A Return to Respectability
The circus has left town, folks. And all that stands in the way of the Redskins going to another kind of big-tented party—the one the NFL holds every January—for the second straight year is a Washington win over the Giants, and the Packers-Lions game ending with a winner and a loser.
With 10 playoff spots locked up, this weekend doesn’t figure to be much of a memorable Week 17. But in Washington, it’s an important one, with another chance for coach Jay Gruden and general manager Scot McCloughan to show you these aren’t your older brother’s Redskins. If they get in, it’ll be the first time the franchise has made the postseason in back-to-back years since the final two seasons of the first Joe Gibbs Era.
“It’s great, but our sights are set higher,” Gruden said over the phone, after Wednesday’s practice. “I don’t think I was brought here to go 8-7-1 or whatever it is, or lose in the first round of the playoffs. We have set our sights higher. But we are proud of it. Part of being a successful franchise is being consistently good, and this’ll be two years in a row. That’s fun, to be part of that.”
In this week’s Game Plan, we’ll go inside the Bills’ mess, check in on the Raiders and Matt McGloin, look at those Packers and Lions, and examine the stress that today’s head coaches are under. But we begin in D.C., with a Redskins team that has put its penchant for drama behind it and has the foundation in place for something lasting.
And to start here it’s important to recall where the team has been. So, quickly: The 2000 over-the-hill free-agent bonanza; Steve Spurrier; Marty Schottenheimer’s one-and-done; Gibbs’ second go-round; the hip-hip-hooray days of Jim Zorn; Albert Haynesworth’s round of grant theft football; the McNabb trade/drama; the RG3 trade/injury/drama; Shanahan vs. Snyder; and so on.
What’s developed in the wake is a distrust from a fan base with high expectations, and constant suspicion that the issues of the past will resurface. That has led to more pressure on those making the football decisions.
“I feel it every day. I feel it all the time,” Gruden said. “That’s never gonna change here. I blame Joe Gibbs. It’s his fault. He won all those damn Super Bowls and that’s what they expect, which is great. That’s what you want as a coach, that’s what the expectation level has to be, otherwise you won’t be coaching very long.”
But before the Redskins could even think about reaching those expectations, Gruden and—a year later—McCloughan would have to get the team back to level ground.
That happened in 2015. It happened because they had the gumption to bench Robert Griffin III and turn to Kirk Cousins. It happened because McCloughan’s first draft class was contributing. It happened because young vets like tight end Jordan Reed and cornerback Bashaud Breeland were developing. It happened because accomplished vets like wideouts DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon were on board.
“Going 4-12 (in 2013) and 4-12 again my first year, we had to really figure out to win again and consistently,” Gruden says. “That was the biggest challenge.”
This year’s been trickier. Cousins is playing for a contract, and expectations are higher for everyone. The division is tougher, as is the schedule.
The Redskins started 0-2, and Cousins’ long-term viability was questioned. The team responded with a win on the road over the Giants and rallied to head into the bye at 4-3-1, and have gone 4-3 since. The Week 16 win in Chicago set the stage for a huge Week 17 finale.
Through that, the level ground the team found last year is where it remains. Past Redskins teams didn’t handle ups and downs very well. This one does.
“That’s the big thing I think our guys do well and what I’m most proud of as a coach, being able to handle adversity in this market,” Gruden said. “Every time you lose a game, or you have to punt or you don’t score in the red zone, the coordinator has to go, the head coach needs to go, the quarterback needs to be cut. It’s pretty extreme. But these guys have stuck together and handled all the rough patches.”
The bellwether has been Cousins. Over the past two years, he’s completed 68.5 percent of his passes for 8,796 yards, 53 touchdowns, 21 interceptions, and a 100.1 passer rating—which is actually better than Aaron Rodgers’ over the same span.
Gruden told Cousins before the year started: Doesn’t matter if you’re making $5 or $50 million, people are gonna have high expectations for you. And the fifth-year quarterback has lived up to what was expected when the football people broke it to owner Dan Snyder that they had to bench Griffin.
“I think he’s been a stud, that’s the only way I can put it. He really has. It’s not easy,” Gruden said. “Not just handling the pressure he has, but also taking over for Robert. Robert was a big-time player here with a huge, huge fan base, and this really hasn’t sat well with a lot of them. So to handle that—every time you throw an incompletion, ‘Boo, I told you, he’s not the guy.’ He throws an interception, I mean, God forbid. He’s handled it great.”
As for whether Cousins is now entrenched as the franchise guy, Gruden said, “I don’t know what else he has to do. If you’re talking about statistics and wins, he’s won 17 games in two years, won a division championship, and if you look at his numbers, I just don’t know what else he has to do in the two years he’s had a chance to audition … And at the end of the day, when you line up on a Sunday afternoon, does your quarterback give you a chance to win the game? And we feel like he does, and that’s very, very important in this league.”
How the Redskins reward him, of course, will be a big question once this season ends. But that it’s the main piece of drama here tells you a lot about how far the Redskins have come.
And a win Sunday would be just another sign of how far they could eventually go.
“You don’t want to compare back-to-back winning season with a franchise that’s done it like a New England or a Seattle for so many years,” Gruden said. “You can’t do that. We don’t have any right to do that. We still have to go out and prove that. But you feel like you’re on the right track.”
It’s not hard to agree.
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FIVE NAMES TO WATCH ON SUNDAY
• Darius Slay’s health will be important for the Lions. The Vikings did a better job against the Packers when they got through the mess and started matching up Xavier Rhodes. Slay has the ability to do the same, if his hammy’s right.
• Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott needs 178 yards to break Eric Dickerson’s rookie rushing record. The Eagles run defense hasn’t been good, and Dallas gashed them for 187 rushing yards in October. So it’s possible.
• Blake Bortles chose Doug Marrone’s first game as interim coach to have his best game of the year. Can he build on it against Indy? It’ll be interesting to see, because progress from Bortles makes the Jags’ coaching vacancy a more appealing one.
• Last year, the Patriots’ failure to run the ball on Miami in Week 17 foreshadowed doom for the team. New England’s different this time around. And LeGarrette Blount has topped his career high in carries by 84.
• Can Houston’s Tom Savage carry over a strong finish to an uneven performance against Cincinnati into this week’s regular-season finale against Tennessee?
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1. First box for the Bills to check: organizational alignment. On Dec. 11, after Le’Veon Bell tallied 298 scrimmage yards and the Steelers dropped the Bills 27-20, Buffalo coach Rex Ryan stood before the assembled group and declared the playoffs out of reach. How that went over to those in the locker room depends on whom you ask. Some players thought the message was to keep playing hard for the guy next to you. Others, and some in important positions, took it that Ryan wasn’t aware of his surroundings. Bad enough the message that sends to the team; what was worse was that it wasn’t true. The Bills had a manageable schedule the rest of the way and, at that point, there was a very real possibility 9-7 would be good enough to get the team one of the AFC’s two wild-card spots. And that, as they saw it, was indicative of the overall organizational disorganization that marked Ryan’s now completed 35-game run as Bills coach, and really the straw that broke the camel’s back.
The Steelers postgame was just one example. A much less private one surfaced Sunday, when the Bills fielded just 10 defensive players for a game-clinching, 57-yard rumble by Miami tailback Jay Ajayi. “That wasn’t the first time,” said one Bills source. “That stuff’s been going on all year. Lack of organization. Lack of detail. And at that position, from the head coach, you can’t have it.” In some cases, it was the defense being a man short, like on the Ajayi run. In others, there were 12 out there, including one embarrassing October circumstance during which New England converted a third down on Ryan’s defense anyway. In more than a few cases, there were players being rushed on or off of the field. The dysfunction spilled into other arenas as well. Take Sammy Watkins’ foot injury. Watkins was struggling to get through walkthroughs, and the situation screamed for leadership. But Watkins was allowed to push through the injury, hurting the offense and himself in the process, before the Bills made the call to shut him down after two games.
All of this only worked to deepen the divide between coaches and the personnel staff. So the result is GM Doug Whaley surviving, and Ryan going; the fact that Whaley is leading the search is being perceived in the building as no mistake. His charge is not just to find a good coach, but one he can work with to build a more structurally sound football operation. And that’s why the feeling is that it’s Anthony Lynn’s job to lose. If the burden for Whaley is to find someone he can work with efficiently, it’s a lot safer to go with someone you know rather than someone you don’t.
2. How much do the Raiders change without Derek Carr? The last time we saw Matt McGloin in extended action was his rookie year, 2013, with a truly unsightly team around him. The NFL neophyte started six games that season, throwing for 1,547 yards, eight touchdowns, eight picks and a 76.1 passer rating. And then, Oakland drafted Derek Carr, and Carr was way more ready than even the Raiders thought he’d be, and Carr won the job and McGloin settled into life as the team’s backup.
So where does leave McGloin now, with Carr out with a broken fibula for the foreseeable future? Carr going down was horrible news for the Raiders, no getting around that. But they actually don’t feel as horrible about the spot they’re in, and that’s largely because what McGloin brings to the table isn’t that different from what Carr (clearly the more talented player) does. When I asked former Raiders offensive coordinator Greg Olson about it during my podcast the other day—Olson helped the Raiders get McGloin as an undrafted free agent in 2013, coached him for two years, and coached Carr through his rookie season—he said that the parallels in skill sets of the two quarterbacks should make the transition considerably less complicated. “Although they’re two different players,” Olson said, “I think there are a lot of similarities there. And they’ll be able to build on that with Matt.”
The coaches have worked to get McGloin reps with the first team over the course of the calendar year, just so the other 10 guys in the huddle got to know his voice, so they’d be ready for the kind of worst-case scenario that just arose. And while most of those reps came during OTAs and training camp, the coaches have been able to get McGloin a little first-team work during the early portions of game weeks over the course of the season. “We’ll be able to do a lot of the same things,” said one Raider staffer. “They are both smart, they both have strong arms. However you want to play, they can handle it. They won’t limit you with their football intelligence or their arm. Both study and work so hard, there’s really a feeling with both guys you can do what you want to do.”
The other element to all of this that’s interesting—McGloin has thrived before in this situation. He was a walk-on at Penn State, earned a scholarship, and later led the first post-Paterno team to an 8-4 record (and an 8-2 finish). After that, he had to win a spot on the Raiders’ 90-man roster in a tryout, and beat out a fourth-round pick (Tyler Wilson) for his spot on the 53-man roster. So he’s beaten the odds before.
3. Aaron Rodgers’ tear. I remember being in Green Bay in September of 2015, and thinking to myself that you couldn’t play quarterback any better than Aaron Rodgers was at that time. And then, something happened. Whatever Rodgers lost, he seems to have found again. Over the Packers’ past six games (Green Bay has won five straight), the 33-year-old is 141-of-202 (69.8 percent) for 1,718 yards, 14 touchdowns, no interceptions and a 118.8 passer rating. If he can go into Detroit and help the Packers sweep the Lions (he dropped four touchdown passes on them in September), Green Bay instantly inherits the annual mythical crown of “team no one wants to face.”
So what’s the difference been? Based on talking to people there, and looking at it with my own eyes, I think there are a number of factors. First, Rodgers seems to be playing from the pocket more, which is a sign that the offense is working more efficiently around him. Earlier in the season, there was a point when it seemed like he’d just be waiting to turn plays into a scramble drill. Not anymore. Second, the Packers are healthier. Working back from last year’s torn ACL, Jordy Nelson hit his stride right around Halloween, and he’s piled up 870 receiving yards in Green Bay’s past nine games. Likewise, Davante Adams’s improved health has led to the former second-round pick finally realizing his potential. Also, the line has Corey Linsley and T.J. Lang back. Third, Mike McCarthy told me in November that the team was close, and his belief was cleaning up turnovers and converting on big plays would make the difference. The Packers have one turnover total in their last five games. And in their first nine games, they had five plays of 40-plus yards; they’ve had seven in their past six games. Fourth, the coaches have varied personnel combinations more freely to generate favorable matchups. Fifth, the backfield has stabilized.
So add it up, and the best quarterback in football from the early parts of 2015 has become the best again. What all of this seems to come back to is Rodgers trusting who and what’s around him. “I think it’s a trust thing across the board,” said one Green Bay staffer. “I think he trusts his teammates and they’re coming through him. He heard all the naysayers, and I think it lit a fire under his teammates.” It sure looks that way.
4. Back to school. An interesting trend—hatched by Nick Saban—has emerged with the teams in the College Football Playoff. And that trend is for college programs to reach into their alumni base to find scout teamers. In November, Saban brought in Trent Richardson to play the role of LSU’s Leonard Fournette in practice. More recently, he’s tapped former Tide quarterbacks John Parker Wilson and Blake Sims. Meanwhile, Clemson has used ex-Jets quarterback Tajh Boyd to play the role of JT Barrett as it prepares for Ohio State, and Ohio State has had former Dolphins wideout Brian Hartline and ex-Cowboy linebacker Bobby Carpenter suit up for its practices.
So I figured I’d reach out to one of these guys to try and figure the benefit for them. “It was a lot of fun,” said Hartline, whose brother Mike is the Buckeyes assistant quarterbacks coach. “It was fun to dice up the young guys. And as for what I got out of it—it’s just having that ability to compete again and have fun doing it, share some knowledge with the guys. As a receiver, I’d try to help the receivers and the corners. And with (corners coach Kerry) Coombs, I talked with him about what works and doesn’t with man-to-man coverage. It was good. … Any competitor, I think, would relish it. Just the idea of getting to play with the next generation and getting that close to it? It’s like when you’d say, ‘back in the day, we did it like this and that was better.’ Well, you can’t really get any closer than this.”
It also helped inform Hartline about his own future. When I asked him if he’s done playing, he said, “I think so. I had a couple opportunities coming out of camp, and I know I’m not willing to go somewhere where I can’t win. I’m not out of love with the game, but it felt like I was falling out of love with playing. I’m competitive, and losing takes its toll.” Hartline wants to stay involved in football, and is looking at the idea of coaching or getting into broadcasting.
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• Early indications out of the Jacksonville search hold that the Jaguars would prefer their next coach have previous head-coaching experience. Of course, the fact that Tom Coughlin was there Wednesday speaks to that. But it seems more likely that they go with a second-chance guy like Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels (a college teammate of Jacksonville GM Dave Caldwell), Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, Tampa defensive coordinator Mike Smith or Cowboys offensive coordinator Scott Linehan. Interim coach Doug Marrone, of course, also fits into that category.
• Speaking of openings, in all three of the current ones, the GM survived. The Bills and Jags are having their current GMs lead the coaching search. The Rams have Les Snead as part of theirs, although it’s clear that they’re examining everything. What will be interesting is seeing what happens if any of those teams enter in the fray for a coach with leverage. Then, things can swing either way. In 2013, the Chiefs hung on to Scott Pioli, then decided to replace him with an Andy Reid-friendly GM, in John Dorsey. Conversely, Thomas Dimitroff wasn’t considered safe in Atlanta after Smith was fired, but survived Dan Quinn being ushered in and has forged a strong relationship with Quinn since.
• Sunday’s win over San Diego was as good a sign as any—both in the way the game was played and how the team reacted afterwards—that Hue Jackson was able to find a way to keep his young group engaged through the torture of an 0-14 start. And that’s a good sign for the future, especially considering that he and his staff have developed some young talent along the way. Among the young guys who’ve impressed coaches of late: defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah, tight end Seth DeValve, guard Spencer Drango, and running backs Duke Johnson and Isaiah Crowell.
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TWO COLLEGE PLAYERS TO WATCH SATURDAY
1. Clemson WR Mike Williams (vs. Ohio State, Fiesta Bowl, ESPN, 7 p.m. ET): If there’s one reason why the Tigers could be more equipped to win it all this year than they were last year, it’s the presence of Williams, who was injured for last year’s playoffs. The 6-foot-3, 225-pounder hasn’t skipped a beat coming back, with 84 catches, 1,171 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns during his redshirt junior season. And what scouts now see is a complete player who shouldn’t be on the board long come April. “He’s big, athletic, great ball skills, can go get it,” said one AFC exec. “The best receiver in the class. And I think the only thing he lacks is rare top-end speed. He’s got everything else.” One NFC college scouting director compared Williams to Demaryius Thomas and Alshon Jeffrey, and echoed the AFC exec in saying, “He’s a big, physical guy, but how fast is he? I think he’s in the 4.5 range, which would be plenty fast enough. And he had some drops this year, easy drops, but also made some incredible catches. And he was coming off the (neck) injury when the drops were a problem. He’ll go in the first round and make some offense better.” What’s in front of him may be the best test he gets during what most expect to be his final collegiate season—going up against an Ohio State secondary that has two corners (Marshon Lattimore and Gareon Conley) and a safety (Malik Hooker) with a shot to join Williams in the first round in a few months. But to give you an idea of how highly regarded Williams is, when I asked the AFC exec if the Buckeye DBs would be a good gauge to see the Clemson star’s potential, he flipped it and said he’d look at it other way around—Williams will test just where Lattimore, Conley and Hooker stand.
2. Alabama OLB Tim Williams (vs. Washington, Peach Bowl, ESPN, 3 p.m. ET): If there’s one type of player that Saban hasn’t churned out in his 10 years in Tuscaloosa, it’s probably the elite pass rusher. Williams is changing that. The senior has 18 sacks over the past two seasons, proving to be perhaps the best athlete in a star-studded front seven and showing potential to be a Top 10 pick. There is a “but” here. Williams was arrested on gun charges in September, and there will be a lot to unpack for teams to looking into his character in the spring. “He’s an extremely explosive pass rusher with the potential to be a consistent double-digit sack guy in the league,” said one area scout, assigned to Bama. “He doesn’t get enough credit for his edge-setting ability either. But off-field stuff will drop him in the draft.” An AFC college scouting director added, “Excellent quickness, flexible, athletic with good speed and he plays all out. Excellent motor. Excellent intensity. And he has a knack for pass rush.” Another evaluator compared him to Raiders edge defender Bruce Irvin, which seems apt given the character concerns that Irvin elicited before the 2012 draft.
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Maybe my memory’s bad, but it seems to me that, over the past few years, high-profile health issues with NFL coaches have become more prevalent.
During this season alone, Arizona’s Bruce Arians was hospitalized with chest pains; Denver’s Gary Kubiak missed a game with a complex migraine; Minnesota’s Mike Zimmer missed a game with a torn retina; and Jets coach Todd Bowles was hospitalized and missed his team’s flight to New England with kidney stones, gallstones and other gall-bladder issues. For Arians and Kubiak, these weren’t firsts.
And you better believe other coaches have taken notice.
The scare for all these guys is a tendency to let personal things slip as a daunting amount of work in the professional lives takes hold. One coach explained that he once willingly let a cavity grow, making the problem much worse, because he figured it’d make more sense to take care of it after the season. And that issue is minor compared to what other coaches are facing.
“You gotta take care of yourself,” said one AFC head coach. “That’s part of all of this. You gotta have that part right. It’s stressful, as a head coach. You feel like you should get a workout in, but you have stuff to do. Flu shots, checkups, that stuff can slip. You owe it to your family to take care of that stuff. ...
“And what works for you might not work for everyone else. But you do get cut off from the world. It’s not like you’re running to the store or going to get something to eat. There’s so much detail work, you have to learn to breathe.”
This particular coach says he makes a point of taking 10-15 minutes every day to either just sit around or lie down on the couch, to clear his head and prevent stress. Another AFC head coach explained that with extended rest being a non-starter, he focuses intently on diet and exercise to manage it all.
One NFC head coach explained that the key for him was just talking about the stress with people close to him and his mentors and fellow coaches, so he was getting what he needed off his chest. More often then not, he says, those people can tell when something is wrong and pull him out of it.
The second AFC head coach added that taking advantage of the resources available is another way of handling it. “Stress has always been there. We’re blessed to have the best doctors and care. So you must take advantage of that, and carve out time for your health.”
Of course, it’s that time of year again when changes are going to be made, and buckets of money will be on the line in the profession, two elements of this that basically guarantee the stress on these guys only figures to intensify.
So no one’s going to defeat the pressure that’s on coaches. But the good news is that the guys do seem more cognizant of it. A decade ago, sleeping in the office was treated as an accomplishment. As the first AFC head coach explains, “It’s not a badge of honor anymore. Guys just do what they have to do. You do whatever you feel you need to in order to win. Everyone has their own way.”
And based on what we’ve seen, the right way remains elusive.