RG3 & Co. Relying on Bill Callahan’s Magic
One of the most respected teachers of offensive line play in football, Bill Callahan oversaw a Cowboys’ rushing attack in 2014 that turned out to be one of the best the NFL has seen in recent memory. Behind an athletic, young front five, DeMarco Murray ran for a league-leading 1,845 yards. Caught in the right sort of mood, Callahan would probably tell you Murray could have had several hundred more yards. The run blocking in Dallas was that good. Now Washington is counting on Callahan’s magic to get the team back in contention in the NFC East. While Murray made all the headlines this offseason, leaving Dallas for Philadelphia, Callahan also moved within the division, with the hope that he can ease the burden on Robert Griffin III just as he did for Tony Romo.
Dallas’s zone running success made Romo more of a complementary player. Asked to shoulder less of the burden, he often played ahead in the down and distance, enjoyed a more dynamic play-action game and operated in cleaner pockets. Overall, he did the best he’s ever done at consistently working through his progressions. From there, the Cowboys capitalized on having a talent advantage with wideout Dez Bryant and tight end Jason Witten.
Shuffle over to Washington. Callahan has a lot of similar circumstances at his new home. Start with the front five. Left tackle Trent Williams is on par with Tyron Smith athletically. If his technique becomes steadier, Williams, who figures to be offered a long-term contract when his rookie deal expires after this season, might even outrank Smith on some lists. On the other side is Brandon Scherff, a first-round rookie whom the team hopes is this year’s Zack Martin. Martin, of course, moved from left tackle at Notre Dame to right guard in Dallas. Scherff, a left tackle at Iowa, is probably best suited for this exact same transition, though head coach Jay Gruden and his staff plan to make him the long-term answer at right tackle. (Consider this their shell shock from having to call on Tyler Polumbus and Tom Compton at right tackle last year. Also, consider this a bad commentary on what they think of 2014 third-round pick Morgan Moses, who was presumably drafted to one day assume the right tackle duties. Moses’s mechanical struggles last year were at times hard to watch when he was filling in at left tackle, and he did not always look mentally prepared.)
Alfred Morris is one of the game’s best perimeter runners, which is why you can expect Jay Gruden to continue calling stretch handoffs, pitches and sweeps.was
Just like in Dallas, Callahan’s zone ground game will be boosted by receivers who make a defense think twice about bringing a safety down in the box. DeSean Jackson is not as diverse as Dez Bryant, but he’s an equal if not superior big-play threat, capable of tracking deep balls or exploding for chunk yards after the catch. Jackson’s 13 receptions of 40-yards-or-more last year were five more than the next highest total (Jordy Nelson) and eight more than Bryant’s.
• Also on The MMQB: Emily Kaplan’s Training Camp Report on Washington
Jackson does not deal well with physicality, and his shoddy route-running habits can prevent him from winning at the intermediate levels the way Bryant does. But where Jackson is lacking, the receiver opposite him, Pierre Garcon, excels. Garcon is an outstanding mid-range target, capable of separating from slower DBs and posting up smaller ones. This makes him valuable in quick-bang play-action, a key complement to a zone ground game.
At tight end, it’s precarious to say an injury prone third-year pro is better than Witten, a 10-time Pro Bowler Witten—and you’re not going to read that declaration here. But make no mistake: Jordan Reed has a chance to become the most feared tight end in the NFC East, if not the entire NFC. He’s the smoothest runner the game has at his position. Reed can be a matchup problem wherever he lines up. Last season, this included as a single receiver on the weak side, where he took over on late drives to help win games against Tennessee and Dallas.
Lastly, there’s the man delivering everyone the ball. Washington needs Callahan’s zone game to relegate Robert Griffin to complementary status much more than the Cowboys ever needed this to happen for Romo. Last season Griffin regressed in his footwork, mechanics and sense of timing. He showed little understanding for how routes relate to coverages. Because of this—and because Kirk Cousins has been far too up and down to be given a starting job—Gruden will have to protect Griffin through play-calling. Look for variations of the play-action and moving pocket tactics that Shanahan employed in his zone game with Griffin. Gruden isn’t as big on Griffin’s legs as Shanahan was. And truth be told, Griffin isn’t as coordinated or as explosive a runner as he was during his rookie season. But he is still a great athlete playing quarterback; it will be interesting to see if Callahan adds a zone-read wrinkle to his ground game.
By season’s end, improvements in Washington will be tied to the new O-line coach and what he does with his vaunted zone rushing attack.
Washington Nickel Package
1. Helping Griffin’s cause is the fact that Jay Gruden hired a quarterbacks coach, something he didn’t do a year ago. Matt Cavanaugh, a nearly two-decade long NFL assistant, is aboard to handle many of the daily QB interactions that had fallen on the plate of offensive coordinator Sean McVay. You can bet that McVay, and especially Gruden himself, will still have steady contact with whoever is under center. But now there’s someone who actually has the time to work with Griffin on the rudimentary elements of quarterbacking throughout the season.
2. It was time for Jim Haslett to go. Creative as the team’s five-year defensive coordinator might be, Haslett last season was once again hamstrung by a weakened secondary and finally got wildly out-schemed in multiple games. New coordinator Joe Barry is an interesting hire. He was a Tampa 2 coordinator with Detroit in 2007-08 and coached 4-3 linebackers in Tampa Bay before and after his time in the Motor City. But Barry spent the past four seasons coaching linebackers under John Pagano in San Diego, where he worked in a more variegated 3-4 defense. He’s bringing that scheme with him to Washington.
3. The commitment to the 3-4 explains the free-agent signings of nose tackle Terrance Knighton and defensive end Stephen Paea. Fascinatingly, neither has actually played in a true 3-4 before. Knighton has spent his six NFL years as a nose shade on Jacksonville and Denver’s four-man front; Paea was a defensive tackle in Chicago’s 4-3. But both players have ideal skillsets for their new positions. Knighton is big and light-footed. Paea has great strength and can shed blocks. In fact, Washington might be one of the few defenses that can get more than just the hoped-for stalemates out of its three-man D-line.
4. Barry’s most important work will come in his sub-package designs. Washington played almost all nickel on passing downs last season and opponents feasted on inside linebacker Perry Riley, who was often forced to cover wide receivers over the middle. A three-safety or four-corner dime package eliminates these mismatches. The problem, however, is who does Barry bring off the bench to fill these roles? Much like how Haslett was hamstrung, Barry doesn’t have great secondary depth.
5. Washington’s corners will be boom or bust. The guess here is bust. Bashaud Breeland (currently battling a knee injury) improved as a rookie last season, but he started from a very low point and reports of his progress were exaggerated because some of his best moments happened to come in nationally televised games. The other corner, newcomer Chris Culliver, had character issues and was prone to mistakes in San Francisco. And DeAngelo Hall, of course, is coming off an Achilles injury.