This year’s version of a Washington Redskins personnel meeting features several new characters after the team’s loud offseason. A defensive coordinator known for his passion and a brash, veteran offensive line coach were hired, and a taekwondo grandmaster even set up shop to work on their pass rush.
But to coach the quarterbacks, they added 36-year veteran Matt Cavanaugh, who has been steeping in fundamentals-first football since 1956. That’s when he was born in Youngstown, Ohio, a city once home to a team in the league that eventually became the NFL.
Cavanaugh has three Super Bowl rings — and now has three quarterbacks under his tutelage who started games for the Redskins last season. One tally he won’t add to is the number of coaches who can be found screaming at practice.
“As a player, I didn’t need to be yelled at. I wanted somebody to just talk to me,” Cavanaugh said. “It’s easy to talk to somebody in a calm voice [after] they made a mistake and make your point and move on from it. That’s the way I like to be coached and that’s kind of my method. I’m not naturally a very vocal guy. I’m not loud. I’ll get upset every once in a while, but for the most part, I just want to talk to you, I want to help you, I want to help you get better.”
There’s plenty of help needed. Cavanaugh’s task will be to restore starting quarterback Robert Griffin III’s confidence and effectiveness after a season in which Griffin threw just four touchdown passes, lost five of the seven games he started and missed others due to injury and performance problems.
He’ll also reduce the workload on coach Jay Gruden. The Redskins and the Patriots were the only two teams in the NFL without coaches for their quarterbacks last season.
“Now we have a set of eyes strictly on the quarterback, and I think that’s important,” Gruden said. “Every snap, every handoff, every drop-back is being critiqued and making sure we do it the right way, and I think it’s been a big benefit for Robert.”
Besides Griffin, Cavanaugh will also have to keep backups Colt McCoy and Kirk Cousins, who shared the starts Griffin missed, ready in case things don’t go as planned. It’ll be the first time, Cavanaugh said, that he’s had three quarterbacks on the depth chart who are all “veterans” with starting experience.
“When you do have that third guy who’s a young guy who you’re developing, you almost don’t care like, ‘Your time will come, Johnny, just shut up,’ but these guys need their reps,” Cavanaugh said. “They want to be on the field.
Griffin took about 60 percent of the practice reps during the offseason, with McCoy and Cousins sharing the leftovers, but Cavanaugh said that could flip when training camp rolls around to make sure that McCoy and Cousins are still in game shape.
No matter what, Cavanaugh expects all three quarterbacks to watch every play. He doesn’t refer to starters or backups when he talks to them and focuses on base and reading defenses, things not particular to any one player.
“I tell the quarterbacks, it’s the hardest position in sports but you can make it easier on yourself by being fundamentally sound and by knowing a defense better than the defense knows themselves. That’s what the great ones do. The game slows down for them because they trust their fundamentals,” Cavanaugh said. “I’ll never succumb to somebody saying that doesn’t work. Great fundamentals is the key.”
Cavanaugh has seen plenty of greats at work. In 2007, as the offensive coordinator at Pittsburgh, Cavanaugh’s alma mater, he coached tailback LeSean McCoy to breaking Pitt freshman records in points and rushing touchdowns that were set by Cavanaugh’s own teammate, Tony Dorsett, in 1973.
Cavanaugh himself quarterbacked the Panthers to an undefeated season in and a national championship over Georgia in the Sugar Bowl in 1976, in which he turned in an MVP performance. Dorsett won the Heisman Trophy that year. Cavanaugh finished seventh in the Heisman voting the year after, having insisted, unromantically, to the press all year that his chances were “slim.”
He was drafted in 1978 in the second round by New England, but was a backup for the majority of his career. He spent stints of four years or less with the Patriots, 49ers, Eagles and Giants and received Super Bowl rings backing up Joe Montana and Jeff Hostetler.
He retired as a player after the 1991 season, having made 112 appearances with 19 starts and throwing for 28 touchdowns and 31 interceptions, and he went to coordinate the offense at Pitt. His first NFL coaching job came two years later where he coordinated Arizona’s offense before moving on to the 49ers, Bears, Ravens, and Jets.
It was in Baltimore where Cavanaugh picked up his third Super Bowl win, his first as a coach, after the 2000 season.
He coached quarterback Trent Dilfer, who entered midway through the season after coach Brian Billick benched starter Tony Banks. The team won with defense, allowing just seven points to the Giants in the Super Bowl, but Dilfer credits Cavanaugh with instilling in him the confidence to perform on the game’s biggest stage.
“I think what he did for me more than anything else was that he believed in me, he believed in me from day one. I don’t think Billick ever did,” said Dilfer, who is now an NFL analyst for ESPN. “But Matt really really believed in me.”
Cavanaugh, who coached the Bears’ quarterbacks last season, did not have his contract renewed after coach Marc Trestman was fired. Dilfer called Cavanaugh one of the best offseason hires in the NFL, because he thinks Cavanaugh can help give Griffin some “mental rehab.” According to multiple reports last season, Gruden didn’t trust Griffin to be an effective quarterback, and Griffin’s public presence has, at times, irked teammates.
“Matt’s a 30,000-foot guy. He’ll look at steady improvements and how you’re preparing. Even after a bad game, he’ll come away with a list of things you did well before he grinds you on the things you need to improve on, and I think that’s perfect for RG3,” Dilfer said. “He needs that guy who is going to help rehabilitate his confidence and get him believing that he’s the dude again.”
Griffin showed glimmers of progress during the team’s minicamp last week. The Tuesday session was his best, where his downfield vision seemed much improved. And Griffin said that when Cavanaugh talks, he listens.
“I think he’s done a great job of helping me [see things in different ways],” Griffin said. “You want to continue to add to your game every single year. You can never shut your ears off and not listen to a guy with that much experience.”
Cousins and McCoy, waiting in the wings, can take heart in the fact that Cavanaugh knows the plight of a backup.
“I’ve had a lot of QB coaches, but I think he’s really, really sharp,” McCoy said. “He’s got lots of wisdom and knowledge, and he’s real stern. He’s going to set you straight if you mess up and he’s going to pat you on the back if you do a good job, so you know, I appreciate that.”
Cavanaugh has already asked the players to engage in some self-reflection. He had all three quarterbacks write down what they perceive their strengths and weaknesses to be before offseason workouts began. When Dilfer was a backup, Cavanaugh kept him mentally sharp by assigning him studies on blitz pickups.
Even with his measured personality, Cavanaugh has no intention of helping design an offense to protect Griffin or any other quarterback. His career, he said, taught him that all have to expand their comfort zones.
“I think more than anything just the people I was around were very demanding of the quarterback. I don’t think you can baby a quarterback, you’ve got to be tough on them. You’ve got to be demanding. You’ve got to look for excellence knowing that you’re probably not going to get perfection but you can get excellence,” Cavanaugh said.
Excellence would be another new addition to the team. Cavanaugh’s strategy for getting there won’t involve being the loudest guy in the room, which could help. Noise surrounding the Redskins quarterbacks, after all, would be nothing new.