- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 26, 2019

ASHBURN — Months before he was fired, former Redskins coach Jay Gruden sat at a table during the league owners meetings in a particularly cheery mood. As he faced questions over the availability of injury-ridden players like tight end Jordan Reed, Gruden took an optimistic approach.

Even with the Redskins decimated by injuries the past two seasons, Gruden swore 2019 was going to be different. 

“We’re going to buck the trends, man,” Gruden said with a laugh. “Jordan is going to be just fine. I promise you.”

That promise turned out to be wishful thinking. Reed suffered a season-ending concussion in the preseason, an injury that ended up being just one of the dozens of reasons Washington is finishing with one of its worst records under owner Dan Snyder. 

After Sunday’s season finale against the Dallas Cowboys, the franchise faces a significant roster overhaul this offseason.

Add in what is likely to be new coaching staff — and possibly a new front office — and it would seem the Redskins are years away from relevancy. But this is the NFL, where a flailing team that makes the right moves can — occasionally, amazingly — engineer a complete U-turn.

For the Redskins to make that turnaround, here’s what needs to go right.

The quarterback jump

Upgrades at quarterback often factor into rags-to-riches stories. The 2001 New England Patriots improved to 11-5 from 5-11 the year before in large part because Tom Brady replaced Drew Bledsoe.

Sometimes, the upgrade doesn’t show up immediately. Peyton Manning’s Indianapolis Colts went 3-13 his rookie year, with the future Hall of Famer throwing a league-high 28 picks. Manning, though, played much better in 1999, his sophomore campaign, taking advantage of talented playmakers in Marvin Harrison and Edgerrin James.

No one is comparing Dwayne Haskins to a young Brady or Manning at this point, but the Redskins rookie quarterback improved steadily in recent weeks.

Over his first four appearances, Haskins threw two touchdowns to five interceptions with a 58.9 quarterback rating. Over the next five, he threw five touchdowns to two interceptions with an 87 rating.

“He has a taste of what it takes,” Redskins running back Adrian Peterson said. “You’ve seen him throughout these last couple weeks put in the work and go out there and produce. So now that he knows the recipe, he just has to continue to develop those skills.

“Based on what I’ve seen in him the last couple of weeks, the sky’s the limit for him.”

Coaching matters

Sometimes, there just needs to be someone else wearing the headset on the sidelines. 

When the Kansas City Chiefs finished 2-14 in 2012, ownership decided to clean house — firing coach Romeo Crennel and later general manager Scott Pioli. In came Andy Reid, an offensive mastermind who led the Chiefs to an 11-5 record in his first season. Reid and general manager John Dorsey built a roster to fit Reid’s scheme. In 2013, they traded for a new quarterback (Alex Smith) and signed 17 players in free agency.

“Every coach is different, they’re going to bring in their own vibe,” said Redskins left tackle Donald Penn, who has experienced his share of coaching changes.

Not every hire, of course, proves to be a home run. Remember how last year every team rushed to find their own version of Los Angeles Rams coach Sean McVay? Of the six teams to hire an offensive-minded head coach in 2019, only one — Matt LaFleur’s Packers — ranks in the top half of offensive efficiency.

Still, coaching clearly makes a difference. The 2008 Miami Dolphins went 11-5 after going just 1-15 the year prior in part thanks to coach Tony Sparano’s wildcat offense that caught opposing defenses off guard. They remain the last team not named the New England Patriots to win the AFC East.

This offseason, the Redskins will have to decide what type of coach they’re looking for. Will Snyder look to make another big splash? Rumors of Urban Meyer and Eric Bieniemy swirl.

The Redskins, too, will have to convince top candidates this is a job worth taking. The outside view of Washington remains low — with ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay recently blasting the Redskins’ coaching opening as the worst in the league. “I’d rather coach 31 other teams, let’s put it that way,” McShay told radio host Dan Patrick.

In October, former Redskins offensive coordinator and current 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan — whose father was fired by Snyder — chose his words carefully when he was asked what advice he would give anyone interested in the Washington job.

“Just look into it, see what the situation is and who you want to work for,” Shanahan said. “I mean, anytime you get opportunities you’ve got to look into it, but … I’m probably not the person they want to call on that advice.”

Finding an identity

Washington does offer potential new coaches a roster dotted with young talent. Besides Haskins, there is a promising receiver corps led by Terry McLaurin, Steven Sims Jr. and Kelvin Harmon. And running back Derrius Guice, even with his knee injuries, seems like a playmaker as long as he’s able to stay on the field.

On the defensive line, the Redskins are stocked, with Daron Payne, Jonathan Allen, Matt Ioannidis, Montez Sweat and Ryan Kerrigan. On the back end, they have Pro Bowler Landon Collins and Quinton Dunbar, who was one of Pro Football Focus’ highest-rated cornerbacks this season.

Redskins veteran cornerback Aaron Colvin knows what it’s like when a young team finally clicks. In 2017, the 28-year-old was part of a fearsome Jacksonville Jaguars defense that fueled the team’s run to the AFC Championship. Those Jaguars were just 3-13 in 2016, but finished 10-6 the next year.

That Jaguars team, featuring stars like Jalen Ramsey and Yannick Ngakoue, found its identity early on, Colvin said.

“We had a lot of bold guys who didn’t really hold their tongue,” Colvin said. “It was kind of infectious throughout the locker room just because that was our normal. That wasn’t an act.”

While every team is different, the Redskins arguably never developed an identity this season. After Gruden’s firing in Week 5, interim coach Bill Callahan implemented a hard-nosed, run-first system but it didn’t translate into wins. The Redskins are 3-7 since Callahan’s promotion.

Callahan said he thought the Redskins were close, but acknowledged that isn’t good enough in the NFL.

“I always say it’s a great game, but it’s a brutal business,” Callahan said. “I tell that to the players every day and that’s where we’re at.”

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