The key to a Washington Redskins revival in 2015 won't be how quarterback Robert Griffin III performs in head coach Jay Gruden's offense. It won't even be how much Gruden adapts the current playbook to better suit what Griffin can and can't do.
Instead, Washington's season will hinge on an offense geared to the running game. To win in 2015, Gruden must ditch his pass-first play-calling and make his offense football's groundhogs.
While that approach won't be without its challenges, Gruden has been given a head start. New general manager Scot McCloughan has provided a great one by remaking the offense from a finesse unit defined by its skill players to one seemingly set to ground and pound defenses.
Like most NFL remakes, the process naturally starts up front. From the moment reputed line guru Bill Callahan arrived at Redskins Park, the style of Washington's ground game changed.
Since then, phrases such as "physical," "gap and drive blocking" and "downhill" have become commonly used descriptions for what this season's rushing attack will look like.
But while words alone aren't enough, their imports have real and practical implications. The most notable has been finding bigger blockers than the lightweight, mobile linemen who've carried out zone-based principles for the last five seasons.
McCloughan took care of that when he selected tackle Brandon Scherff and guard Arie Kouandjio in the 2015 NFL draft. Both are classic, big-bodied power-based blockers most adept at driving defenders off the ball, rather than shifting into space zone-style.
Expect 6'5", 319-pounder Scherff's biggest impact as a rookie to come in the running game. That's where the ex-Iowa mainstay dominates the trenches. B/R draft analyst Matt Miller correctly dubbed him "the best run-blocker in this draft:"
Scherff is ticketed to play right tackle during his debut pro season, according to ESPN's John Keim. From that position, Scherff could be a major asset on some of the plays Gruden added to the ground schemes last season.
One of the more effective was a toss to workhorse Alfred Morris, who ran a counter back inside from an I-formation look. Take a look at one of the best examples of the concept in action, a 16-yard gain from Week 12's loss to the San Francisco 49ers.
The Redskins aligned in 21-personnel, two running backs and one tight end. Significantly, it was an I-formation look with fullback Darrel Young set to lead the way through the strong-side A-gap for Morris:
Once the ball was snapped, notice how the offensive line went hat-on-hat with San Fran's defensive front:
Young sealed the second level with a hammerblow of a block to absorb one inside linebacker:
With the line of scrimmage extended and the Niners driven off the ball, Young and tight end Logan Paulsen played key roles in securing the second level:
This was one of many long gains from Morris' biggest rushing performance of the season, a 21-carry, 125-yard effort. Significantly, it was also a game in which Gruden featured a lot of I-formation looks and power runs.
Linemen pulling into space has always been a signature of power schemes. It explains McCloughan's decision to use a fourth-round pick on Kouandjio.
He frequently pulled into space to lead the way for running backs at Alabama:
It wouldn't be a great surprise to see 6'5", 310-pounder Kouandjio supplant Chris Chester in the starting lineup at right guard. He's certainly more suited to the type of plays Gruden favors, the type Callahan designed and coached for the Dallas Cowboys' awesome ground attack in 2014.
But it isn't just up front where the Redskins are better equipped to keep the ball on the ground rather than heaving it through the air. The new emphasis on power-based running will require different discipline from the team's backs.
Fortunately, McCloughan added the ideal grinder for a smashmouth scheme in the form of third-round bruiser Matt Jones. Describing Jones' potential value, McCloughan also highlighted the qualities that will be essential to this season's rushing game, during an interview with ESPN 980 (h/t CSN Washington's Tarik El-Bashir): “Matt Jones reminds me a lot—a lot—of Marshawn from the standpoint that he’s north-south, he’s downhill and he’s not afraid of contact.”
McCloughan's comparison to Seattle Seahawks thumper Marshawn Lynch is very apt. It speaks not only to Jones' overtly physical style, but also to the type of run-first dynamic Washington's offense must create in the new season.
It's a dynamic that will make things easier for Griffin, rather than forcing him to be what he isn't yet, and what he may never be: a franchise quarterback who can regularly win games by himself.
Griffin need only look at how much Russell Wilson has benefited from Lynch's presence for the right template. Wilson has guided the Seahawks to two Super Bowls in three seasons.
While the half-sized Houdini and his flair for big plays in the clutch have served as a catalyst, the real backbone of Seattle's success is the Lynch-led ground game.
It's a rushing attack that led the NFL in 2014 and ranked fourth in the previous year. The heavy diet of Lynch acting as a battering ram consistently gives Wilson manageable down-and-distance situations.
So there's less pressure on him to deliver in situations that don't favor a quarterback, situations only truly great passers regularly negotiate.
That's just how it went for Griffin during his spectacular rookie year in 2012 when the Redskins were the most prolific team in football on the ground. Griffin's big plays made the difference that season, but Morris was the real key to the trip to the postseason.
Winning on the ground let Griffin use his own mobility to create moving pockets to escape pressure and throw into undermanned coverage. Many of those throws came off play action, certainly Griffin's greatest strength as a passer.
That's the type of offense Washington must revive in 2015. Better that than another uneasy tussle between coach and quarterback, scrapping toward a playbook that eventually suits both men.
A dual-threat quarterback operating for a coach who doesn't favor read-option principles means finding a middle ground is unlikely to ever happen. In fact, attempts to find one could divide the team.
Just really going back to what [Robert Griffin III’s] good at doing. I can remember how he kind of killed us when I was with the Eagles, and I was like man, this guy’s amazing. He was a young quarterback. So whatever it is he needs to get back to — I’m not the offensive coordinator, I don’t control the offense — but whatever it is he’s comfortable at, where he can be himself and dish the ball off and run the ball if he needs to, just facilitate a full offense, whatever that is, hopefully we’re able to get back to that and let him get comfortable.
Last year with Jay Gruden coming in and changing the offense around, that can be hard for any quarterback, especially a young quarterback.
While certain key players want an offense that better suits their quarterback, the coach is still putting the onus on the man under center adapting. He made that clear per Mike Jones of the Washington Post:
You’re not really thinking about who’s where, what’s my footwork. Everything should come a lot more natural for you, and hopefully, we see that transition from year one to year two in this system with the terminology and knowing where to go with your footwork and anticipation of getting the ball out quicker. Hopefully, that comes.
That's a long list of improvements Gruden is expecting, or less convincingly hoping for, from the most important position on the team. It's a lot to ask for, and if Griffin doesn't tick all those boxes, the Redskins are likely to remain mired in losing.
A run-oriented offense would simply ease the pressure on Griffin making a complete jump forward when baby steps are inevitable for this team's shaky quarterback position.
Gruden thinking his scheme alone will transform quarterbacks he's not particularly confident in is another recipe for disaster. And Gruden doesn't sound too enthused about having Griffin as his starter for a second season: “Well, you know, we exercised the option, so it is what it is right now. He’s our starting quarterback, so hopefully, we show improvement at the quarterback position."
There's certainly no rocket science to how the run makes the game easier for quarterbacks. It should be less complicated playing to the strengths of an offense now geared to win on the ground.
The line is bigger, the coaching should be better and one of the game's best fullbacks should finally see the field more often in the new schemes. With the pieces in place to win on the ground, it would be folly for Gruden to put the ball in Griffin's hands, or even those of Kirk Cousins and Colt McCoy, expecting results to improve overnight.
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