ASHBURN — Every coach has favorite traits they covet and pet peeves they particularly abhor. As NFL rosters league-wide are culled from 90 to 53 this weekend, those preferences will seep into choices made of who to cut and who to keep.
Jay Gruden is a former quarterback, so one of his personal bugaboos is not surprising: run your gosh-darn routes right, or else.
“If coach Gruden, sometimes I feel like if I didn’t run a choice route correctly he would really get on me or try to go find somebody else,” running back Chris Thompson, a third-down specialist who is used often in the Redskins passing game, said, laughing. “That’s one of his things.”
A choice route is exactly what it sounds like. Thompson has to read the defense and decide whether to break the route in or out, or sit it down. He has about a second or so to figure out which. It’s something that both receiver Jamison Crowder and tight end Jordan Reed do a lot of in the Redskins’ system. Thompson is technically a running back, but he goes out to catch passes a lot, and as much precision is expected of him as any wideout.
This is important in Washington’s offense, which relies on a lot of screens in the shorter passing game and combination routes deeper down the field. Both require precision. In 2016, the Redskins had the NFL’s second-best offense by passing yards. Quarterback Kirk Cousins’ 4.85 air yards per attempt ranked first among quarterbacks with over 500 passing yards, yet Cousins still was eighth in the NFL in completion percentage (he was first in 2015).
Yes, there’s a gunslinging mentality to throwing deep, but longer routes take more time to develop. The Redskins were throwing the ball relatively far and completing those passes, indicating that Cousins was timing his drops right and his receivers were winding up where he wanted them.
“The timing, the timing, that’s really everything in the offense,” said Crowder, who accounted for 847 yards last season. “You’ve got to be on your detail. We call it being ‘on your detail.’ If I need to get 10 yards then for the quarterback to get his drop, be at the top of his drop, then all that has to be within the timing because if I’m early, then the quarterback has to speed his drop up and the timing of the play is just all off.
Crowder, of course, is more involved in the short passing game as a slot receiver. Route-running is critical in the slot, where there’s more traffic and less space to create separation with sheer speed. It has to be done with timing. Crowder averaged 3.6 yards of separation last season at the point he was targeted at, best in the NFL among receivers who saw at least 50 percent of their targets in the slot and had at least 84 targets according to the NFL’s NextGen Stats.
According to Crowder, that’s partially a product of the coaching he’s received.
“Just being detailed on your routes and being in cahoots with the quarterback, that’s everything in the offense so yeah, it’s something that coach Gruden, they really emphasize a lot of because you have to be on your timing,” Crowder said.
And if you’re not?
“You’ll hear about it,” Crowder said. “You’ll hear about it because he [Gruden] played quarterback.”
Precise timing is a factor in every NFL offense. The degree to which it is a factor varies. Chances are, teams with offensive-minded coaches like the Redskins rely on it more.
“I played on a team with a defensive-minded coach so coming for an offensive-minded coach it’s different and it’s exciting,” said receiver Brian Quick, who played for Jeff Fisher in Los Angeles last season. The Rams were working with a rookie quarterback and a less complex playbook on offense.
When the head coach has made his living on one side of the ball, there’s less that players on that side can get away with.
“You are held to a higher standard because he knows,” Quick said. “What he wants is you to learn, not keep making the same mistakes. That’s all it is. He teaches, he understands, he expects a lot so that’s the good thing about it. He doesn’t sugarcoat everything.”