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I’ll take Potpourri for $200, Alex

A midweek look at unrelated thoughts about the Redskins

NFL: Washington Redskins-Training Camp Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

There’s no real strong theme to this article. It’s just a collection of short observations generated by some things I’ve seen, heard or read in the past few days.

Slot positions set in drying cement on both sides of the ball

Generally, Jay Gruden, like most coaches, resists naming starters or commenting very specifically on position battles this early in the preseason. I’ve been mildly surprised to see him make some fairly concrete admissions about presumed roster spots in the past few weeks. Back on the third day of training camp, when the calendar still said ‘July’, Jay talked about Trey Quinn as a receiver:

I expect him to take advantage of the inside receiver role, but he can play outside in base (offensive personnel) as well. He’s a very versatile player, but we just have to get him the ball and see how he does.

Redskins summer camp Photo by John McDonnell/The Washington Post via Getty Images

While this is not an unconditional commitment to Trey Quinn, it was a pretty strong indication that 3Q is projected as the primary slot receiver - an impression that has been fortified by coaching comments and reporting from journalists throughout camp. It appears that the competition now is for the backup role, since Quinn is the presumed starter.

Likewise, on Tuesday, Jay was asked about the slot defender role, and specifically about Fabian Moreau.

Yeah, right now if we started it’d probably be Fabian [Moreau], but still Jimmy [Moreland]’s done some great things in there. Of course, we got [Greg] Stroman who can still play in there.

Again, this doesn’t completely shut down the possibility of competition, it certainly is a pretty strong statement about Fabian Moreau, with the other defensive backs sounding as though they are vying for the backup role.

Washington Redskins v New York Giants Photo by Al Pereira/Getty Images

I wouldn’t describe either of these roster positions as ‘written in stone’, but they strike me as if they’ve been inscribed into fast drying cement. Jay usually likes to have his roster 95% figured out by the third preseason game, which is just two weeks away.

Let me put that in context by looking at one of Jay’s comments from earlier this week:

“Well, I think that’s what this camp is for - it’s really to work on your depth. You pretty much have a good idea with most positions who your starters are, but now it is important to find out who the back-up and core special team players are — and your depth positions and possible practice squad guys. We have a lot of good guys competing in that regard.

I think this is very much who Jay is; he comes to camp with a good idea about who his 22 starters and 3 special teams guys are gonna be. Training camp is really about selecting and sorting the other 28 players on the roster.

If I were Fabian Moreau or Trey Quinn, and I’d been listening to Jay’s press conferences (which they probably haven’t), I’d probably be feeling pretty good about my position on the team right now.

The importance of the depth chart ahead of the Browns game

Jay was asked about the depth chart this week, and he said this:

“Yeah it’s early and I was forced to make it. I wouldn’t have made a depth chart right now; there’s no reason to, it’s silly. That’s for the media — and for me to come up and answer these questions — but, really, that’s all it is. It’s words on a piece of paper, names on a piece of paper, and an order that means nothing at this point.”

I was watching Good Morning Football yesterday, and Kay Adams played the clip of Jay saying this, then tried to spin it as Jay blowing smoke about the quarterback position and trying to minimize the fact that Haskins was listed #3 and McCoy was listed #1. They actually had a 3 minute discussion on GMFB about whether or not Jay’s comments were revealing.

They weren’t.

Jay’s comments had nothing at all to do with the quarterback depth chart, and anyone who looked at Ryan Anderson ahead of Montez Sweat or Geron Christian ahead of Donald Penn would know that.

This is nothing new for Jay, and it’s absolutely not some kind of a “show” he’s putting on to mask the quarterback situation with Dwayne Haskins, as suggested by GMFB. Consider what Jay Gruden had to say on August 7th 2018 when he was asked how much importance to place on the first “unofficial” depth chart, released ahead of the first pre-season game against the Patriots last year:

Very little probably, it’s just something we had to put out there. I didn’t even really look at it so. I think Tony Wylie did it. Did you do it? You did. Good job, Tony.

So, last year, Jay indicated that he didn’t even look at the depth chart sent to the media — that it was put together by the guy in charge of Communications because it wasn’t worth Jay’s time.

If Kay Adams or anyone from GMFB is reading Hogs Haven today (maybe NFL Network’s Mike Robinson who sometimes subs for Nate Burleson... he’s a local guy who takes an interest in DMV sports), please take note that Jay is just being Jay. His comments on the “unofficial” depth chart are genuine, similar to what he said a year ago, and there’s not much to be learned from studying the document for clues about the quarterback situation in Washington.

Who has the Mike?

I wrote an article earlier this week in which I talked about the ten most important Redskins players. I took some mild criticism in the comments section for listing Jon Bostic #4. I identified Bostic as a critical member of the team when I wrote the article (and defended the decision in the comments section) primarily because I knew that Bostic had been charged with calling the defense; it was my understanding that he would be the guy with the green dot on his helmet this season.

I now find myself in the uncomfortable position of having to walk back a bit on the position that I staked out and defended in that article (beep, beep, beep).

This morning, I ran across this comment from Jay Gruden, given at a training camp press conference not too long ago, when he was asked about Jon Bostic calling the defense:

I think that’ll change. That can always change. Shaun Dion [Hamilton] understands that right now, but I think challenging Bostic right now with the microphone and getting used to calling it [is a good idea]. He has been in a [similar] system before at Indianapolis [Colts], so he understands it and knows it – very smart, very, very smart football player. He’s done it a little bit longer than Shaun Dion has. Right now, Bostic is a natural fit.”

I had been feeling like Bostic was ‘da man’ this season, and that he would be charged with the critical job of communicating the defense throughout the season. Jay doesn’t say that he won’t do that, but he makes it very clear that it’s not written in stone (or even fast drying cement). He not only says that SDH is capable of calling the defense, the first words out of his mouth are “that will change”.

NFL: Combine Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

So, to all of you who felt I was stupid or crazy for insisting that Jon Bostic was one of the ten most important Redskins, in the immortal words of Billy Joel, “you may be right”.

In Jay’s defense

Ken Meringolo wrote this week about Jay Gruden’s offensive-minded background, and the somewhat unexpected ad gradual shift of the Redskins roster to a defensive-led team.

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.

I share Ken’s bemusement.

Unlike many Redskins fans, I was not dismayed by the decision to trade for Alex Smith last year. In fact, I wrote a rather long article following the 2017 season in which I advocated for the creation of the team we fielded in 2018, and which we may still field in 2019. Remember, the following thoughts were written by me at the end of the ‘17 season, before we knew the final outcome with Kirk Cousins:

I’m content to see the Redskins take the field in September with Case Keenum, Teddy Bridgewater, AJ McCarron, Alex Smith or Ryan Tannehill under center IF Kirk leaves, as long as the defense is bolstered with excellent young talent at ILB, Safety and DL.

This ‘great defense, non-elite quarterback’ concept is by no means an innovative idea. I’ve heard the saying “Defense wins championships” since I was a boy, and lots of teams have had a lot of success by putting the burden on the defense to win games, allowing a quarterback who is merely good (not great) to do enough to win. We can look back to the ‘91 Redskins defense, who allowed the second-lowest points scored and had an +18 turnover ratio, giving quarterback Mark Rypien lots of chances to score points.

A more recent example would be the Minnesota Vikings, whose top ranked defense has allowed the Vikings to reach the playoffs despite starting a hobbled Sam Bradford early in the season, and career backup Case Keenum for the balance.

instead of focusing on the dollars spent to build the defense, I’d like to focus on draft resources. What I mean is that the Redskins are in a position to finish building a top-10 defense this season by repeating the kind of draft strategy that they used a year ago, and I detailed my ideas on this in a recent article. This would be both effective on the field of play, and effective in terms of salary cap management.

Let me just repeat the key idea from the OTC article:

“The goal of these teams is to create a defense that decreases the opponent’s quarterback to the point where your “lesser” quarterback can outperform that elite quarterback you’re facing in the playoffs.”

I was pleased when the Redskins acquired Alex Smith (though not pleased that Kendall Fuller was part of the acquisition cost). I spent much of the first half of the 2018 season writing repeated articles and comments extolling the virtues of the strategy employed by Jay Gruden. On 27 October last year, I wrote a 3,000 word article to praise the winning style of football being played by the Redskins, concluding with this summary:

Redskins football in 2018

Redskins football in 2018 is defensive football.

It is ball control football.

It is time of possession football.

It is low giveaway, high takeaway football.

It is field position football.

It is field goal football.

And, at 4-2, right now, it is winning football.

Unlike many others, I don’t think the winning record the team enjoyed in the first half of the ‘18 season was a fluke; I don’t think it happened in spite of Alex Smith; I also don’t think it was always destined to end.

NFL: Houston Texans at Washington Redskins Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

I simply believe that, after the end of Week 10, marked by the injury to Brandon Scherff, the team could no longer field a fully capable NFL roster, and that the Week 11 injury to Alex Smith put the final nail in the coffin. Prior to that - for nine games - the Redskins were playing a brand of football that reflected Jay’s ability to do what most people continually insist he can’t do; that is, he adjusted his coaching to the roster he was given.

In 2015 and ‘16, Jay had a quarterback that understood his system, a tough possession receiver in Pierre Garcon, a speed demon in Desean Jackson, a stout offensive line and one of the best pass-catching tight ends in the league. What he didn’t have was a top-tier running back or a stout defense. He ran a team that relied on Cousins distributing the ball to Reed, Garcon, Jackson and Chris Thompson in an attempt to outscore opponents, whom the Redskins defense couldn’t be relied on to stop.

By the time we got to last season - 2018 — Jay had a conservative quarterback unfamiliar with his offensive system, and a dearth of talented receivers. He was relying on a 33-years-old power back, and was blessed with a young defense with above average talent. He played ball-control offense, used a defense designed to stuff the run and make opponents’ offenses one-dimensional, and then counted on the talents of Tress Way - not to just punt the ball long every time — but to punt tactically, frequently pinning opponents inside their 15 yard line, forcing them to drive the field to score. Jay relied on game plans that allowed his reliable field goal kicker to win games where neither team scored above 20 points.

Related: The undervalued importance of Tress Way

From league statistics, if an NFL team takes possession of the ball on the 50 yard line, they will score a touchdown roughly 30% of the drives. At their own 30 yard line, they will score a touchdown about 20% of drives. At their own 15 yard line, it is about 15% of the time.

Across the NFL, the average number of offensive drives for a team in the season of 2018 was 174, or about eleven per game. Therefore on average. A team will score three touchdowns a game from the fifty, two touchdowns a game from the 30, and one to two from the 15 yard line. So, on average, not counting field goals, a team will score 7-14 points in a game if they consistently start inside the 20 yard line on their drives. On the other hand, they will score about 21 points, not counting field goals if they start consistently at about the 30 yard line. That is, on average, 7-10 points a game better, just based on that ten yard difference in starting field position.

This is why Tress Way is such a valuable weapon for this team this year. This appears to be, at first inspection, a field position/ball control team. If the defense is even close to what we all imagine and hope it will be, Way will make if VERY hard for anyone to score from that field position.

It is difficult to over-emphasize his importance to this team.

Jay was asked recently about the importance of the Redskins defense this season, 2019:

I think it’s important for our defense to hold down for 16, 17, 18, 19, 20 weeks. We have to be a great defense for sure. I think some of the great teams that have won Super Bowls have always been able to stand and lean on their defense and that’s what we’re trying to get to here. Offensively, we have to make sure we play smart. When we were 6-3, we were playing good defense, and we were not turning the ball over, and we were playing field position. We weren’t winning pretty, but we were winning games. That recipe can hold true for a very long time if we are playing great defense. We expect our defense to do that.

The first part of that comment is a challenge to the defense - both players and coaches - that played fantastic football for half a season a year ago, but wore down or fell apart in the second half of the year.

NFL: Washington Redskins at Dallas Cowboys Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Jay knows that they need to do the job consistently for the entire season.

But he also knows that a great defense can lead to championships, and Jay is indicating that his game plans for 2019 may not be terribly different from 2018.

Play smart, minimize giveaways, maximize takeaways, control the clock, punt when you have to, play the percentages.

I have no doubt that, if the receivers show that they are capable and a quarterback emerges with full understanding and control of the offense, Jay will be willing to open things up a la 2015-16.

But, while he’s patiently working on that and waiting for sufficient development to occur, I think we’re gonna see a lot of reliance on the running game and short passing game, and a huge focus on winning the twin battles of turnovers and field position.

NFL: Denver Broncos at Washington Redskins Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

If the offense isn’t ready yet, then Jay seems perfectly happy to rely on his defense, punter and kicker to lead the team to victory.