended his season.

Defensive back Chase Minnifield deserved to show what he could do, and it’s partially on Haslett that he didn’t get a real chance to do that.

Haslett experimented with calling games from the box, leaving the sideline for the first time in his coaching career. This took place as early as August, when Washington’s preseason record brought the fans a false dawn for the regular season.

Of course, injuries and suspensions played their part, but as former NFL and college scout Matt Williamson suggested to ESPN's John Keim, the feeling persists that Haslett never really brought the best out of anyone. Williamson told Keim, "They were really lacking in personnel so it's tough to kill a coordinator when you don't have the horses. But I don't think he got more out of anybody in particular."

The tackling was appalling all year, which simply is inexcusable at this level. Even if a player comes to the NFL with a history of being a highlight hitter, it’s up to the coaches to bring those hits under control and establish solid technique to accompany them.

Haslett may think that yardage is for losers, according to ESPN980, but Washington also was tied for 30th in points allowed last year. This isn't acceptable. Not all stats are created equal. Haslett will know this better than anyone, so it’s entirely on him to turn this around.

Whether fired head coach Mike Shanahan had any influence over the defensive calls is unclear, but as far back as the second game of 2012, SB Nation's HogsHaven.com reported that secondary coach Raheem Morris called the plays for the fourth quarter of the loss to the Rams. Haslett certainly will be left to run things his way in 2014, which increases the pressure on him to deliver.

There are a number of key decisions to make over the coming weeks, particularly with regard to Brian Orakpo and Perry Riley Jr. Although retaining both of them would be beneficial to the team, Gruden must avoid overpaying. This doesn’t just apply to Orakpo.

Riley will know the state of the linebacker corps, and the retirement of London Fletcher makes him a key figure in the rebuild. He should secure himself a payday, and he would be utterly correct to do so.

What Haslett can be doing in the meantime is giving them reasons to stay that aren’t simply monetary. They must feel like they are part of something bigger.

There’s never been any indication from Haslett that he takes the losses hard, and this has sometimes been reflected in the players’ performance when they are on a losing streak. In 2012, it seemed to be Shanahan’s vote of no confidence that gave them the fire needed to succeed.

The players got themselves up for the games, not the coaches. Morris really loves to set the defense against the offense during organized team activities (OTAs) and camp, which the players love, but Haslett always has maintained a distance that is easy to respect, but difficult to admire. Haslett received a $20,000 fine in 2008 for swearing at officials when he was coach of the St. Louis Rams, but that fire hasn’t manifested itself in the nation’s capitol. Calling games from way above the action inevitably contributes to that.

The short answer to Washington’s defensive problem is to make them care again. There will be new coaches to impress, new defensive packages to learn and new battles to face. If the coaches can instill the belief in the players that the team is going places, there will be fewer of the performances we saw last year.