Jay Gruden is back. Robert Griffin III is his starting quarterback. Like it or not, their awkward dance continues for another year.
Both Griffin and Gruden have to get better at their jobs. Neither Kirk Cousins nor Colt McCoy will ride to anyone's rescue. The nation cannot bear another autumn of press conferences that sound like counseling sessions for the world's worst marriage (though fans in Dallas, Philly and New York enjoy some shameful chuckles). Griffin has to be a better quarterback, Gruden a better coach.
But what does that mean? We could talk vaguely about Griffin's footwork (he needs some) and Gruden's play-calling (the Madden 96 video game AI would be an upgrade). But we need to drill a little deeper. There are simple, tangible things both Griffin and Gruden can do to upgrade the Redskins offense and get both their franchise and their careers back on the right track.
Stop the Third-Down Madness
|Worst Third-Down Offenses since 1990|
|2004||Bears||5-11||Hutchinson, Krenzel, Quinn, Grossman||L. Smith|
|1992||Seahawks||2-14||Gelbaugh, Stouffer, McGwire||Flores|
|2014||Redskins||4-12||Griffin, Cousins, McCoy||Ja. Gruden|
|2005||49ers||4-12||A.Smith, Rattay, Dorsey, Pickett||Nolan|
|Football Outsiders Almanac 2015|
OK, maybe not "ever." The 2004 Bears, with Chad Hutchinson, Craig Krenzel, Jonathan Quinn and Rex Grossman trading snaps, were worse. So were the expansion 2002 Texans, with David Carr absorbing 76 sacks, and the 1992 Seahawks, who finished 2-14 behind Stan Gelbaugh, Kelly Stouffer and Mark McGwire's brother, Dan.
Then come the 2014 Redskins. It's a heck of a list to rank fourth upon.
Given 197 third-down plays to work with, the Redskins endured:
• Six interceptions: three by Griffin and three by Cousins.
• Seven fumbles: one by Griffin, two by Cousins, two by McCoy, two by receivers after completions. Three of the fumbles were recovered by the Redskins, but when you fall on the ball after getting strip-sacked on 3rd-and-8, well, whoop-de-dang-do.
• Twenty-three sacks: 12 of Griffin, seven of McCoy, four of Cousins. Some of these sacks resulted in the fumbles listed above. Cousins also committed an intentional grounding foul.
• Thirty-five pass completions that did not result in a first down: This tally includes one Niles Paul fumble at the end of a long completion, but also lots of mind-boggling plays like a two-yard Cousins-to-Andre Roberts loss on 3rd-and-1 (a bubble screen gone radically wrong against the Cardinals), plus a dizzying array of seven-yard passes on 3rd-and-15 or so.
• Six scrambles: Five by Griffin and one by McCoy, with only one resulting in a first down.
• Ten handoffs to backs on 3rd-and-1 or 3rd-and-2: Alfred Morris was stuffed three times on 3rd-and-1 (he also converted three times) and had no attempts on 3rd-and-2. Roy Helu Jr. (now in Oakland) and Darrel Young were 4-of-7 on 3rd-and-1 or -2. If you are wondering why Helu and the fullback combined for more short-yardage carries than Morris, get in line.
• Six handoffs on 3rd-and-10 or longer, resulting in zero first downs.
All in all, the Redskins faced 38 3rd-and-10 or longer situations. They converted just five first downs.
Like a tiny car full of silly clowns, there is a lot to unpack from the Redskins' third-down woes. The whole Redskins offense deserves blame for this catastrophe. That said, there are simple things the Redskins can do to go from historically bad on third downs to merely mediocre:
The quarterback must hold on to the football: Griffin and the not-so-Supremes need to focus on some basics, like how to grip the football in a collapsing pocket, how to tuck when scrambling and when to say "when" instead of trying to cock and throw. A sack and a punt is still much better than a sack and a fumble.
No more one-yard passes on 3rd-and-2. It's one thing to throw short of the sticks on 3rd-and-12 and ask DeSean Jackson or Pierre Garcon to make a move. It's another thing to keep throwing short on 3rd-and-4 when the defense knows what's coming.
In the overtime win against the Cowboys in Week 8, Gruden ordered McCoy to throw a quick flat to Jordan Reed on 3rd-and-2 in the fourth quarter. Reed was tackled short of the first down.
In overtime, the Redskins faced another 3rd-and-short, and Gruden called an almost identical play. Reed was stopped again.
The ensuing field goal was good enough for a Redskins win, but c'mon. If you don't have a seven-yard pass in your playbook for 3rd-and-medium, then frankly, you don't have an NFL offense.
Cut down on offensive line penalties: Many 3rd-and-long crises start with a 1st-and-15 slip-up. The Redskins ranked 28th in the NFL with 22 false start penalties, despite finishing in the lower half of the NFL in total plays and passing plays (false starts are more common when linemen are itching to pass protect), according to media-only stats site NFLGSIS.com. Twelve different Redskins contributed to the false start total, so Gruden and Griffin need to emphasize communicating the snap count and making sure the linemen (and tight ends and receivers) are ready for the cadence.
Close the third-down distance. The best strategy to succeed on 3rd-and-10 is to avoid 3rd-and-10. If the Redskins get better in these next few phases of the game, their third-down issues will become much less of an issue.
Emphasize Play Action
The Redskins used play action more than any other team in the NFL when Griffin was a rookie in 2012, and they were great at it. According to Football Outsiders, 42 percent of Redskins passes in 2012 were play-action passes, double the league average. They led the league in Football Outsiders' DVOA metric on play-action passes that year and finished second in the NFL with 10.1 yards per play on such attempts. On passes without play fakes, Griffin was just another quarterback. With play fakes, he was a superstar.
|Highest Yards-Per-Attempt on Play-Action Passes, 2014|
|Team||Yards per PA Pass|
Griffin's play-action efficiency dipped in 2013—his everything dipped in 2013—but while most of his game continued tail-spinning last year, his play-action effectiveness recovered. The Redskins had the fourth-best play-action passing offense in the NFL, according to Football Outsiders, but they fell to 31st in the NFL on conventional pass plays. The chart shows the teams with the highest yards-per-play rates in the NFL on play-action passes. After faking a handoff, Redskins quarterbacks suddenly found themselves in good company.
All three Redskins quarterbacks were better play-action passers than conventional passers, but Griffin benefited the most. According to Football Outsiders' internal database, he completed 71.9 percent of his play-action pass attempts, and while Griffin's completion rates have become a running joke among the calculator set—more on that in a bit—those completions netted some significant yardage. Griffin averaged 13.7 yards per completion on play action. Some deep passes to Jackson puffed the numbers up a bit, but then again, setting up some deep passes to Jackson is precisely the point of play action.
Now here's the kicker: The Redskins used play action on just 22 percent of passes, roughly the league average. Play action only does so much good when you are trailing by 31 points, of course, but most Redskins losses were closer than that, and there is no reason to abandon such a successful component of your offense because you are down by a touchdown.
Gruden needs to play to the strengths of his quarterback and his offense. That doesn't mean a return to the extremes of Griffin's rookie year. But teams with read-option components in their offense like the Eagles (33 percent play action in 2014) and Seahawks (31 percent) use the threat of run-action far more consistently than the Redskins used it last year.
Minimize the 10-foot throws
Did you know that Griffin completed 68.7 percent of his passes last season? That would be the 16th-highest completion rate in history if Griffin had not fallen short of the qualifying minimums. McCoy completed 71.1 percent of his 128 attempts. It's a shame that so many of those completions provided empty calories.
Exactly one-third of Griffin's completions (49 of 147) were what Football Outsiders labels "failed completions." That means they either came up short of the sticks on third or fourth down or provided a tiny gain, like a two-yard completion on 1st-and-10. Here's a breakdown of Griffin's numbers, via the Football Outsiders internal database, to give you a better sense of what a failed completion looks like:
- Completions for a loss of yardage: 4
- Completions for no gain: 3
- Completions for 1-2 yards (not for first downs or touchdowns): 12
- Completions for 3-4 yards (10-plus yards needed for first down): 10
- Completions of 5-plus yards (on third downs, failing to yield first down): 10
There are 10 more failed Griffin completions scattered around, like six-yard gains on 2nd-and-20, but you get the idea: Griffin became a human straw-man argument against using completion percentage to rank quarterbacks—the guy throwing one-yard passes to make himself look statistically more accurate than Tom Brady.
Most of those 29 10- to 12-foot passes Griffin threw last year must be replaced by completions that at least gain five or more yards in 2015. That means Griffin must look downfield more, and if he is swinging a teensy pass to a receiver in the flat, it had better be timed perfectly and hit that receiver in stride. As mentioned in the third-down section, Gruden also needs to take a hard look at how often he asks his quarterbacks to dump the ball quickly into the flat or toss a bubble screen that the defense is all-too prepared for.
Here's the good news: The Redskins may have been one of the worst third-down teams of all time, but they were also one of the greatest yards-after-catch-generating teams of all time. The Redskins averaged 7.0 YAC per completion last year, the highest rate since Football Outsiders began tracking YAC in 2005. Yes, those dozens of short passes were bound to inflate YAC totals a bit (think of Morris catching a screen six yards behind the line of scrimmage, then using those 7.0 YAC to gain one yard), but the Redskins led the league in YAC on passes behind the line of scrimmage and were second in the league on passes beyond the line of scrimmage.
Morris, Jackson, Garcon, Reed and newcomers like Matt Jones and Jamison Crowder can all make things happen on short passes. Gruden and Griffin just need to ask a little less of them and give them a little more space to move.
Get Creative in the Running Game
You don't need an outstanding running game to set up play action, but it sure does help. Washington's running game needs less renovation than the passing game, so the arrival of offensive line coach Bill Callahan and top draft pick Brandon Scherff could make the Redskins' ground game great, which in turn can help the passing game achieve "pretty good."
Older Redskins fans remember the Hogs, a legendary offensive line that pummeled defenses with the help of some very pesky blocking tight ends and a scheme that emphasized pull-blocking techniques (like their signature Counter Trey, with two linemen pulling across the formation to escort John Riggins off tackle). There were times when Callahan's Cowboys line looked like those old Hogs: two big guards pulling for DeMarco Murray, two tight ends (or a tight end and a fullback) picking off linebackers in pursuit.
Callahan doesn't have Tyron Smith, Zack Martin and Travis Frederick to work with in Washington. But Trent Williams is darn good, Kory Lichtensteiger and Shawn Lauvao aren't chopped liver and the Redskins have plenty of tight ends and fullbacks at their disposal. If Gruden and coordinator Sean McVay accept some Callahan input, they can build a running game around Morris that opens things up for the rest of the offense.
The following diagram is taken from a play the Cowboys used against the Redskins to gain 51 yards in Week 8. It's a counter with pulling guards, not that different from the Counter Trey the Redskins ran 20 times per game for a decade.
The original play featured Murray, Martin and those guys, but we subbed in Redskins personnel. Griffin (10) is the quarterback, Morris (46) the running back and Jackson (11) and Garcon (88) are the receivers. Jackson's presence on the outside will keep one of the safeties occupied. Young (36) is the fullback, and the pulling guards are Lauvao (77) and Spencer Long (60). If all the counter action works (two receivers right, fullback blocking right, Morris starting right, Griffin a bootleg threat to that side), Lauvao and Long do not have to be All-Pros; they will have an easy time picking off straggling defenders.
Let's add some Griffin-friendly bells and whistles to this pulling-lineman concept. How about a fake reverse?
Here's something the Cowboys ran against the Rams in Week 3. The Rams game was interesting because it was an example of the Cowboys offensive line meeting its match—that Rams D-line is nasty—forcing the Cowboys to get a little creative instead of telling Smith and Martin to go eat people. In the third quarter, they used the Rams' pursuit against them with a crazy counter sweep:
Again, let's insert the Redskins personnel and see how it looks.
Jason Witten gets replaced in the "flex" position on the left with Jordan Reed (86). Blocking tight end James Hanna on the right side is replaced by Redskins blocking tight end Logan Paulsen (82). Niles Paul (84), a big receiver turned tiny tight end, replaces Cowboys special teams tough guy Dwayne Harris (who is now with the Giants). Paul and Reed have to turn their defenders inside. Those are tricky assignments. But if the defenders follow the flow of the play, Reed and Paul just need to nudge them the way they were planning to go anyway. Left guard Lauvao and Pro Bowl left tackle Williams can have lots of fun blocking cornerbacks and safeties on the edge.
Jackson's fake end-around will attract a lot of attention while giving Callahan, Gruden and McVay plenty of options for, well, options. Imagine a variation on this play in which Griffin sprints right with Jackson as a pitch man. Imagine double play action, to Jackson and Morris, followed by a screen. And here's the best part: It's a three-tight end personnel group, so the Redskins could easily use the same personnel in a power formation to set up read-option runs, a bomb to Jackson…you name it.
Working as One
If Callahan reinvigorates the running game, it will both set up play-action opportunities and cut down on the number of 3rd-and-long situations the Redskins face. A crowded box against the run can also open up opportunities on receiver screens and short passes: Jackson, Garcon, Reed and the role players will be able to make the most of their open-field talents.
Replace some 3rd-and-10 strip-sacks with 3rd-and-5 situations, then throw six-yard passes instead of three-yarders in those situations, and the Redskins enjoy longer drives while surrendering fewer easy scoring opportunities to opponents. Games stay close, which means the Redskins can keep running the ball and using play action. Suddenly, everything clicks.
And we haven't even debated whether Griffin needs to run more or become a "traditional pocket passer," whatever the heck that is!
Neither the quarterback nor the coach need to overhaul everything they do to get the Redskins moving in the right direction. The Redskins already do a few things well offensively. Gruden needs to make changes to put his quarterback in better position to succeed. Griffin then must prove that he can capitalize on those opportunities. They must work in sync, and they need Morris, Callahan and others involved in the Redskins offense to sync up with them.
"Working in sync" hasn't been a coach-quarterback strong point in Washington for a long time. But if Gruden and Griffin can find middle ground, they will discover that solutions to their problems are not nearly as complex as they might look.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.