Don’t Reach for the Panic Button in Washington
Jay Gruden isn’t trying to smother lipstick on the Redskins’ oinker of a 0-2 start, but he’s also not about to feed into the predictable beltway hysteria.
So if you calm down a little, he’ll explain why this isn’t the beginning of the end for Kirk Cousins, just nine months removed from the then-27-year-old flipping the mindset of Washington’s entire fan base.
“I just think he’s a young, developing quarterback,” Gruden said on Wednesday, just before hitting the practice field. “He’s had a lot of good plays, he’s thrown for almost 700 yards. It’s not like he’s been a total slap---- out there. Yes, he’s missed some opportunities, but it’s like people expect him to go 30-for-35 with nine touchdowns every week. It doesn’t work that way.
“Playing quarterback is tough in this league—it’s very, very tough. It’ll be tough against the Giants this week, tough against the Browns next week, and the Ravens after that. It’s not easy. We just have to figure out ways to make him more comfortable.”
In my Week 3 Game Plan, we’ll delve deeper into why the Vikings still have reason to believe that now is (still) their time, go into why the Raiders present Las Vegas with its only chance at being an NFL city, research if Rex Ryan’s coaching-staff shakeup can work and try to ascertain Jimmy Garoppolo’s trade value.
But after listening to a lot of screaming about the Redskins’ quarterback situation—both past and present—I figured now was a good time to take the temperature in D.C. with the man in charge.
In the aftermath of Sunday’s 27-23 loss to the Cowboys, I saw a lot of time spent this week looking back on how Gruden handled the ups-and-downs of Robert Griffin III in comparison to Cousins’ issues, which is a conversation that usually sneaks into areas that it shouldn’t (it’s not a racial thing, guys). Here’s the truth, as I know it: Gruden is as blunt and honest as they come, and it bleeds into how he assesses players.
Players, in turn, appreciate that about coaches—and they do about Gruden, so long as it’s not an effort to assign blame. And it never is with him, though he did have one notable slip-up. That was in November 2014, when Griffin said that a quarterback only plays well if his teammates do their job, and Gruden fired back passionately.
“There was the one issue, that was it. Some people acted like I constantly trashed him,” Gruden said. “I don’t think I’m treating anyone differently. I learned a lot from that one press conference, and I took responsibility for it. Should’ve kept it in-house. But I’m never trying to put a lot of blame on one person. If things aren’t right, it’s usually because of more than that. And right now, we have a lot to clean up.”
With all of that out of the way, there are things to pick apart with Cousins.
The criticism I’ve heard from Cousins’ coaches in the past— and universally they really like him as a guy and a player—is that he has a tendency to overthink everything. He does a ton of work. He’s smart. And that can lead to being too-by-the-book. As I’ve heard it, he sometimes sticks too strictly to coaching, and that’s when mistakes come.
When I asked about it, Gruden said, “I’m not sure if it’s because he’s overanalyzed things, but he’s tentative sometimes.” And some have wondered, fairly, if those tendencies might come into play with his contract situation. He’s making $19.95 million this year on the franchise tag, with a chance to score a nine-figure payday on the other end of it.
Is he pressing?
“I think he’s always gonna press,” Gruden continued. “There’s always that part of him, that feels like he has something to prove. I mean, he’s a starting quarterback in the NFL, he’s already proven a lot to a lot of people. There are only 32 of those guys, who play quarterback at the highest level. And he broke single-season records out the ying-yang last year.
“Look, it’s not the start we wanted, or everyone expected. But that doesn’t mean he won’t turn it around. We have faith we will, and that he will.”
It all adds up: Young quarterback, a lot on the line, a team that was an underdog now playing the favorite, a tougher schedule, and an adjustment in the offing. This, in fact, is where the 2013 Redskins crumbled. And the problems, like they were then, aren’t all confined to one position.
Gruden pointed to the overall lack of efficiency on third down (the Redskins rank 19th in the NFL) and in the red-zone (28th). The yards are there (Washington is seventh), but those inconsistencies have cost the team where it counts, on the scoreboard (Washington is 20th in points). And that’s led to the widely reported frustrations of those in the huddle with Cousins.
“I could see where a couple guys are frustrated,” Gruden said. “The problem is that we have a lot of good players, good weapons, it’s hard to make everyone happy—Jordan Reed, Niles Paul, Pierre Garcon, Jamison Crowder, all of them. It’s hard to make everyone in the run game, the line happy too. We only have one ball. So you’d always see people frustrated. If we’re 2-0, none of this comes out. But we’re 0-2.
As for fixing it, Gruden says, “The urgency is there.”
It’s not like they haven’t been here before. The Redskins were 2-4 through six games last year, and then treaded water through their next six games before ripping off four straight to win the division. Likewise, Cousins posted a 77.4 passer rating, six touchdown passes and eight picks during the Redskins’ 2-4 start; then a 119.1 rating, 23 touchdowns and three picks during their 7-3 finish.
“We’re in a hole, like we were last year,” Gruden said. “We were 2-4, then 5-7 before we won four in a row. It’s not like we were dominating every week. … It’s two games. We had a chance to win in both. There’s no reason to go crazy and say the quarterback’s no good. We all have to turn it around. All of us, and I know I still have a team that can compete every week.”
And as for Cousins, Gruden added, “Kirk hasn’t changed, he’s still a competitor, he wants to be great, and he knows he has a ways to go to get there. And he’s gonna work at it.”
That’s why panicking now, based on the recent history of this team and this quarterback, is silly.
Easy to forget, the last time the Redskins played Giants, they were two games under .500 and trailing New York in the NFC East. And that seemed to turn out OK.
Bradford showing signs of stardom. The Vikings are 2-0, and in firm command of the NFC North just three weeks after Teddy Bridgewater suffered a freak injury on the fields behind their suburban practice facility. And in Week 2, they not only got a leg-up on the Packers by outlasting Green Bay in their US Bank Stadium debut—they did it with the quarterback position actually serving as a strength. And that was only 15 days after Rick Spielman aggressively moved one first-rounder, and another conditional pick, to get Sam Bradford on board. All of this isn’t just good news. It’s what the Vikings are going to need after the hits they took this week, losing Matt Kalil and Adrian Peterson. And the power of Bradford’s performance goes beyond the numbers, or what was obvious on TV. As the staff saw it, there were signs that he’s already operating the offense as Norv and Scott Turner have taught it to him at an awfully advanced level. The first example came just three plays into the game, on a third-and-8 that Bradford converted with a 15-yard dart to Adam Thielen. A closer look shows that the quarterback let the ball go as Thielen was reaching the top of his route, displaying trust with a receiver he’s still getting to know and confidence in the way the play developed. Maybe more encouraging, though, were two balls going to emerging star Stefon Diggs. The first one was on a fourth-and-1, converted with a shallow crosser to Diggs for 4 yards, and delivered as Clay Matthews came free and drilled Bradford (that’s when Bradford hurt his left hand). The second produced the third-quarter touchdown that wound up being the difference, with Bradford taking a big blow from Mike Daniels and hitting Diggs streaking to the post for 24 yards and six points. On each play, Bradford was unaffected by coming contact (remember, he’s now two years separated from the ACL surgery), knew where Diggs would be, and gave him a chance to make a play on the ball. Suffice it to say, internally, there’s a really good mutual feeling for Bradford’s fit in the offense, and the upshot a stable environment has given him, as opposed to a lot of the less-than-ideal situations he’s been in. I’m guessing Spielman had an inkling it might play out this way, which is probably why he played coy when I asked him about the potential Bridgewater/Bradford decision down the road: “That’s all hypothetical. … Going forward, we potentially have two starting quarterbacks, which is a great problem to have.”
Vegas’s one shot. Look at Las Vegas’s pursuit of the Raiders like this: It’s important, because if it were any other team, the nation’s 42nd-largest media market (ahead of only Buffalo and New Orleans, among NFL markets, if you count Green Bay as Milwaukee) might as well be drilling for oil in Napa. Mark Davis’s team is, as of now, the only fit for Vegas. And there are a number of reasons that the fit is mutual for the NFL. First, the fact that the Raiders are a national team with a fan base that’s already conditioned to travel to home games (many Los Angeles-area fans take the Al Davis direct on Southwest to Oakland on fall Sundays) mitigates issues created by the size of the metropolitan area, which is a four-hour drive from L.A. and short flight from the Bay Area. Second, and most obvious, is that the franchise’s renegade legacy fits Vegas like a felt table. Third, it allows the team to avoid the stepbrother status it might naturally embody as a tenant in Stan Kroenke’s opulent Inglewood digs. Fourth, it leaves open the second spot in the Rams’ venue, which allows other stadium-seeking teams leverage. Fifth, it takes pressure off the Chargers to get something done by January, when the option would open for the Raiders to go to L.A. and steal whatever leverage Dean Spanos & Co. have left. Sixth, Vegas’s lack of a temporary site would be far less of a problem for the Raiders, who may be the only team that could conceivably operate at a reasonable level as a lame-duck (again, because of that dynamic). And seventh, Vegas would likely become a go-to destination for fans of the other 31 teams who like to go to see their team play a road game or two. “It makes great sense and would solve their situation,” said an influential executive with another team. “No other team is a Vegas fit.” Still, there’s a long way to go here. An NFL contingent, led by EVP Eric Grubman (who oversaw the handling of the L.A. market the last few years), was in Oakland this week to try and find solution, and commissioner Roger Goodell said on a potential move to Vegas, “There’s still a lot that has to happen before we would get to that stage.” Indeed, casino mogul Sheldon Adelson is working on securing a record $750 million in public funding for a domed stadium, and there is open debate—even if a proposed hotel tax to fund it passes—about this project being the best use of that money. As always, stay tuned.
Will the coordinator switch be Rex’s silver bullet? I’ve said this a few other places, and I’ll say it again: The optics of Rex Ryan firing Greg Roman last Friday were terrible. The Bills led the league in total defense in 2014, but regressed badly last season, Rex’s first year in Buffalo. He hired his brother to fix it, but that unit collapsed five days into the season, and the next day he fired the guy calling the shots on the other side of the ball. Coaches have to demand accountability. Rex knows well this all looks like the opposite of that. But the bigger question, once the dust clears, is, Can this actually work? While firing a coordinator during the season always looks like panic, the truth is it isn’t always just a precursor to bigger changes. My podcast buddy Emily Kaplan (subscribe here) did the legwork on a study of all these situations—when a coordinator was fired in midseason, and not as part of a head-coaching change— over the last decade. So there were 11 such cases (not counting this one), seven of them happened between 2012 and last year, and three came last year alone. In all three of those (Lions, Rams, Colts), the head coach survived, but things were tenuous in Indy and Detroit until the end and none of those teems made the playoffs. Three of the 11 aforementioned teams did wind up firing their head coaches later that year (2006 Cardinals, 2006 Raiders, 2012 Eagles), while two (2008 Chargers, 2012 Ravens) made the playoffs, with one of those two (Baltimore) winning it all. So sometimes, it works. Sometimes, it doesn’t. Of last year’s changes, the most effective switch clearly came in Detroit, where Jim Bob Cooter took the reins from Joe Lombardi and was a big reason for the late season bounce back that saved Jim Caldwell’s job. Cooter’s strategy was to simplify verbiage, do more work on his end to create favorable matchups, encourage the group to push the pace, and give Matthew Stafford ownership of the offense. All of the benefits of those changes are still being felt. Stafford’s passer rating (104.4) since Cooter became OC is fifth best in the NFL, and he’s thrown 24 touchdown passes against five picks in that time. If Anthony Lynn can manage the kind of results Cooter has gotten, the bad look that Rex and Bills have carried over the last week will only be memory down the line.
Steelers offense keeps on crushing it. This may sound crazy on the face of it, but Mike Tomlin and the Steelers nailed it when they moved on from Bruce Arians in 2012. Now, I love Arians, and I think he’s clearly a top-five head coach. But it seems to be just as clear that Todd Haley has been an upgrade as Pittsburgh’s coordinator. In 2014, the Steelers ranked second in total offense, the franchise’s highest rank in that category since Terry Bradshaw was the quarterback. Last year, they were third in total offense. This year, with Le’Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant suspended, and Heath Miller and Kelvin Beachum gone, they are eighth through two games, while scoring 31 points per. In only one of Arians’s five years as OC were the Steelers in the top 10 in total offense. The Steelers have scored 400 points in four of their 83 seasons—1979, 1995, and the last two years. Arians was really good. Haley’s been better. And I think part of that has been due to what he’s been maligned for over the years, which is being prickly and hard to satisfy. When he and I talked about the offense a few weeks back, here’s what he said, “We haven’t reached our potential. … Throughout the offseason, in breaking down the season, there were a number of areas where we felt if we were just a little better, we would see a significant difference on the back end. The important thing is no one thinks we’re there yet. We should continue to grow and get better. “This was despite the fact that, on opening day, nearly half his starting lineup from the year before would be either suspended or gone, and the fact that the bar was set incredibly high by that group. The Steelers play Philly this week, then get Bell back, and the replacements for Miller and Beachum (Jesse James and Allejandro Villenueva) will keep getting experience, and it’s a good bet that Haley has another group finish in the top five.
THREE CHECKDOWNS FOR THE WEEKEND
1) Here’s where I’ll toss out a mea culpa. I was wrong about the Giants’ spending spree. I thought it wouldn’t work. It has. Kudos to GM Jerry Reese, and pro director Ken Sternfeld and his staff not for spending big (any team can do that) but spending smart. Olivier Vernon and Damon Harrison have transformed the front, Janoris Jenkins certainly looks like he could have the Rams questioning tagging Trumaine Johnson rather than him, and the defense looks more like the ones that won championships than those of recent vintage. So I’ll have my eyes on that unit with a talented Redskins group opposite them on Sunday.
2) Good test for the Panthers’ young corners this week with the Vikings’ receivers coming to town. To this point, Stefon Diggs has 16 catches on 20 targets and Adam Thielen has eight catches on 10 targets, putting those two among the NFL’s most efficient wideouts. With Adrian Peterson out, stopping those guys will be key for Carolina, which puts James Bradberry, Bene Benwikere and Darryl Worley in the spotlight.
3) Gut-check time for the Jaguars. If they can’t beat the Ravens on Sunday, they’ll travel to London at 0-3 and 12-39 over Gus Bradley’s four seasons. Is what happens between now and the return flight from the UK significant? You can ask Dennis Allen and Joe Philbin about that one.
TWO COLLEGE PLAYERS TO WATCH ON SATURDAY
Texas A&M safety Justin Evans (vs. Arkansas, ESPN, 9 p.m.): You may know Evans as the guy who popped his leg back into place on national television as A&M outlasted UCLA in its opener. NFL evaluators know him as one of this year’s most polarizing prospects. “You either really like him or you’re lukewarm,” said an AFC area scout who covers the Aggies. “Tough, physical, but can play out of control at time and has man-to-man questions in coverage. He’s not the most fluid player. Better in zone. It’s really amazing the differences of opinion on him. Some guys think he’s a first-round pick. Others think he’s a mid-round guy. People are going to want to see the matchup this week.” The matchup that our scout is referencing will be against Arkansas tight end Jeremy Sprinkle, who has scored a touchdown in each of the Hogs’ first three contests and was highlighted in this space a couple weeks back. Given that many of the questions that the 6-foot-1, 195-pound hitter has are in coverage, this week’s tape figures to be important.
Michigan State defensive lineman Malik McDowell (vs. Wisconsin, Big Ten Network, noon): Last week, McDowell was a menace when faced with an offensive line group that’s good year-in and year-out. This week, he gets another test against an always-good front, with the Badgers coming to town. The expectation, among evaluators, is that he’ll pass this one with flying colors too. “He’s legit,” said an NFC area scout assigned to the Spartans. “He’s big and athletic, and can take control of a game with his disruption in the run game and pass-rush ability. He’s a first-rounder for sure, similar to (DeForest) Buckner. Big, tall man who looks the part.” The Spartans list McDowell as their starting nose guard, but he’s got the ability to play outside too, and is the kind of player who could project to play as a disruptive 5-techinique in an NFL 3-4 front, or a malleable piece to move inside and out in a 4-3.
There’s a good chance that we’ll get one more look at Jimmy Garoppolo before Tom Brady returns to the NFL scene in early October.
He’s not playing tonight, but my sense is the Patriots’ reluctance to sign another QB this week was an effort to try and tread water and not expose a young player to waivers, which would be a tacit acknowledgement of their hope that Garoppolo can play against the Bills on Oct. 2. My understanding is that it’s a two- to three-week injury. And if he’s strong enough and can handle the pain, going against Buffalo is realistic.
But whether he can or not, I’ve seen this as a 2017 story all along for New England, because I’ve thought the Patriots would be OK this year regardless of how the season started.
After this year? At that point, you have to look at Garoppolo’s trade value, which was going through the roof before he got hurt.
“They can get a first, someone will be desperate enough, and probably more,” said an AFC personnel exec. “With what Minnesota gave up [for Sam Bradford], that’s easy. If it’s me, I eat the year and wait for him in free agency. If someone likes him that much, why not just pay him the following year?”
The answer, of course, is because by then, either a) someone will already have given up the draft pick to take him off the Patriots’ hands or b) the Patriots may have decided to actually install him as the long-term answer.
“A desperate team might give them a one and something else,” said one NFC personnel exec. “In the end, I think they’d get at least a one. But why would they trade him? Brady’s 100 years old.”
OK, so this one is complicated. We don’t how Brady will play over the season’s last 12 weeks, and that’ll be a factor in determining how the Patriots proceed. The likelihood has been that Brady would stay and Garoppolo would be out, but Garoppolo exceeded expectations.
But for now, let’s assume the Patriots shop Garoppolo, whose value figures to be at its peak after this year, given that he’ll be under contract for another year at a very affordable rate (less than $1 million) and his early-season performance will still be fresh on everyone’s mind. Now, just consider the events of this calendar year.
March 1: The Eagles sign Sam Bradford to a two-year, $36 million deal that includes $22 million guaranteed and an $11 million signing bonus.
March 2: The Ravens sign Joe Flacco, rehabbing a torn ACL, to a three-year, $66.4 million extension, though he had three years left on his existing deal.
March 9: The Texans sign Brock Osweiler to a four-year, $72 million deal with guarantees that reach into 2018 and tie the club to him for three years.
April 14: The Rams trade two first-rounders, two second-rounders and two third-rounders to the Titans for the right to draft Cal’s Jared Goff (The Rams also got a fourth- and sixth-round pick back).
April 20: The Eagles trade two first-rounders, and second-, third- and fourth-round picks to Cleveland for the right to draft NDSU’s Carson Wentz (Philly also got a fourth-rounder back).
June 29: The Colts sign Andrew Luck to a record-breaking five-year, $122.97 million extension after the worst season of Luck’s four-year career.
August 5: The Cardinals sign Carson Palmer to a one-year, $24.35 million extension.
September 3: The Vikings trade a first-round pick and a fourth-round pick (that can become a two or a three) to the Eagles for Bradford.
September 7: The Saints sign Drew Brees to a one-year, $24.25 million extension.
Of the eight quarterbacks mentioned above, only four have playoff wins (Luck, Brees, Palmer, Flacco).
The bottom line is the NFL of 2016 doesn’t just reward excellence at the position. It rewards competency. There are 23 QBs making $16 million a year or more, with Blake Bortles, Derek Carr, and Teddy Bridgewater eligible to join that group after this season, and Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston eligible to get in after 2017. By comparison, only eight non-quarterbacks have broken the $16 million per barrier.
So if you put it all together, you understand where the value of Garoppolo could stand in a few months.
A first-rounder and another pick, plus a big contract (you’d presume), for a guy with just two or three starts on his résumé may have seemed like a prohibitive price tag in the past. But in 2017, it probably won’t be.
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