- When the Redskins hired Jay Gruden away from the Cincinnati Bengals sideline, I found the silver lining, but I had been writing for weeks at the time in favor of hiring his defensive coordinator counterpart there, Mike Zimmer. My thought at the time was that the Redskins could benefit from developing a defensive identity that would lead this team into the next era (it was still technically the RG3 era). After Gruden’s first five seasons in Washington, I find it interesting (maybe more amusing) that we are heading into a year counting on a talented defense to keep us in games and lead this team. This is not even close to an indictment on Jay Gruden, who took on the gargantuan task of benching and moving the team on from Dan Snyder’s best friend at the time, Robert Griffin III. Kirk Cousins and Jay Gruden teamed up for a productive stretch, and Gruden became the first coach that Dan Snyder EVER gave an extension to, one that is currently set to wrap up after the 2020 season. I start here today because I am once again putting a lot of eggs in Jay Gruden’s basket—a lot of faith and hope eggs. I expect there to be some critical comments of Gruden in the comments section below, and it is of course fair to compare and contrast him with his peers in the league, but there is something about Jay Gruden that I continue to find appealing as a Redskins fan. For starters, I think he is a player’s coach without being a Spurrier-type of coach. Jay is in charge, and he doesn’t take much crap from anyone, which draws immediate differences with the ol’ ball coach. As an offensive-minded coach, he has been able to uncork some decent stats out of that side of the ball, most notably when he has enjoyed a healthy roster. For an offensive-minded coach, the Redskins have been stout on defense—again, when healthy. Seasons have gone off the tracks for the Redskins when injuries depleted the lines of scrimmage—offensive and defensive linemen—as well as pretty mediocre performances in general from the wide receiver position. As we watch the team prepare for the season in the August heat, it strikes me that Jay Gruden has become a central character to our story, and not in a “your coach is on the hot seat” kind of way. He might be on the hot seat, but he has seemed very much in charge and in control of camp and what is going on with this team ahead of the 2019 campaign. Expectations for the Redskins this year are not exactly through the roof, the team is dealing with off-field drama and the quarterback situation is unsettled—we have been here COUNTLESS times it seems over the last 25+ seasons. In many of those instances, the drama at the head coach spot was just as much a part of the debacle as anything. I don’t think that is true this time. For better or worse, Jay Gruden continues to provide stability on the sideline and I think this may be one thing the Redskins front office is doing very right. Bottom line here: I don’t think Jay Gruden is the problem with the Redskins organization, and his continued presence provides a kind of steadiness that should benefit a team that about to hit the regular season without much league-wide fanfare. You might not consider this the most ringing endorsement of a coach, but I think Gruden continues to be underrated and undervalued, and he stands to be as much of a reason for possible success this season as any other storyline surrounding this team right now.
- I mentioned wide receiver above, and so I thought we could talk for a second about why we think things could be better this season. For one brief moment, let’s table the injury aspect of the discussion. By most accounts, it seems that Paul Richardson is showing why he belongs in the starting lineup. His speed and route-running have impressed this summer, and based on the sample size we saw last year before he got hurt (an issue with him to be sure), Richardson stands to make a difference in the passing game for the Redskins this year. I find it intriguing to consider what either Colt McCoy or Case Keenum would do with a healthy Paul Richardson. Alex Smith’s downfield tendencies (or lack thereof) are well-known in the league, but he was finding some success with Paul before the receiver went down. My gut says both Colt and Case would be a bit more trigger-happy launching it downfield to a speedy Richardson, though Smith’s deep-ball accuracy is as good as it gets. We welcome back yet another player from injury in Trey Quinn (remember...we aren’t predicting more injuries here) and he has been all but handed the slot job. I have been pretty much fully on board with Trey since we drafted him, as his college film showed he was a classy route-runner with great hands that had a nose for yards after the catch. This is very translatable to the league, and when he was healthy, he was able to find space. It sounds ludicrous to some of you, but I am feeling incredibly good about Trey as our slot receiver. (It is not lost on me how scary it is when I am counting the MOST on two guys who were unable to stay on the field last season, but again, we are playing the game right now on paper in this discussion.) Things start to unravel a little from here. Josh Doctson is a receiver with a ton to prove and a career to save this season. His athletic ability, catch radius and speed have been there. His opportunities have CERTAINLY been there. The production has not been there. One could argue that the Redskins could benefit from a former first-round pick attempting to prove to a future employer that he belongs in the starting lineup in this league. One could argue that Doc could benefit from an offense with a healthy Derrius Guice and a full battery of speed and athleticism around him in the passing game. I think the best news for us as fans is that the Redskins are no longer married to the idea that Doctson has to succeed here in D.C. I don’t see the offense forcing it to him the way it once did, and even more importantly, I don’t see the team even forcing him into the lineup. The presence of Terry McLaurin on this roster provides a strong backstop for any ongoing Doctson woes. If things with Doc stay bad—or mediocre—you could see a starting trio of Richardson, Quinn and McLaurin. Kelvin Harmon is also playing well this summer, and should see some reps early this season if Gruden is looking for size or just a spark. This is all to say that our passing game is not held hostage to Docton’s draft spot anymore. With names like Robert Davis and Cam Sims dropped here and there, I am confident that Gruden will have the liberty of creating a receiving corps built for the next few seasons, as opposed to being beholden to decisions that were made in previous years. (Crazy, I know.)
- The offensive line remains kind of a depressing topic. We have yet to extend Brandon Scherff. Trent Williams remains at home. Ereck Flowers is still being bandied about as a starter along the line. That, plus the fact we have started about 32,875 different offensive line configurations over the last few years has me worried. I will kind of rest this point on the fact that when the Redskins have started the season healthy, the offensive line has been among the better offensive lines in the league. Bill Callahan is as good an offensive line coach as they come, and I think rookies Wes Martin and Ross Pierschbacher are upgrades from some of the depth we have had at the end of the last couple seasons.
- When people ask me about an impact player that joined the team via draft or free agency, I skip right past Dwayne Haskins and Landon Collins and go straight to pimping Montez Sweat. I know he is banged up a little bit still, but he is “almost ready to return.” In today’s NFL, getting to the quarterback is the name of the game, and Montez Sweat is a player that can do exactly that. I was begging for a blue-chip pass rusher out of the draft, and that is exactly what we have in Sweat. If he is capable of applying pressure out of the gate, the Redskins will be a very good team. It sounds crazy, but it could be that simple. The Redskins were good last season at creating pressure to be sure, but we did not have a player like Sweat. When a defense has an elite athlete with alien measurables, it is a big-time difference-maker. So much of what makes a secondary show up in highlight videos has to do with quarterback pressure. The additive effect of Sweat on top of what we get from a Jonathan Allen/Daron Payne/Matt Ioannidis front should be meaningful, and I don’t even think that is homery optimism.
- Getting back to Jay Gruden again, and uncapping the injury topic for a second, I like his emphasis on getting the most out of these practices in helmets and pads. He believes—and has said—that the only way you get better is by playing. I love that this is considered a wacky idea to some in this day of hyper-inflated injury fears. As a Redskins fan, I have grown to understand...intimately...how it feels to see injuries derail games and seasons. I know the risks that go with putting million-dollar athletes on the field during “meaningless” moments. I guess I am just thinking that we need to redefine “meaningless” at this point in time. If we were coming off a Super Bowl win—or a playoff appearance—maybe we could split hairs on how you prepare for a season. That ain’t our reality. Whatever constitutes as a “more physical” training camp these days strikes me as exactly what we need. Again, I think Jay Gruden is the right guy to lead that kind of effort.
- We will be bringing you the flavor of a Tuesday night early this week. The Audible, the official Redskins podcast of Hogs Haven, will be live tonight on our YouTube channel, and I thought we could catapult into that discussion with some other names that weren’t mentioned in this column so far. Are you a Ryan Anderson believer? Why? If you had to choose between Colt McCoy and Case Keenum, who do you have, and why? How do you see the #4, #5 and #6 cornerback spots playing out? Check us out here, and subscribe for free for notifications about when we go live. It’s free! We look forward to including your comments and questions on tonight’s show.
‘Tis the time of year to get behind Jay Gruden!!