Washington Redskins' Offseason State of the Union
There is an air of optimism around the Washington Redskins following the end of the ill-fated Mike Shanahan era. The subsequent hiring of Jay Gruden, followed by a strong offseason of productive moves, makes that optimism justified.
Gruden, along with empowered general manager Bruce Allen, has been bold and decisive in increasing the marquee talent on both sides of the ball. Credible attempts have also been made to bolster depth, which was a major issue in 2013.
However, 2014's team is not without its potential issues and obvious deficiencies. The secondary still looks patchwork, although at least this season's group is held together with more recognizable stitching.
A complete overhaul of the special teams was necessary, but the results won't be known until the new unit sees real action. The biggest worry is how an offensive line that could largely resemble last season's feeble bunch stands up.
But not surprisingly, the biggest issue of all concerns the development of quarterback Robert Griffin III. Allen and Gruden have equipped the young signal-caller with all the weapons he needs to thrive.
But the coach has also made it clear that Griffin won't be able to lean on the read-option schemes that made him deadly as a rookie. That means a full commitment to mastering a pro-style offense. How Griffin handles that transition is sure to determine the fate of this season.
Here's a closer look at Washington's offseason, starting with the positive moves and what they mean for 2014.
The Offense Is Loaded with Playmakers
Assuming Griffin hits the ground running and his O-line is better, the Washington offense should be one of the NFL's best this season. The unit is fit to burst with dynamic playmakers.
When Gruden took over, he inherited an already strong contingent. Record-setting wide receiver Pierre Garcon and two-time 1,000-yard runner Alfred Morris were already in the fold. So was exciting "joker" tight end Jordan Reed.
But their presence didn't stop the offensive-minded first-year head coach from wisely adding to his riches. First, Andre Roberts arrived from the Arizona Cardinals.
A skilled and deceptively quick possession receiver, Roberts gives Griffin a natural outlet underneath. Roberts is as good as it gets for a third wideout in today's pass-happy league.
But the real coup came from rolling the dice on former Philadelphia Eagle maverick DeSean Jackson. A supremely talented big-play threat, he puts a genuine fear factor back into the Washington offense.
His presence expands the entire scheme for Griffin and his teammates. Given Jackson's penchant for going deep, defenses won't be able to load the box as often to stop Morris.
Jackson's vertical speed will also open up the underneath passing lanes, where Garcon and Jordan Reed are already major threats.
In the past two seasons the team has had to manufacture ways to stretch the field. But a feared burner like Jackson will be Griffin's first choice whenever he wants to launch a deep strike.
Bringing Jackson and Roberts to D.C. has surrounded Griffin with an enviable supporting cast of top-notch weapons. Gruden will have hours of fun concocting different alignments and personnel packages to get his playmakers on the field together. This offense now has the potential to attack defenses in every way imaginable.
If the talented personnel deliver, the offense will key a fast turnaround in Washington.
Greater Versatility, Aggression and Freedom Mean a Better Defense
The procurement of more marquee talent has even extended to the defense this offseason. Snatching dominant interior pass-rusher Jason Hatcher away from the Dallas Cowboys is a major coup, even after his recent knee surgery.
However, the real reason to be optimistic about 2014's defense exists at a scheme level. Coordinator Jim Haslett has been given some versatile new pieces. Most important, he'll now have the freedom to use them however he wants.
He didn't always have that freedom under Shanahan (surprise, surprise). The autocratic head coach couldn't resist interfering with the system on defense, per Jason Reid of The Washington Post:
For four seasons — three of which ended with 10 or more losses — defensive coordinator Jim Haslett followed orders while former head coach Mike Shanahan made his job more difficult by tinkering with the defense, people within the organization say. And although Haslett often was frustrated that Shanahan, who had roster control, invested more heavily on offense during free agency, he kept his concerns in house.
Shanahan's fingerprints should have been nowhere near the defense. Granted, few head coaches ever give coordinators total freedom.
But smart sideline generals will delegate a significant amount of authority over individual units, especially when they believe in a particular coordinator and his scheme.
If Shanahan didn't have that level of faith in Haslett, then why did he hire him and keep him around for so long? But thankfully, those days are gone. Now that they are in the past, it's time for Haslett to deliver a stout unit that is capable of making its own big plays.
The key will be the presence of new playmakers along the front seven, such as pass-rusher Trent Murphy. The team's top draft pick in 2014 is already being used in multiple ways, which is hopefully a reflection of more creative scheming this season.
Gruden has highlighted how Murphy lined up everywhere during OTAs, per CSNWashington.com writer Rich Tandler:
Trent's done a great job. He's played both sides, he's played in nickel situations, he's played with the three technique, he's stood up and moved around. So Trent's done an outstanding job and I see him all the time in the film room watching practice. He's very aware of what his role is and what it's going to be and he wants to study it and be the best at it.
Murphy's role as a roving threat to quarterbacks should be just one page in a more varied playbook. Haslett has also indicated he will turn his best pass-rushers loose more often this season, per ESPN.com reporter John Keim.
That's a positive step in the right direction and one that suits the best personnel on a defense where the talent is front-loaded. But Haslett must be true to his word and commit to a more attack-minded scheme.
While the offense looks like it will be able to expose defenses in a variety of ways, Haslett's defense must be able to keep quarterbacks guessing about where pressure is coming from.
That means a genuine effort to show different looks and move personnel around. So far at least, the early signs are very positive.
Real Effort Has Been Made to Fix the Special Teams
Diabolical. Disastrous. Repulsive. Embarrassing. Those four choice words fit Washington's special teams in 2013. Rarely has a unit been as consistently bad as former coordinator Keith Burns' group was week to week last season.
One of the best things the new regime has done this offseason has been to make an effort to fix the problem. Allen and Gruden have committed resources to improving in every area, including coaching, coverage units and the kicking game.
A new coordinator takes charge in the form of Ben Kotwica. He arrives from the New York Jets, a team traditionally strong in football's third phase during recent seasons.
He will be impressed by how his personnel have been shaken up. The process began in free agency with the arrivals of linebackers Adam Hayward, Darryl Sharpton and Akeem Jordan.
All three boast strong special teams experience. Jordan was a member of the Kansas City Chiefs in 2013, where special teams played a prominent role in a turnaround from 2-14 to 11-5.
Further help came via the draft in the form of cornerback Bashaud Breeland and tight end Ted Bolser. Both players can provide immediate help for the coverage units.
But even with the new personnel, much will depend on Kotwica and how he uses it. His early approach seems to be an all-encompassing one, according to CSNWashington.com reporter Tarik El-Bashir:
As Redskins special teams coordinator Ben Kotwica worked with his units during OTAs and minicamp, one thing stood out: he wasn’t the only coach doing the teaching.
Wide receivers coach Ike Hilliard and running backs coach Randy Jordan tutored the returners. Defensive backs coach Raheem Morris instructed the gunners on the finer points of punt coverage. And linebackers coaches Kirk Olivadotti and Brian Baker showed players how to take better pursuit angles and tackle.
Having the position coaches involved also helps Kotwica get more teaching done in less time. Which is critical for a special teams coordinator, particularly given the fact that the overwhelming majority of precious practice minutes are dedicated to offense and defense.
Taking a collective approach to teaching his new charges isn't just about maximizing time for Kotwica, though. It also represents the scale of the job in front of him.
The scope for improvement on last season is massive. The woes in 2013's unit were deep and wide-reaching, so the remedy has to be the same.
Using offensive and defensive coaches to help tutor special teamers is yet more evidence of just how committed Washington's new regime is to fixing this problem area.
These efforts can be well-rewarded. Strong special teams play is often a key to the quick revival of any losing team.
A unit that consistently wins the field position battle, as well as produces its share of big plays, can shift momentum in any game. Good special teams is part of the small margins of victory.
Mastering those margins is usually the difference between winning and losing. Gruden and Allen have made it clear they won't let this unit gather dust.
But while the three factors listed here so far represent hugely positive work this offseason, there are two things that could go very wrong in the new campaign.
The Secondary Still Looks Suspect
One of the strangest decisions made this offseason was to overlook premier reinforcements for a weak defensive backfield. Washington owned the 20th-ranked pass defense in the NFL in 2013, yet Gruden and Allen merely tinkered with their personnel.
The new faces include 34-year-old free safety Ryan Clark, an untested rookie in Breeland and veteran cornerback Tracy Porter. The latter has struggled to establish himself as a credible starter during six pro seasons.
So the secondary remains in a relative state of flux. Allen and Gruden are chancing a dangerous roll of the dice. It is a gamble based on the hope that Clark still has something left and that young players such as David Amerson and Phillip Thomas will deliver.
But given how often weak pass defense has blighted this team since 2010, it might have been better to deal in certainty. Because for all the improvements made in other areas, a continuation of the problems in the secondary could still undo this team.
That's a fear expressed by Real Redskins blogger Rich Tandler:
Perhaps the Redskins should be applauded for not overpaying for safeties like Mike Mitchell and Jairus Byrd but one of the rewards for their fiscal restraint is a patched-together unit at safety. Ryan Clark is smart and a leader but the Steelers thought he’d lost too many steps. Brandon Meriweather likes to go headhunting and Bacarri Rambo and Phillip Thomas are woefully inexperienced.
Tandler's concerns are well-founded. Washington calls the NFC East home, and the division is loaded with competent quarterbacks and dangerous receivers.
Is there really confidence that this secondary will resist pass-catchers such as Riley Cooper, Dez Bryant, Terrance Williams and Victor Cruz? Of course, Allen and Gruden have made their gamble in the knowledge that the pass rush will be significantly better in 2014.
But that demands more from both Haslett and his players. Last preseason, the team paid lip service to getting more creative and aggressive up front.
Washington brought in situational pass-rusher Darryl Tapp and experimented with moving players around during exhibition games. But once the real action began, those schematic quirks disappeared, and the ability to apply consistent pressure went with it.
But the pass rush can't go missing again this season, as Tandler has noted: "It’s all about getting to the quarterback for this defense. If the pass rush doesn’t improve dramatically due to injuries, offensive adjustments, or any one of dozens of things that could go wrong, the weak secondary will be exposed."
The post-Shanahan regime has taken its first major risk by largely overlooking the secondary. How that risk plays out will have a major impact on Gruden's first season in charge.
The Offensive Line Didn't Get a Major Shakeup
The Washington secondary isn't the only gambler's paradise on this roster. The new regime has also taken a rather tepid approach to upgrading the offensive line.
Fresh personnel have arrived in the form of free agents Shawn Lauvao and Mike McGlynn, along with rookies Morgan Moses and Spencer Long. But none could be considered a top-notch addition to a group that surrendered 43 sacks in 2013.
The changes are slight and mostly cosmetic. Kory Lichtensteiger will shift over to center to replace Will Montgomery. That likely means Lauvao will step in at left guard.
The only other possible change depends on Moses supplanting Tyler Polumbus at right tackle. That means there is the very real potential for four of last season's five starters to be in place when the new season begins.
That's either one of the biggest risks in living memory or else a glowing endorsement of this group from the new coaches. Because loading up at the skill positions, at the expense of reinforcing the trenches, is a clear statement that Washington is largely happy with what it has up front.
That will either look like genius or negligent folly once the season begins.
The Post-Mike Shanahan Effect and Striking the Right Balance with RGIII
The post-Mike Shanahan effect is real, and its positivity can hardly be overstated. This group of players has been freed from the overbearing meddling of an intractable coach whose demeanor alienated many.
Regular readers will know this author was never at all enamored with Shanahan as head coach in Washington. That's why this period feels like a true breath of fresh air.
Yet hiring Gruden is a decision that is easy to be skeptical about. His credentials are far from top-notch, considering his uneven output as offensive coordinator for the Bengals. He was also thoroughly outcoached by San Diego Chargers defensive boss John Pagano in last season's AFC playoffs.
Gruden was hired with Griffin, and not the team, in mind. The continued willingness to accommodate Griffin could be very dangerous for this franchise.
However, even for a perennial skeptic such as this scribe, it's easy to be encouraged by some of Gruden's early moves. The decision to sign genuine difference-makers like Jackson and Hatcher, regardless of age, shows a commitment to a quick turnaround.
Meanwhile, taking care of the less glamorous details, such as roster depth and special teams recruitment, proves an eye is also being kept on sustaining success for the future.
With power returned to the general manager, where it should be, along with a head coach who is willing to work with others, Washington has functioned smoothly this offseason.
However, all the good work will be for naught if Griffin doesn't make the grade. The key to that process is striking the right balance.
Gruden has already started tipping the scales away from gearing things solely to Griffin. He has signaled his intention to all but abandon the read-option, per Sports Illustrated columnist Don Banks:
Personally my belief is the read option is better as an element of surprise. If you're making it a major focal point of your offense -- though they had success with it -- that's problematic. You want to have some of it, no question, because it's the way to get the numbers back in your favor offensively. And with a quarterback like him, why wouldn't you have some of it?
But we're trying to develop him as an all-around quarterback. And I don't know if they had that (as a goal). I'm sure they did a little bit, but I think that's the clear intent moving forward, to develop him as an all-around quarterback. That's part of his growth, from '12 to '13 to now.
It's a bold, and perhaps necessary, move that will make or break this team in 2014. Mobility is part of Griffin's game; it's what makes defenders second-guess.
His ability as dual-threat playmaker cannot be eliminated all together from the offense. At the same time, Gruden is right to increase the focus on Griffin's pro mechanics.
But this is a balancing act that will decide the future of not only Griffin but this team. If Gruden tiptoes his way across the tight rope and makes Griffin a better traditional passer, then Washington is ready to win now.
But if Gruden stumbles, and Griffin continues to struggle with recognition, reads and accuracy, Washington's current rebuilding plan will crash land with a sickening thud.