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Matt Cavanaugh a Smart Hire for RG3 and the Washington Redskins

James Dudko@@JamesDudkoFeatured ColumnistFebruary 6, 2015

Chicago Bears quarterback coach Matt Cavanaugh, left, talks with quarterback Josh McCown during NFL football training camp Saturday, July 27, 2013, at Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, Ill. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

Of all the changes made to the Washington Redskins coaching staff so far this offseason, hiring Matt Cavanaugh may be the smartest move. The new quarterbacks coach brings credibility and potentially invaluable scheme experience to perhaps the most jumbled situation under center in the NFL.

For a quick refresh of the context, the Redskins gave away the farm to draft Robert Griffin III in 2012. Unfortunately, his injuries, lack of progress in the pro game and public disputes with coaches mean Washington well and truly hasn't got what it paid for.

Instead, all it's got is a troubled young quarterback whose every twitch and murmur is scrutinized to the extent his status dominates all aspects of the franchise. You only need to look at the latest word from the organization for depressing evidence of that.

Even Griffin not being listed on a letter to season-ticket holders rates as news, per Dan Steinberg of The Washington Post. The dust has barely settled on this season; surely it's not time to worry about yet more Griffin drama already? Is it?

Even if it isn't, Griffin has a mountain to climb this offseason. He has to win over head coach Jay Gruden, the man who benched him last season and seems wholly unconvinced by his long-term potential.

Washington has to find an answer under center.
Washington has to find an answer under center.Tim Sharp/Associated Press

But if Griffin can change Gruden's mind, he'll still have to best Colt McCoy and Kirk Cousins before Week 1 of the 2015 NFL season. Even as his first season as head coach was being consigned to history, Gruden was already anticipating a quarterback competition.

The question is can Griffin develop enough to win such a competition?

That will be Cavanaugh's remit. It's a tall order considering Griffin lacks the ability to effectively read defenses, nor has the touch and accuracy to be efficient from the pocket. 

Those issues in the pocket are the main sticking point with Gruden. He wants a quarterback who can make decisive reads and quick throws from the confines of a secure pocket.

Griffin hasn't shown that skill in three seasons. But former Washington quarterback Mark Brunell believes he can master it, according to ESPN Redskins reporter John Keim.

Brunell's words have credibility and not just because he guided the Redskins and Jacksonville Jaguars to the playoffs during a fine pro career. But also because, like Griffin, Brunell was a quarterback whose ability as a runner defined his game, at least initially.

It's the same with Griffin. His read-option success at Baylor and as a rookie in D.C. meant he never took the time to learn another way. His instincts as a runner stayed sharp, but his instincts as a passer remain untapped.

Current ESPN analyst Brunell believes now's the time to unleash the latter, per Keim:

You can develop those [instincts]. But to develop those instincts you have to stay in the pocket. You’ve got to be in there and it’s not easy because a lot of quarterbacks' heads tell them to stay in there but the feet tell them we’ve got to go.

...

He had poor balance in the pocket, throwing off his back foot, getting out of the pocket too early and not being patient.

That last line is Brunell's assessment of Griffin as we know him today. A damning statement indeed.

Brunell has delivered a savage indictment of the state of Griffin's game.
Brunell has delivered a savage indictment of the state of Griffin's game.LAWRENCE JACKSON/Associated Press

It's a trend that can only be reversed by more attention to fundamentals. That's handy considering Brunell, who was coached by Cavanaugh as Mark Sanchez's deputy with the New York Jets, stated his former coach "stresses fundamentals."

But more than just an adherence to the basics, Cavanaugh can help redefine the character of Griffin's game, his personality as a passer. Usually, that personality has been afflicted with a boom-or-bust disorder. An almost frenzied search for the big play at all costs alongside an apparent contempt for taking what a defense gives him.

This is where Cavanaugh can make the biggest difference to Griffin. It'll be a difference based on his deep ties to one particular offense.

The coach is a longstanding disciple of the West Coast system. It's an efficiency offense, one based on timing patterns and simple, quick throws for a quarterback.

Cavanaugh first learned the merits of the death-by-1,000-short-passes offense when he coached Steve Young with the San Francisco 49ers in 1996. His offensive coordinator that year was Marc Trestman, another noted authority on the most quarterback-friendly offense in NFL history.

It wasn't Cavanaugh's only stop with Trestman. He was the quarterbacks coach for the Chicago Bears in 2013, the year Trestman took over the team and designed an offense that ranked second in points and eighth in yards, per Pro-Football-Reference.com.

Cavanaugh has done his best work within the confines of the West Coast system.
Cavanaugh has done his best work within the confines of the West Coast system.Jim Prisching/Associated Press

Cavanaugh has a detailed knowledge of an offense that can work wonders for Griffin. It can teach him to make quicker reads based on simpler, generally shorter route concepts.

Emphasizing the short game is the first and necessary step toward engendering greater efficiency and smarter ball distribution. A quarterback who often forces throws and has also been guilty of locking onto particular receivers needs both.

Cavanaugh is more than qualified to teach those skills, but Griffin must also do his part. That's been a problem for the headstrong quarterback in the past, but it's something his new coach could fix, per another report from Keim:

In Griffin’s case, one knock from the previous staff was that he never really bought into what they wanted him to do. To his credit, he did what they asked, but it eventually led to issues. One word Mark Brunell used in describing Cavanaugh to me was trust. If Griffin can find that trust with Cavanaugh, it will be helpful. Very helpful.

Creating that trust could be aided by Cavanaugh's credibility as a former NFL quarterback, albeit at the backup level. At least that's the view of Terry Shea, the consultant who worked briefly with Griffin last offseason, per Liz Clarke of The Washington Post.

Cavanaugh has already identified building trust with the quarterbacks he's inherited as a priority, per Redskins.com writer Andrew Walker“What I need time to develop now is trust and relationship between us, and being able to impart some of my experiences on them to help them play their position a little bit better.”

Cavanaugh's playing experience could prove useful.
Cavanaugh's playing experience could prove useful.George Rose/Getty Images

If trust is built between quarterback and position coach, Cavanaugh could become an important buffer in the middle of Griffin and Gruden. Given how ugly things got during their clash of personalities last season, Griffin may need someone to soft-soap Gruden's typically blunt-force cajoling.

Cavanaugh's teach-first approach and background with the West Coast system are how he can help Griffin.

But there's one interesting footnote about Cavanaugh that could make him an ingenious hire by Gruden and the Redskins. It concerns those stops in San Francisco and the Windy City.

Specifically, his proven track record coaching up second-string passers could prove very useful.

He first proved the skill when Elvis Grbac started four games in place of a concussion-hit Young back in '96. Grbac also filled in during numerous other games.

Cavanaugh has coaxed solid football from backup passers.
Cavanaugh has coaxed solid football from backup passers.Al Bello/Getty Images

In total, the backup completed 122 of 197 passes for 1,236 yards and eight touchdowns. The fact that Grbac even actually looked like a viable successor to Young at one stage is evidence of Cavanaugh's credentials.

He repeated the trick in 2013 when Josh McCown appeared in eight games for the Bears, starting five. The veteran threw for 1,829 yards and 13 touchdowns.

McCown was so impressive he convinced the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to hand him a free-agent deal last offseason and forgo a younger option at the position. The Kansas City Chiefs were similar dupes when they signed Grbac in 1997.

Imagine what Cavanaugh could do for Cousins or McCoy if he has to. It's a scenario still within the realms of possibility after all.

Hiring Cavanaugh hasn't just given Washington an experienced and credible tutor at a significant position on the coaching staff. It's also provided a subtle way for the franchise to cover itself if the quarterback once expected to be marquee doesn't make the grade.

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