For weeks, Washington’s brass has insisted that first-round rookie QB Dwayne Haskins would see live game action only when he’s ready. The team’s commitment to this responsible path seemed resolute, as they realized that veteran Case Keenum’s five-turnover performance in last Monday’s loss to the Bears was mutually exclusive from their young QB’s readiness. So, they stuck with Keenum for Week 4 at New York.
But midway through the second quarter of that game, trailing 14-0 and having amassed all of one first down, head coach Jay Gruden gave in and veered off the path. Apparently, sometime during Washington’s barrage of incompletions, stuffed runs and punts, Dwayne Haskins suddenly became ready.
But can we blame Gruden for cracking? It’s a classic example of desperate times, desperate measures, which is how many NFL quarterback changes are made.
Haskins, of course, looked nowhere near ready, and Washington’s offense continued to sputter. Yes, you could see the rookie’s arm talent. Haskins’s ball, which is stylistically similar to that of Indianapolis’s Jacoby Brissett, travels on a natural rope, with efficient velocity. But how the ball travels only matters if the QB knows where to go with it. On several dropbacks, Haskins did not. Failing to spot open receivers, he took a couple of “coverage” sacks, most notably the 3rd-and-10 one to Markus Golden and Oshane Ximines, where it felt like the game clock would expire before New York’s pass rush got home. Also like Brissett, Haskins is more mobile than people realize, and so you must admire his willingness to hang in the pocket. Many young quarterbacks will move frenetically and needlessly back there. But Haskins’s dilatory dropback decisions are precisely what coaches fear with an ill-prepared young QB.
Haskins also saw his first NFL touchdown pass go, unfortunately, to Giants safety Jabrill Peppers. The ex-Brown stifled tight end Jeremy Sprinkle in a vertical match coverage to snatch a pass that Haskins threw errantly under duress. Later in the game, Janoris Jenkins picked off Haskins downfield on a well-covered out-n-up against Paul Richardson. That play was as much about good defense as bad offense, though a veteran QB probably would have noticed when Jenkins, from a favorable off-coverage position, did not bite on the receiver’s double-move. Predetermined throws are also a symptom of a quarterback’s unreadiness.
None of this analysis is meant to rail on Haskins. The rookie QB was simply the unlucky desperate measure at a time when Washington has been without Pro Bowl left tackle Trent Williams, stud tight end Jordan Reed and, at New York on Sunday, top receiver Terry McLaurin, starting center Chase Roullier and Pro Bowl right guard Brandon Scherff. Haskins played with a lineup that was not too dissimilar from the one he worked with during the preseason.
We could debate whether it’s fair for Gruden to spontaneously give a rookie QB his first NFL experience under such circumstances, but if Haskins had sat, articles like this one might well have been about how it’s pointless to stick with a struggling journeyman like Keenum. Why not give the future franchise QB some experience? Gruden has no good answer because he’s simply caught in a bad situation.
It’s been more than whispered that Gruden could soon find himself in a similar position as Keenum did on Sunday. That’s the way these first-round rookie QB changes go. Teams rarely invest in future franchise QBs during a time of prosperity, and so a head coach deciding when to play a rookie QB often does so from a hot seat. A change in quarterback can feel like a harbinger for a change at coach. Last season, shortly after Baker Mayfield took over in Cleveland, Hue Jackson was sent packing. John Fox did not make it to the next season after moving Mitchell Trubisky into the starting lineup. Jeff Fisher didn’t make it to Jared Goff’s sophomore year. Etc.
The Redskins have an experienced former head coach on staff in O-line instructor Bill Callahan (who also has the title Assistant Head Coach), and it wouldn’t be surprising if Dan Snyder & Co. wanted to see 34-year-old offensive coordinator Kevin O’Connell try his hand at play-calling. Would an in-season firing be fair to Gruden? Of course not. Nothing has happened in Washington this season that reasonable football people didn’t expect going in. And Gruden himself has long been one of the game’s better play-callers, thanks to an innate understanding of run and pass game marriage, and a playbook that has some of football’s most nuanced formations and richest route combinations. In terms of winning through scheme, Washington’s offense is easily in the league’s top-third. If Gruden is canned, he becomes one of the hottest offensive coordinators on the 2020 market and, in the eyes of front offices that judge a football team by its process as much as its results, a worthy head coaching candidate.
But for now, Gruden is still in D.C. and he’s facing the same decision that has hung over his head all season: Keenum or Haskins? Long-term, the answer is obvious. But for Week 5? With the can of worms now open, the answer is still probably Haskins, however, this week’s opponent, New England, has the last defense you’d want a QB to see in his NFL starting debut. If Gruden tabs Keenum, vicious boos on Sunday will rain down on FedEx Field upon the Redskins’ first incompletion. But tab Haskins and the entire locker room sees that the head coach decided to fill its most important position with the less prepared guy. Maybe Gruden’s best move would be to just split the difference and start Colt McCoy.
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