In what was a typically tumultuous offseason for the Redskins, the most significant upheaval occurred in the head coach’s office, where the team switched from a gritty ex-quarterback still driven by his failure to make it to the NFL as a player to a gritty ex-quarterback still driven by his failure to make it to the NFL as a player.
The hope, however, is that new Redskins coach Jay Gruden will succeed where Mike Shanahan failed — by instilling a healthier, less suffocating culture around the team, avoiding major personnel blunders and, most important, connecting on both a professional and emotional level with third-year quarterback Robert Griffin III.
On the field, the Redskins’ fortunes remain tethered to the health and production of the talented but headstrong Griffin, whose first 24 months in the NFL included a slew of endorsements, a division title, a Rookie of the Year award, a devastating knee injury and an unceremonious benching at the end of 2013. His third season will be a pivotal one both for Griffin and for the franchise that employs him.
To this point, Gruden’s coaching career has been one long education in offensive philosophy — from his days at Louisville playing under Howard Schnellenberger to his apprenticeship in Tampa Bay under big brother Jon to his many years building a reputation as an offensive savant in football’s bush leagues (AFL, UFL, WLAF). But he has never had a weapon at his disposal quite like Griffin. What will Gruden do with him?
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Here’s what he won’t do: Run him 120 times, as Shanahan did in 2012. The read-option offense — a significant and controversial part of the offense Shanahan designed for Griffin — will be used sparingly, as Gruden’s self-described top priority with Griffin is keeping the young man healthy. Griffin may finally get his wish: An opportunity to prove himself as a classic, drop-back passer — albeit one who can still take it to the house with his legs at any time.
The Redskins’ most significant personnel move of the offseason was signing Pro Bowl receiver/kick returner DeSean Jackson away from Philadelphia, simultaneously giving themselves another playmaking receiver to pair with Pierre Garçon and weakening a division rival. The Redskins have so much receiver depth now — with Aldrick Robinson and newly signed Andre Roberts on board — that veteran Santana Moss could have a hard time making the roster.
Gruden’s offenses have traditionally been heavily tight end-centric, which could portend a monster season for Jordan Reed, who was on his way to an 80-catch rookie season in 2013 before a concussion cut short his campaign. Griffin loves him as a target, and even with veteran Logan Paulsen — a superior blocker who can also line up at fullback — returning in 2014, Reed should be a major part of the offense.
Another player who could benefit from Gruden’s arrival is Roy Helu Jr., a talented running back who was sometimes buried in Shanahan’s offense. Although third-year pro Alfred Morris remains the Redskins’ go-to back on first and second downs, Helu’s pass-catching abilities could make him an essential third-down presence in Gruden’s offense, which highly values pass-catching running backs. The third running back on the roster is likely to be sixth-round pick Lache Seastrunk out of Baylor.
Of all the victims of Shanahan’s micro-managing ways, perhaps nobody had it worse than defensive coordinator Jim Haslett, who was frequently overruled by his head coach and, by all accounts, forced to rein in his preferred attacking style. That is expected to change under Gruden, who coached under Haslett briefly in the UFL and who has given Haslett full autonomy to run the defense any way he sees fit.
What will that mean on the field? For starters it means outside linebacker Brian Orakpo is likely to be unleashed as a pass-rusher rather than dropping into coverage as he frequently did last season. The same is likely to be true, to an extent, of the other outside linebacker, Ryan Kerrigan. This is a make-or-break season for Orakpo, whom the Redskins hit with the franchise tag, and at the very least he should get an honest chance to prove he is an elite pass-rusher.
Orakpo will have a new partner in the pursuit of quarterbacks after the Redskins signed defensive lineman Jason Hatcher away from the archrival Dallas Cowboys this offseason. Hatcher is 32, but is coming off a career-best 11 sacks in 2013. The Redskins are likely to shift him from tackle to end to take greater advantage of his pass-rushing skills. Hatcher underwent arthoscopic knee surgery in June and missed the early part of training camp, but he should be ready to go for the regular season.
Haslett’s 2013 defense tied for 30th in the NFL in most points allowed, and nowhere were the deficiencies more obvious than in the secondary, which seemed to consist of only two kinds of players — aging veterans and underachieving youngsters. The re-signing of veterans DeAngelo Hall and Brandon Meriweather and the signing of 34-year-old Ryan Clark this offseason suggest the team still doesn’t fully trust younger secondary players such as David Amerson, Philip Thomas and Baccari Rambo. Clark may be the one to step into the leadership void created by the retirement of London Fletcher.
The Redskins ranked 32nd in net punting average, tied for 31st in yards per kickoff return and 28th in yards per punt return — among other issues. Step one in fixing the problem was hiring Ben Kotwica, a detail-oriented West Point product, away from the Jets to serve as special teams coordinator. Next, the Redskins jettisoned punter Sav Rocca (and added Robert Malone, formerly of the Buccaneers, Lions and Jets), and stocked up on special teams-oriented linebackers, such as Akeem Jordan, Darryl Sharpton and Adam Hayward. The expected return of reliable long-snapper Nick Sundberg from knee surgery should also shore up the punting and field goal units. Kicker Kai Forbath will be in a battle for his job during training camp after the team drafted Zach Hocker out of Arkansas in the seventh round.
The first shot at returning punts is likely to go to either Chris Thompson or Richard Crawford — with Jackson a possible wild card, given his success returning punts early in his career — while kick returning duty could fall to either Thompson or Roberts.
In the span of a calendar year, Griffin went from the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year to a backup. Over the same year, the Redskins went from an NFC East champion to a 3–13 embarrassment. The parallels are no coincidence; the Redskins will rise or fall in direct relationship with the performance of their quarterback. The hope is that with a new coach he trusts, a bolstered offensive attack and another year between him and knee surgery, Griffin can lead the Redskins back to the playoffs in 2014. They have the pieces to do it.