RICHMOND, VA—On Thursday morning, Washington training camp opened quietly. For once.
It’s year two of Scot McCloughan’s tenure as general manager, and this time, there are no marquee position battles or major holdouts. It’s year three of Jay Gruden’s reign as head coach with the Redskins, and this time, there’s no need to set a tone or take control. And as he enters his fifth year in the NFL, quarterback Kirk Cousins has gained perspective on the importance of pacing himself.
“It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” he said Thursday. “We’ve got a long time until September 12 against the Steelers so we’ll just keep building until that day and trust that each day is a step in the right direction.”
To sum up: nothing to see here. But while fans might associate quiet with boring, Cousins sees the value in continuity. “Anytime you can be in the same place and have some familiarity, I think it improves your ability to perform at a high level,” he said. “I think we have a lot of guys who are great people—great teammates—in this organization and having them back is going to help us.”
In OTAs and here in Richmond, the Washington offense is adding the complexity it lacked in Cousins’s first full season as starter. They’re little things—slight tweaks to routes against certain defenses and making sure the optimum play is called for each look—but they could make a big difference.
“We were able to move a little faster in offensive preparation and I think that gives us a greater volume in the plays we can get to and use,” Cousins said.
If there is one area where Cousins is hoping to make major improvements, it’s in the running game. “We’d like to run the football a little more consistently this season,” he said a day after Gruden mentioned that the team could add a veteran back to compete in camp. Washington averaged 3.7 yards per rush last year (28th in the league) and then lost Alfred Morris to the Cowboys this off-season. That leaves 2015 third-round pick Matt Jones as the workhorse this season after he struggled with ball security issues a year ago. Behind him are third-down specialist Chris Thompson and rookie Keith Marshall, who the Skins drafted in the seventh round.
Gruden’s comment came during a notably short press conference Wednesday, a sign that there are no hot seats or burning questions this year in Richmond. Instead, there is a long simmering concern that won’t be answered for months: Can they do it again? Washington has not successfully defended a division title since 1984 and has not made the playoffs in consecutive years since ‘92. Cousins knows that. So does Gruden. Asked Wednesday about his most important accomplishment through two years as head coach, he responded, “Progress probably. I think progress, some stability.”
In the passing game at least, Cousins would be fine with the status quo. “We can always improve,” he said, “But by the same token, to replicate what we did last year through the air would be a strong year.”
So yes, things are slower than normal around here, but don’t expect too many complaints. It’s almost as if the quiet around town is the result of a cautious hope that if everyone stays just so, success will keep coming to the Skins.
More news and notes from Day 1
• Josh Norman stayed quiet during his first training camp walkthrough as a Redskin, hiding under a burgundy safari hat and doing his best not to jump a corner route when he was guarding DeSean Jackson, opting instead to leap and catch air before jogging back to his position. But his personality still came through. When he wasn’t in, Norman could be seen firing invisible arrows in the offense’s direction, and afterwards, as the rest of the team retreated from the sun, the cornerback played some soccer with the staffers. The DB was also the last to leave the autograph line, signing everything from a cell phone to a Panthers mini-helmet. He stood for plenty of selfies, too.
And when he was in during the afternoon, he was hard to miss. Jackson and Pierre Garcon both beat him for catches along the sideline during 11-on-11s, but Norman got the last laugh as he knocked the ball out of Jackson’s hands on the final play of the drill before getting up, throwing a fist pump, and going to celebrate with the other defensive backs.
• Summer reading: Cousins has developed a reputation as an avid reader, and he maintained that label this summer, taking down all 720 pages of last year’s Michael Jordan biography. “I think that was the longest book I’ve ever read,” he said. Now he’s working through Phil Knight’s new autobiography.
• On a much more dour note, Cousins spoke about the death of former teammate Mike Sadler, who died in a car crash Saturday. “I was crushed when I heard about Mike's passing,” Cousins said. “A phenomenal person, very intelligent, brilliant, witty, funny, great teammate and a great person. He was lost too soon. He was going to be going to Stanford Law School this fall, is my understanding, and he was going to do great things after that. So it's tough to hear that, and obviously we’ll be praying for his family, for the Spartan nation, and just understand that life is short and try to take advantage of every day we have.”
• A day before the Redskins arrived, their training facility was hit with a severe storm that knocked out power for thousands around Richmond. The team’s building and field held up OK, but many of the temporary fences and tents that had been set up for camp were toppled, requiring crews to spend most of Wednesday making repairs. The field goal posts got the worst of it, but were replaced in time for practice Thursday.
Five Questions with Trent Williams
Q1: You brought the offensive line down to Houston to train and bond. What was the most memorable part of that trip?
A: The sand, man. We were doing drills on the sand, and I mean guys were just looking around man. Everybody was bent over, everybody was trying to hide, to duck out of reps. I was about to puke myself. We kind of look back on that and laugh.
Q2: Has Kirk Cousins bought dinner for the offensive line yet?
A: Not yet but we just got back. We’ve got time. We’ll definitely get his a-- though.
Q3: I hear you are in the best shape of your career heading into your seventh season?
A: Every year I try to come back in better shape than I left the year before…. The workouts man, running up and down that hill man, running on that track out there in that 100 degree Texas heat, it’s all about just trying to get better than I was.
Q4: And how about the guy across from you—Preston Smith. Does he look different in Year 2?
A: He’s definitely made some strides. You can tell he took this off-season very seriously. He came back in great shape. He basically led the group on the conditioning test. He was finishing first or second every time so you know for a guy that big to be able to run like that—he’s always been a physical specimen and now that he’s got that hard work with it I think the sky’s the limit for him.
Q5: Who else do you feel like could really show up this year?
A: I think maybe it’s Matt [Jones’] year to concrete himself in that backfield as that guy. You can tell he’s worked his butt off this off-season. He definitely has the talent to do so; he has every tool in the toolbox. With the threats that we are going to have on the outside, it’s definitely going to keep that box light. I think Matt is going to make his presence felt.
Biggest Turnaround: Defensive Backs
After finishing 25th in the league in passing yards allowed per game, Washington shook up its defensive backfield this off-season. In addition to bringing in Norman, the Redskins added David Bruton, a special teams star in Denver who has a chance to find an expanded role in D.C. as he battles Duke Ihenacho for the starting spot next to converted corner DeAngelo Hall. It’s far too early to tell how big of an improvement the changes will bring, but the early returns are positive. Hall said he feels rejuvenated by the position switch, corner Bashaud Breeland compared Bruton to a field general, and Norman’s value is obvious after his Pro Bowl season in Carolina a year ago.
“He’s a great athlete and we’re excited to have him, no question,” Gruden said. “When you go out and land a free agent of his caliber with the success that he had in Carolina and with the playmaking ability that he has and the leadership qualities that he has—it’s only going to help your football team.”
Drawing Some Buzz: Preston Smith
Washington lost edge rusher Junior Galette to a torn Achilles tendon this week, but second-year edge rusher Preston Smith appears ready to emerge as a consistent threat across from Ryan Kerrigan. Smith was already drawing praise from draftniks as a second rounder last year, and he delivered during his first campaign—leading all rookies with eight sacks. The 6’ 5” linebacker is bigger, stronger, and faster, Gruden said. He’s also more confident in the coach’s estimation.
“I think sometimes he was feeling his way through a little bit early—not quite sure—but I think once he gained confidence of where he’s supposed to be, he was able to fire off the line and make some plays with his length,” Gruden said. “He’s still just tapping his skill set. You know, he’s got a ton of ability and it’s our job to get more out of him … I think he’s going to be a heck of a pass-rusher for us for a long time.”