NFC East: Washington Redskins

The pessimistic side was revealed Monday, with reasons why you should be concerned about the Washington Redskins this season. Coming off a 3-13 season, with a new coach and plenty of questions won't exactly lead to unbridled optimism. At least not by realists. However, the Redskins also are one season removed from a division title, have a young potentially explosive offense and a quarterback who was considered the future of the game just a short time ago. Go ahead, build your case for a turnaround.

[+] EnlargeGriffin III
Geoff Burke/USA TODAY SportsRedskins QB Robert Griffin III should benefit from his first full offseason of training while healthy.
So, here now, is the optimistic take on their season: reasons for hope.

  1. Robert Griffin III's offseason. It's not like he became Tom Brady in one offseason. Griffin will not be transformed into a pocket passer overnight. But he showed what he was capable of his rookie season and, now, he has the benefit of a full offseason for the first time in his career. Every coach says it makes a difference so you can't just judge him off last season and think that's who he now is. Like any other passer, he needs a chance to develop and this offseason provided one.
  2. The passing game has weapons. One reason the Redskins feel they can ease Griffin into a new offense is because of what they have at receiver: three players they believe can win one-on-one battles. Add to it a fourth in tight end Jordan Reed and now Griffin can be more decisive. That builds confidence. In 2012, Griffin threw with confidence. That wasn't always the case in '13.
  3. Jay Gruden is not Mike Shanahan. The latter entered with two Super Bowl rings and was an accomplished coach; the former has a lot to prove. Sometimes having a lot to prove is better. Gruden's arrival brought a different vibe and energy (of course, the same was said about Shanahan in 2010). It's not as if Shanahan was evil, but he had reached a certain point in his career that Gruden aspires to reach. At times you wondered if Shanahan overlooked certain deficiencies, thinking he'd overcome them because of his resume.
  4. The QB-coach relationship. It's better. Whether that changes or not I don't know, but entering camp it's a good one. Griffin looked like a new man this spring, though part of that also stems from not having to recover from knee surgery.
  5. DeSean Jackson. He does not need to catch 80-some passes to make a difference. He made one in Philly for years catching around 55-60. Pierre Garcon and Reed might catch more balls, but Jackson just needs to make teams pay. And his presence will help. Can Griffin keep everyone happy? That's certainly a much better question to ask than, “Is Josh Morgan a legitimate No. 2 receiver?” Jackson might eventually wear out his welcome, but even in Philadelphia he produced while doing so.
  6. Alfred Morris. He hasn't gone anywhere. The run game will be the same as the past two seasons, all involve have said. Morris is not some product of the zone read option; he's an excellent fit in the zone system. His line has more depth, though how effective the starters will be remains to be seen.
  7. The young talent offensively. If this offense clicks, look at how many starters are 27 or younger: eight (the number is the same whether in a two-back set or three-receiver set). They have potential Pro Bowl talent at left tackle, receiver, running back, tight end and quarterback. They lack the same nucleus defensively, but they have some intriguing youngsters in linebacker Keenan Robinson and corner David Amerson.
  8. [+] EnlargeRyan Clark
    John McDonnell/The Washington Post/Getty ImagesThe Redskins will lean on veteran safety Ryan Clark to provide leadership for the rest of the secondary.
    Improved safety play. Ryan Clark is not in his prime and the Steelers saw a decline in his play. But the Redskins' safeties were dreadful, so if Clark has anything left he'll be an improvement. Clark is a natural leader, which the Redskins can use, but you still have to show you can still help on the field to maximize that asset. He's not a playmaker, but if he is a sure tackler and prevents mental mistakes by others with his communication, then he'll help.
  9. Improved special teams. I loved how much emphasis the Redskins placed on this area. Special teams coach Ben Kotwica enters at a good time; when taking over a disaster you can (or at least should) only look good. But the decision to sign linebackers who excel in this area was huge -- as was drafting two players among the top four who can help here in Trent Murphy and Bashaud Breeland.
  10. They bolstered the pass rush. Jason Hatcher is coming off an 11-sack season in Dallas, but if the outside linebackers do their jobs (he did not have a lot of help in Dallas last season) then he might not reach that number again. However, he just needs to be a presence and a constant threat. That will open up others: not just Ryan Kerrigan and Brian Orakpo, but also Barry Cofield and Chris Baker, who played well down the stretch in '13. Along with Hatcher and the drafting of Murphy, they also hired Brian Baker, an accomplished assistant.
  11. Jim Haslett can finally run the defense the way he wants. Granted, it became too convenient to blame a lot on Shanahan, as if his input always was wrong. However, Haslett didn't have much say in the hiring of his assistants, as he did this offseason. He hired better coaches than the ones he had previously (Baker, Kirk Olivadotti). Haslett is an experienced coordinator and has a clear idea on what he wants to do. He now has more pieces in the pass rush to perhaps give a greater variety of looks. Time to produce.
  12. It can't go that bad again (can it?). They went from 14 turnovers in 2012 to 34 a year ago. An improved offensive attack should cut down on that number and that will be a start. If they handle the details of the game -- tackling, taking care of the ball, protection -- then they can turn it around. A team that was terrible last season likely will make the playoffs. Maybe the Redskins?

David Amerson: 'I found my swagger'

July, 21, 2014
Jul 21
His rookie season included a little of everything. There was hope: the interception returned for a touchdown against Oakland. There was concern: falling for double moves and missing assignments. In the end, though, the Washington Redskins were quite pleased with how second-round corner David Amerson developed -- and how he finished the season.

And they liked what they saw this offseason (some players talked privately about how he had improved). Now, as Amerson enters his second season, he does so as a starter. Amerson will have a lot more to prove, and for the defense to get better the optimism surrounding him must be legitimate.

[+] EnlargeDavid Amerson
Geoff Burke/USA TODAY SportsEntering his second season in the NFL, Redskins CB David Amerson has worked to improve several areas of his game this offseason.
But Amerson had a clear grip on where he wanted to improve his game.

"Going into my second year, I feel confident," he said last month. "I found my swagger a little bit. I feel good about it. ...Coming into the season I was real fresh. I started to pick up the defense, but as far as fundamentally and working at stuff, I was raw at it. The more I played the better I got."

Redskins corner DeAngelo Hall said they challenged Amerson to "work harder than he ever worked before" this offseason.

"We always joked with him to take the cool out of his game," Hall said. "It looks like he's not really working. From Day 1 of the offseason program he was first in the sprints. We have a board of guys who won sprints and he's top two in every category. He accepted the challenge and he worked hard, he lifted hard. He worked on his technique and all his fundamentals and nuances of the defense."

And defensive coordinator Jim Haslett said Amerson has matured -- remember, he did not turn 22 until late in his rookie season.

"He has the type of skills you look for at that position," Haslett said. "He has a ways to go, but I'm proud of the way he's developed to this point."

Here's a look at how Amerson hopes to get better:

Run support: A big knock on Amerson in college was his run defense. He tackled better last season than he did at NC State, in part because it was demanded. Amerson said he added seven-to-eight pounds of muscle in the offseason to help his play against the run.

"I felt a little slim sometimes [last season]," Amerson said. "I can support the run a little more, get off blocks and make it difficult for people to put their hands on me."

His technique against the run needs adjusting, too. He has to make sure he's taking the proper angles to give him the best leverage. It's not like he didn't face the run game last season, but he was the third corner and entered in three-receiver sets.

There's another aspect he wants to work on, too.

"I'm a tall guy so sometimes I dive at guys because I have to get so low," said the 6-foot-1 Amerson. "I throw my head down. So I just have to focus on fundamentals and the little things."

Press coverage: Amerson was new to this last season, having rarely -- if ever -- done it at NC State. But with his height and long arms, it's a natural tactic for him. Amerson improved in this area throughout last season, but knows he's not yet where he needs to be.

"I definitely feel good at the line of scrimmage," Amerson said. "The main thing is to get your hands on guys. You can really kill the quarterback's read and mess up the timing. I definitely feel more comfortable.

"I remember a play I got beat on last year against Oakland. A guy shook me up at the line, got an inside release on me and caught a deep ball. The biggest thing is just to get your hands on people. Once you get your hands on them, you can control the route. If you miss it, it might be a touchdown."

The eyes have it: Another criticism of Amerson in college involved his eyes. Too often he would get caught peeking too long in the backfield after the receiver made a cut. Offenses hurt him by turning that into a double move and big plays. That also happened in his rookie season.

For Amerson, he just has to make sure his eyes are in the right place, whether in zone or man. He appeared to do a good job of this in the spring, though on at least one occasion he was burned when he looked too long in the backfield.

"When I play my best ball my eyes are in the right position," he said. "It allows me to play faster. I know when I don't, my eyes are on the quarterback and I don't see the route or I might see it late or something and it makes me late to the comeback. ...It's about repping it. Sometimes you might slip and have your eyes in the wrong place. The more you get comfortable with it and the more you drill it, it becomes second nature."

Know the D:Hall knows what it's like to be a rookie corner. They feel like they have to cover every route and, in the end, that mentality can land them in trouble. When you learn the defense, and where your help is, you can play your responsibility much better.

"That's what we want to teach him. 'It's all right if he catches that pass, it's OK. That's what we want him to catch. We don't want him to catch this,'" Hall said. "Last year he was just out there playing. He's learned what we want him to prevent and what the defense will help him stop."
The national media, apparently, don't think too highly of the Redskins as they enter training camp. But considering the Redskins are coming off a 3-13 season, have a new head coach and have questions surrounding the quarterback, is that a big surprise? No. If you want to paint a negative picture of the team, it's not that difficult. It doesn't mean it will unfold this way -- I still remember how bleak a picture was painted in the summer of 1999, after the team had been sold, when some predicted 3-13. The Redskins won the division. Then again, last year many pundits -- including me -- predicted success, only to watch the season go up in flames. The point: With any team, and the Redskins in particular, it's tough to know. In the last 15-plus years, rarely has a Redskins season gone the way many anticipated. In truth, it's very, very difficult to know about most teams at this point.

But as camp gets set to begin Thursday, I'll take a look at 10 reasons for concern (followed Tuesday morning by 10 reasons for hope).

  1. [+] EnlargeJason Hatcher
    AP Photo/Nick WassJason Hatcher is one of three Redskins D-lineman who are over 30 and coming off surgeries. Will they hold up this season?
    The defense hasn't improved enough. The team added Jason Hatcher, who will help the pass rush, and Ryan Clark, who adds leadership. But the defense had a lot of holes. And if Clark can't play at a certain level, it will have another one.
  2. The Redskins' new starting inside linebacker (entering camp), Keenan Robinson, has 11 career tackles in two injury-filled seasons. Can he handle the position? Can he stay healthy? We have no idea.
  3. They lack a proven punter. Robert Malone has NFL experience, but booming punts precede line-drive punts. They might have a kicker in rookie Zach Hocker.
  4. I have no idea how the first-year head coach Jay Gruden will handle the job. There was split opinion on him outside the organization when he was hired. Does that matter? Maybe not. But it's just that he wasn't a slam-dunk hire and instead was the choice of a guy in charge, Bruce Allen, making his first significant hire. (He'd never had this power in the past.)
  5. Quarterback Robert Griffin III still must show he can be a consistently effective passer and must return to being a playmaker. He's learning his second offense and, while there are similarities to the previous offense, it still requires time. Given the talent at receiver (and tight end Jordan Reed), the Redskins want to throw the ball.
  6. The Redskins' defense under Jim Haslett has not fared well. During his tenure from 2010 to 2013, the Redskins are cumulatively 29th in yards per play (5.75), 31st in yards per pass attempt (7.22), 21st in yards after contact (5,016) and 27th in points per game (25.2), according to ESPN Stats & Information. They're in the top half on third downs (16th) and red zone efficiency (15th), but overall the defense has to improve drastically. How much will it help Haslett to, finally, have complete say in the defense, from who his coaches are to the play calling? We're about to find out. Over the years when I've talked to people around the NFL about Haslett, I get split opinions: Some really like him and his style. Others call his defense too boom-or-bust. The Redskins clearly didn't blame him for all the defensive woes. Now his defense must reward that faith.
  7. The offensive line remains problematic. There weren't major upgrades all over (just as one team source said before free agency). Not everything is on the O-line when it comes to protection, but this group needs to play better. The Redskins did make some changes at left guard, with Shawn Lauvao (who had his issues in Cleveland) and Kory Lichtensteiger (shifting from guard to center). Is that enough? Will the right side be improved? Also, in protection, left tackle Trent Williams, a legit Pro Bowl talent, wasn't infallible either. He needs to be more consistent, though he is clearly their best lineman. If he becomes more consistent, he could be one of the few Redskins considered in the discussion for the best at his position.
  8. Age. Well, on defense at least, where five likely starters will be 30 or older. This is not a proud Steelers defense nearing the end of a terrific run. This is a defense that has mostly struggled, that is older in most areas. The unit has three defensive linemen who are at least 30 years old coming off surgeries. How will they hold up? Will Stephen Bowen be effective coming off his microfracture surgery?
  9. Defensive depth. I'm not sold on it at safety. If something happens to Clark, who enters? Bacarri Rambo needs a chance to show he can play better, and if he does that's great. But he has a lot to prove. And if he can't do it, then is Trenton Robinson or Akeem Davis really the answer? Strong safety Phillip Thomas has a lot to prove too, after missing his rookie season. The defensive line has good names, but again age and surgeries are a bad mix. Barry Cofield could be an effective interior rusher next to Hatcher. But if anything happens to Hatcher, then what happens to their interior threat?
  10. History. The Redskins have finished last in seven in the past 11 seasons and three of the last four. Mike Shanahan wanted to change the culture in Washington, but the way to do so is by winning. The Redskins haven't done so consistently in a long, long time.
Examining the Washington Redskins' roster:

Quarterbacks (3)

Jay Gruden only had two quarterbacks in each of his three seasons with Cincinnati, but Griffin still needs to prove his durability. If something happened to him, they woulld still be in good shape with Cousins and McCoy. If they go with two then McCoy gets left off.

Running backs (4)

The Redskins could also stash Chris Thompson on the practice squad as further insurance. Thompson can easily bump himself onto the roster with a good summer; he’s a good fit in Gruden’s offense and the new coach liked Thompson coming out of college. But durability is an issue. By keeping four here, the Redskins can go with an extra player at another spot. This means Evan Royster is on the outs, but he doesn’t give the Redskins anything they don’t have in better players. He is insurance only.

Receivers (6)

I am not cutting Leonard Hankerson, rather I’m just not sold that he will be on the active roster at the start of the season. If he shows this summer that he can play, then, yes, I would have him on the 53-man roster. But the Redskins were not sure what to expect from him and when he might be healthy. Therefore, I can see him taking a little longer to return. Gruden likes Moss and they drafted Grant. Robinson needs to take a step.

Tight ends (3)

Rookie tight end Ted Bolser would head to the practice squad, where he can develop. He didn’t look close to a roster spot just based on how he looked this spring. Reed is firmly entrenched as the starter with Paulsen their top blocker and Paul a special teams ace.

Offensive line (10)

In reality, I could see them keeping only nine offensive linemen. It all depends on how Long and/or LeRibeus looks at guard. They love Long -- Gruden has said he could compete immediately -- so if he shows he can play, then they could cut Chester. Compton is a little surprise, but they like him as well. This position will be fluid and I’m not sold on the 10 I have listed.

Defensive line (6)

This one is fluid as well because it depends in part on Bowen’s health. I like Chris Neild and so do they, but can they keep him? Golston is more versatile and a key player on special teams, but he’s also 30 and they must get younger.

Linebackers (9)

As of now I’d have Rob Jackson out, especially if Jenkins develops as a pass-rusher. But this will be a close race. And I have them keeping an extra guy inside in Hayward because of his special teams ability.

Cornerbacks (5)
Chase Minnifield remains eligible for the practice squad. Richard Crawford is coming off a knee injury and it’s hard to place him on here without seeing him play. The one benefit for Crawford is that he can play in the slot; they need depth at that spot.

Safeties (4)

I really don’t feel good about this position and am not confident that I have this one right, at least for that final spot. Robinson’s special teams ability gives him the edge over Bacarri Rambo, who must have a strong camp. Akeem Davis can help on special teams, but with no NFL experience he will be stashed on the practice squad.

Specialists (3)

The Forbath selection is based on never having seen rookie Zach Hocker kick in an NFL game. If Hocker is consistent this summer and shows a strong leg, then he can win the job.

Camp preview: Washington Redskins

July, 17, 2014
Jul 17
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NFL Nation's John Keim examines the three biggest issues facing the Washington Redskins heading into training camp.

A rookie coach: Jay Gruden showed during the spring that he’ll coach with energy, creating a different vibe at Redskins Park. He’ll catch passes, defend receivers, throw a pass or two. And he looked for coaches who bring a similar energy. The difference was noticeable throughout the spring workouts open to the media.

Gruden, too, is a players’ coach, which can be viewed as positive or negative (all related to wins and losses).

Thus far, his relationship with quarterback Robert Griffin III has been all positive. If that continues, it’s a major boost to the organization after the toxicity of last season, regardless of who was at fault. It helps that Gruden is able to keep his ego in check; you don’t get the sense that there are any ulterior motives with him.

Having said all that, we have no idea how Gruden will handle a season in charge. What if there’s an issue with Griffin? What if the defense doesn’t produce and he thinks the Skins need to tweak their scheme? Will Gruden be able to make those hard decisions when necessary? In-game and in-season adjustments matter greatly, and Gruden has to prove himself in this area. He was not a unanimous hotshot choice to be a head coach, but the Redskins believed in him and thought he could handle the job. But now a first-time head coach has to do what established coaches such as Joe Gibbs and Mike Shanahan failed to do: lead a consistent winner. And he has to do that with general manager Bruce Allen, who has all the football power for the first time in his career.

Robert Griffin III’s rise: Griffin was viewed as a savior in 2012, setting records as a rookie and helping the Redskins win the NFC East title for the first time since 1999. His future, and that of the organization, looked tremendous -- even though when they were 3-6 it appeared they had the right quarterback, but not the right team.

Then came last season. And harsh judgment on Griffin and his future. Even as a rookie there was skepticism about whether Griffin’s career could last given all the running he did (sometimes by design, other times by necessity and other times because of poor decision-making). But last season, his mechanical flaws were critiqued more harshly, and his ability to develop as a pocket passer was questioned. Meanwhile, anonymous-sourced stories abounded about his ability to lead the right way and develop as a passer.

Griffin went from a beloved figure two years ago to one who now engenders sharp opinions one way or another. Now his personality is even questioned. Griffin can regain the love, but he’ll have to turn a strong offseason into an even better regular season. His road to redemption is not a long one, but he just has to get it done. Considering this is the first real NFL offseason he’s had, it’s not a big leap to think he’ll play better than in ’13 – even in a new offense. The Redskins’ ability to give him quicker reads with receivers more capable of winning at the line will help.

Where's the D? Washington improved its pass rush by adding a coach devoted to it (Brian Baker), signing a free agent (Jason Hatcher) and drafting another outside linebacker (Trent Murphy). That, combined with holdovers Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan, should give the rush a boost. Corner David Amerson gives the Redskins a young player, whom they love, to build around in the secondary.

But will that be enough to improve the defense? There are plenty of other question marks on a defense that remains in transition. Washington might have as many as five starters age 30 or older; this is not a once-great defense hanging on, it’s a once-struggling defense trying to get better. The D will receive a boost from the above additions, but still needs more.

The Redskins have to prove they are not a boom-or-bust defense. They tackled poorly in the back end last year, one reason they ranked 32nd in yards per pass attempt at 7.58. They have a new starting inside linebacker, Keenan Robinson; since being drafted in 2012, he has 11 career tackles, two torn pectoral muscles and zero starts. Safety Ryan Clark has been a solid player and is a terrific leader, but he needs to show he can still play at age 34. If a defense needs to be strong up the middle to win, the Redskins have this: a solid nose tackle in Barry Cofield, question marks at inside linebacker, and question marks at safety. While Griffin’s play garners the headlines, the defense holds a major key to success.
Two years ago the Washington Redskins had one of the most potent running games in the NFL, a mix of conventional and new school with the zone read option. It worked. They led the NFL in rushing yards, were second in yards per carry and gained more first downs than any team courtesy of the run.

It wasn’t just the zone read. While the Redskins averaged 6.18 yards per carry with that tactic, they still averaged 4.94 yards on their 401 traditional runs. That average alone was topped by only three other teams. The zone read helped, but so, too, did Alfred Morris being an excellent fit in the outside zone running scheme.

As he improved his tracks on runs, the Redskins’ run game flourished even more. Morris’ ability to plant and cut and make the first defender miss meant the run game would work even minus the zone read aspect.

Last season, the Redskins ranked third in the NFL in yards per rush (4.78). They averaged 5.33 yards on zone read carries and 4.65 on traditional runs; the latter number would have left them tied for third.

Here’s the point: The run game has worked the past two years, with or without the zone read option. That’s a big reason why offensive coordinator Sean McVay said shortly after getting his new position that “the run game will be very similar.”

The offseason moves suggest that’s the case. The Redskins added a bigger player at left guard in Shawn Lauvao, but he moves well -- after the Redskins signed him, multiple Browns sources said he’d be a good fit in the outside zone game. Lauvao might not be a great guard, but he’s bigger than Kory Lichtensteiger, now at center, by a good 20 pounds. Lichtensteiger moves better than former center Will Montgomery but is not as strong.

Meanwhile, the two linemen they drafted, guard Spencer Long and tackle Morgan Moses, both can move. The problem for Moses is that in college he was inconsistent getting to linebackers in the run game. It’s yet another area he must improve before he’s truly ready to start. Long, nearly 10 pounds heavier than starting right guard Chris Chester, spent a lot of time pulling at Nebraska but he also plays with strength. The Redskins definitely left yards on the field in the run game last season, sometimes because the backside blockers failed to get their men and other times because Morris needed to make a stronger cut down the field.

On paper, bigger should also equal more ability to play smash mouth when needed, adding more versatility to the ground game. But I’m not sold that Lauvao, for example, is as strong in that sort of situation. That’s not what he showed in Cleveland (whether at the line or when reaching linebackers).

Redskins coach Jay Gruden did not have the run game in Cincinnati that he’ll have in Washington. BenJarvus Green-Ellis is a bubble player for the Bengals this season; he carried the ball a combined 498 times the past two seasons. Gruden opted for a mix, with Giovani Bernard receiving 170 carries in 2013, in part because he had no one such as Morris.

Meanwhile, the Redskins actually led the NFL in rushing versus seven-man fronts (275 times for an NFL-best 1,332 yards).

Perhaps Gruden’s influence will result in more carries against five- and six-man fronts. The Bengals had 51 more such plays than Washington a year ago, a function of formation and likely also game situations. Then again, two years ago the Redskins had more runs against those fronts than Cincinnati.

But with DeSean Jackson, Pierre Garcon, Andre Roberts and tight end Jordan Reed, Gruden has more weapons in the pass game as well. Which, of course, could lead to more spread formations -- and runs against even more favorable fronts.

Meanwhile, Roy Helu can catch the ball and perhaps he’ll run better out of a shotgun spread formation than in the outside zone. But I can’t imagine him in a Giovani Bernard role; the Bengals’ back had 226 touches from scrimmage last season. Though Helu averaged 4.4 yards per carry, he’s not a move-the-chains runner (eight carries against an eight-man front resulted in a total of 14 yards). Even against seven-man fronts Helu averaged 4.06 yards, which is fine but is much less than Morris (4.96, with an NFL-best 937 rushing yards against that type of front).

The point? Helu will be able to handle the third-down duties again, but there’s little reason to take a whole lot away from Morris. And rookie Lache Seastrunk has a lot to prove -- as a third-down back in particular -- before being ready for anything other than pinch-hitting duty as a runner. But he’s a potentially good fit in the spread. Chris Thompson is, too, but size and durability remain two big issues for him.

Do not assume the Redskins will see fewer eight-man boxes compared to last season. In 2013, Morris only ran 44 times against an eight-man box, which was six fewer times than he did so as a rookie. So it’s not a given he’ll pile up more yards because of fewer eight-man boxes. But given the success of the past two years and that Gruden wants to keep it mostly the same, there’s also no reason to think Morris or the Redskins’ run game will suddenly drop off. That is, unless Gruden falls too much in love with the weapons at receiver.
The realities of the situation are different -- one is life or death; the other a game -- but the lessons transfer. So Ben Kotwica tapped into what he learned in Iraq when he became a football coach.

Kotwica, the Redskins special teams coach, spent seven years in the Army, serving as a combat attack helicopter commander. He earned multiple medals during his time in the Army: the Army Achievement Medal, the Army Commendation Medal, the Meritorious Service Medal and the Bronze Star.

[+] EnlargeWashington's Ben Kotwica
Photo by Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post via Getty ImagesRedskins special teams coach Ben Kotwica earned multiple medals during his time with the Army.
He's entering his second full season as a special teams coach and seventh overall in the NFL.

"You can have a plan going in, you can have an operational order, whether in Bosnia or Korea or Iraq, but the enemy has a vote," Kotwica said. "You have a plan going in that might work, but again the enemy has a vote, so whether it's in the desert of Iraq or on a football field on Sunday, you have to have the ability to make adjustments and instill that confidence in your soldiers or players that the job will get done."

During the spring workouts, Kotwica certainly came across as a tough commanding voice. After a disastrous season in 2013 for the Redskins' special teams, they certainly could use a strong tone -- and a kick in the rear.

Even Redskins coach Jay Gruden joked that, "I'm never going to overstep my boundaries with coach Kotwica."

Kotwica said being a commander or leader in the Army is akin to coaching. That's why, when he left the Army, he turned to coaching -- Bobby Ross was coaching at West Point and hired him.

"I seized on that opportunity and it's been great," he said. "I thoroughly enjoyed being in the military and this has been a great run."

The Redskins hope that run continues. Kotwica takes over a unit that was beaten down, not just because of coaching but because some players did not buy in the way others had. Some younger players contributed little or nothing to these units.

"Anytime you try to form a unit or an organization you want to instill a culture," Kotwica said. "There are things I brought from my military background. I put an apply within sign on my front door. We're taking all applicants. I think guys have bought into that."
The Washington Redskins' passing game struggled last season and not just because the starting quarterback was coming off knee surgery. The protection failed; the receivers didn’t get open; the coaches could not add as much to the offense as desired.

But with a new staff, a quarterback more like himself and with a full offseason and better receivers, the Redskins’ passing attack should improve. Of course, there have been many times in the past that an aspect of the Redskins should have improved and did not. Quarterback Robert Griffin III has maintained all along that nothing has yet been accomplished. He is absolutely right.

One veteran offensive player said what helps is that Jay Gruden’s passing game is similar to what Washington ran under Kyle Shanahan. It also helps that the coaches say the run game will be the same. Still, it’s a new offense that Griffin and the others must learn.

[+] EnlargeRobert Griffin III
AP Photo/Richard LipskiLook for Robert Griffin III and the Redskins to be more effective throwing deep with improved receivers led by offseason addition DeSean Jackson.
I know that Gruden’s favored alignment on first-and-10 was two tight ends and two receivers last season in Cincinnati. I don’t know how often he will use what alignment, but the Redskins did invest in the passing game -- DeSean Jackson, Andre Roberts to pair with Pierre Garcon, all of whom can win downfield -- and you don’t do so without the intent to maximize that talent.

The Redskins have devoted 15.57 percent of their cap space to receiver -- that’s 36.05 percent more than the average NFL team.

Also, the feeling, for now at least, is that the Redskins will rely less on play-action passes than they did in the past. The Redskins averaged an NFL-best 11.85 yards per pass attempt from play-action in 2012; they averaged 6.97 yards per attempt last season, 26th in the NFL. By comparison, Cincinnati ranked 12th last season at 8.22 yards per pass attempt from play-action (all statistics courtesy of ESPN Stats & Information).

However, the Bengals definitely ran it less: they ranked 19th in the NFL with only 47.6 yards per game out of play-action looks. The Redskins, meanwhile, were ninth at 70.3 yards per game.

The sense is that the Redskins won’t need to use it as much because of an improved receiving corps, one that is much more capable of winning one-on-one battles at the line (unlike last season). Therefore, in theory, it should result in quicker opportunities for Griffin. That will allow the Redskins to use less complicated reads until Griffin and the receivers grow in the offense. Without the benefit of a regular offseason a year ago, the Redskins could not expand the offense under Griffin the way they would have liked. When they tried to, it did not work for a variety of reasons.

Griffin has had a good offseason and, the veteran said, has done a good job of picking up the offense. But the fact remains that this is his first legitimate NFL offseason and he’s learning a second offense. Don’t complicate matters (even if every NFL offense is complex). This should allow him to be more decisive and play to his strengths, which should include throwing the deep ball.

A lot of this depends on how well the protection holds up. If it doesn't, then play-action can be used more often.

Gruden inherited different talent offensively than he had in Cincinnati. The Bengals did not have a workhorse runner as good as Alfred Morris. They did not have the depth among the receiving talent Washington now appears to have (including tight end Jordan Reed). Of course, the Bengals did have other weapons: receiver A.J. Green, one of the game’s best; running back Giovani Bernard, good at running from the spread and catching passes out of the backfield.

Griffin is a different threat than Andy Dalton. Griffin, obviously, is more mobile but he also has a stronger arm and should be more dangerous throwing downfield. But keep in mind that Cincinnati led the NFL with 83 pass attempts on passes that traveled at least 20 yards or more (the Redskins had 60 such attempts) but were 16th in completion percentage (37.3 percent) and 13th in yards per attempt (12.83). Again, if Griffin is sharper, then it would help here: The Redskins ranked second in the NFL in yards per pass attempt on these plays in 2012 (though they were 31st in number of passes attempted). Last season, the Redskins ranked 26th in completion percentage (28.3) and 25th in yards per attempt (9.92). With Jackson, a healthy Reed and an improved Griffin, I would expect both numbers to improve by a decent amount.

Also, what we have learned thus far about Gruden is that he will adjust. Well, actually, all we know is that he says he will adapt. That is why he is leaving the same run game in place, knowing it has been effective. Though some aspects of his offense have to remain the same -- you need core beliefs -- he can’t, and shouldn’t, ask Griffin to be Dalton.

The Redskins need Griffin to be Griffin again. They have the receivers to help him get there; they definitely need the line to help as well. Otherwise, a lot of what the Redskins hope to do -- and want to do -- will have to change.
John RigginsManny Rubio/USA TODAY Sports
Score: Redskins 27, Dolphins 17
Date: Jan. 30, 1983. Site: The Rose Bowl, Pasadena, California

From the moment this project was announced, and before I tweeted a word on it, there was only one play in my mind that deserved top billing. When a team hasn't won an NFL title in more than 40 years ... and it trails by four points in the ultimate game ... and it's fourth-and-1 ... and the running back goes the distance? How exactly do you top that?

Fortunately and wisely, the fans agreed with my take. Which is why John Riggins' touchdown run against Miami in Super Bowl XVII was the runaway choice for the top spot. Riggins' run received 76 percent of the more than 30,000 votes and was solidly ahead shortly after the choices appeared on the blog.


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Thing is, there were a few choices that didn't even make the list: Mark Moseley's 42-yard field goal in the snow to clinch a playoff spot in 1982; Clint Longley's bomb on Thanksgiving Day (not all memories are good ones); Sean Taylor's return of a blocked field goal attempt in the final seconds that led to a winning Redskins field goal over Dallas; Ken Houston's stop of Dallas running back Walt Garrison at the goal line; Joe Theismann's broken leg; and either of the two Santana Moss touchdown catches in the Monday night comeback win over Dallas. There are others as well.

But the right three were on the board. A Hall of Famer in Darrell Green making one of the biggest plays of a 20-year career. That garnered 16 percent of the vote. A clinching touchdown on an unlikely play -- an interception return by defensive tackle Darryl Grant -- to win the NFC Championship Game at home, providing a moment that likely still brings chills to those in attendance. But it wasn't big enough, receiving just 8 percent of the votes.

Riggins' run happened in the ultimate game. It happened on a fourth down. It gave Washington the lead. Shall I keep going? Based on the votes, the answer is no. You got it. And you got it right.
Some Washington Redskins news and notes for Friday morning:

Briles on RG III: Baylor coach Art Briles watched his former quarterback, Robert Griffin III, work out earlier this week. He saw a guy he used to see with regularity. "I think it's as fresh and uplifting as I've seen him in a long time quite honestly," Briles said on the SiriusXM Blitz Wednesday via Dan Steinberg of the Washington Post. "The thing about ACLs: I've always thought they take a complete year to get over. And I think he rushed himself a little bit, just because that's the way Robert is. He's always going to be determined to do more than is humanly possible."

Briles' prediction? "So I think this year, I do think we'll see a very healthy RG III. I think we're gonna see a guy that's happy playing the game, that has a fire and attitude that you need to have a chance to be successful, because that's who he is."

Revisiting Week 1 2013: Steinberg also wrote about former Redskin Chris Cooley saying that Griffin should not have started the 2013 opener. It wasn't because of Griffin's health, but rather his readiness. Griffin was cleared by doctors and was ready physically. But it's clear in hindsight he was not prepared to play in an NFL game. Mike Shanahan did a bad job of managing Griffin, from not pulling him in the Seattle game despite his gut feeling to do so and to being afraid of how his moves were perceived by the young quarterback. If you have a conviction on something, do it. Instead, Shanahan did not and instead we got the mess of last December.

More on Jackson: ESPN980's Chris Russell exchanged texts with safety Tanard Jackson, who told him his fourth suspension was not like the others, that it had nothing to do with marijuana. It's hard to buy any story from a guy in his position, regardless if you want to or not. Maybe it's true; maybe it's not. Bottom line: Whatever Jackson thinks, the NFL's ruling is the one that matters. They ruled he tested positive for violating the NFL's substance of abuse policy. It's over.

Power rankings: The Redskins ended the 2013 season ranked No. 31 in ESPN's power rankings. The rankings suggest they'll be better over the next three years -- but not by a whole lot. The panel of experts ranked Washington No. 24 Insider for what it could do over the next three years. That's a dropoff from last season and it stems from a fall at quarterback and coaching. They dropped 12 spots at quarterback and 19 at coaching from this time last year. The knock on Griffin traces back to his knee injury and a subpar season. And going from Mike Shanahan to first-time head coach Jay Gruden caused a tumble (of course, had Shanahan returned after such a bad season they might have fallen far regardless). It's not as if Gruden's hire was considered a great one at the time, so until he proves himself there will be split opinions on him. They also were knocked for the front office. The Redskins need Griffin to rebound and they'll climb in the rankings, but they also have to do a much better job building the defense. If Griffin plays well, the offense is in excellent shape. But the defense needs more help and will need several new parts after this season.

Redskins' biggest key to success

July, 10, 2014
Jul 10
Midway through the 2012 season, the narrative surrounding the Redskins’ future had changed. They went from a team headed nowhere to one guided by an exciting young quarterback, capable of big-time wins.

A year later that narrative changed, with Robert Griffin III's future -- and that of the Redskins -- more in question. One knee injury altered that storyline.

As the Redskins look to the future, it’s clear that one person holds the key to their success over the next three years: Griffin. They could still succeed if Griffin fails, but that would require them to solve a position they haven’t been able to for a long, long time. (They’ve had two Pro Bowl quarterbacks since 1998: Brad Johnson in ’99 and Griffin in ’12.) Maybe backup quarterback Kirk Cousins could be that guy, but that’s far from certain.

Of course, the defense must play better. And the defense is hardly built for long-term success at this point, unlike an offense that features a young nucleus. The defense is aging and needs more good young players.

The head coach, Jay Gruden, needs to prove he can handle his new gig. The general manager, Bruce Allen, must show he can build a winner -- he’s fully in charge now for the first time in his career. The pressure is on both men, but Griffin’s play on the field trumps all because of the importance of the position. If he plays well, it’s easier for Gruden to coach and for Allen to build. If Griffin stumbles or gets hurt, everyone in charge has a much tougher task. Griffin's play can get guys paid -- or fired. That's power.

The Redskins also tied their future to Griffin the minute they sent a large haul to St. Louis in exchange for the No. 2 pick: three first-round picks and a second. That preceded news about the two-year salary-cap penalty that restricted their ability to fortify the roster. Add it up and Griffin’s success became even more important. They need him to deliver.

If Griffin improves and stays healthy, the Redskins have a dynamic young quarterback capable of delivering big plays and, perhaps, titles for years to come. Doing the latter takes more than one player, but Griffin’s performance in 2012 gave Washington something it had not had in a long time: hope. That hope still exists, though it now comes with fingers crossed. But nobody else can deliver what Washington needs more than Griffin.
The sad part of the tale for Washington Redskins safety Tanard Jackson is that he got another chance. And another one. And another one.

And now he deserves no more, after news Wednesday that the NFL has suspended Jackson again for violating the NFL's Policy and Program for Substances of Abuse. It's sad because he keeps doing this to himself. It's sad because whatever he's doing with his personal life now has such a hold on him that he's tossed away a precious career, one that could have set himself and his family up for life.

Now, it's no longer about football for him -- and, in truth, it hasn't been for a while. Rather, it's about beating a far tougher opponent than what he faced on the field, one that could destroy him. Yes, Jackson has made bad choices. Yes, he put himself on this path. But do you really think this is the path he wants? Being suspended four times by the NFL, causing anguish for his family and personal embarrassment? Taking drugs puts your life on a slippery slope; you can choose to do them for a while and then, after a while, they choose for you.

My colleague Mike Jones pointed this out on Twitter earlier Wednesday, but it's true: When asked in May about changes he had made to his lifestyle, Jackson really didn't have a lot to say. It would have been easy to say he stopped going to certain areas, or that he'd been in rehab, or he stopped hanging around certain people. He did talk about having to change his lifestyle. The problem is, issues with drugs become a shadow, something that's impossible to outrun without a lot of work or help.

When he returned, the Redskins were not expecting a lot from him unlike when they signed him in 2012 and anticipated him being a starter. They were left with an ineffective Madieu Williams when Jackson was suspended that August.

Now they have Ryan Clark, who was firmly ahead of Jackson on the depth chart. He's reliable, available and a leader. The only way Jackson would have bumped him from the lineup is if Clark's play had slipped. Or if Jackson had somehow regained some past glory.

I also thought it was a little odd that Jackson was not in great shape when he returned. I would have thought he'd have been working hard to get ready and take this last chance seriously. It wasn't as if he was grossly out of shape, but he admitted that staying in shape wasn't at the top of his priority list. No, it most certainly shouldn't have been. But it should have been part of an overall package of turning his life around.

Again, it's a shame. Jackson did this to himself, and he knows it. He didn't let fans down, he let himself down. And, yes, while I know some do not have any sympathy for him, he still warrants it. You know him as a player; he's more than that. His career is over. But his fight continues.
John RigginsManny Rubio/USA TODAY Sports
» VOTE HERE » NFC Plays: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

This is the third of three plays nominated as the most memorable play in team history. We've already featured Darryl Grant's interception return for a touchdown in the 1983 NFC Championship Game and Darrell Green's punt return to beat the Chicago Bears in a 1988 playoff game. Please vote for your choice as the Redskins’ most memorable play.

Score: Redskins 27, Dolphins 17
Date: Jan. 30, 1983 Site: Los Angeles Coliseum

To understand the moment, why it carried the weight that it did, it’s important to first look back. Like to the 1950s, when the Redskins posted two winning seasons. Or the 1960s, when they could score but not win. They managed a winning record once, in the final year of the decade. This despite several Hall of Famers on offense.


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The Redskins had not won a title of any kind since 1942. They had only reached the postseason seven times since that year (and five since 1945). Yet the fans showed up time and again, knowing what always awaited them in the end. Even when Washington had reached Super Bowl VII, it lost to undefeated Miami.

There was hope, though, with new coach Joe Gibbs, who led the team to an 8-1 mark in the strike-shortened 1982 regular season (his second in charge). Then three double-digit playoff victories put Washington into Super Bowl XVII.

But no titles ever come easy, and the Redskins trailed Miami 17-13 when they took over the ball at their own 18 early in the fourth quarter. They drove to the Dolphins’ 43, where they faced fourth-and-1 with 10 minutes, 10 seconds remaining.

John Riggins and the Redskins’ run game already had posted good numbers. So everyone had to know what would happen next: a handoff to Riggins. The Dolphins used a six-man front, which meant the play would either be stuffed or a huge one. The Redskins got the latter as tackle Joe Jacoby buried linebacker Kim Bokamper and fullback Otis Wonsley helped seal the end.

That left Riggins one-on-one with corner Don McNeal. Mismatch. Riggins swatted him away and the man nicknamed The Diesel chugged toward the end zone, running for the lead and a place in history. Diesel horns blared in the stands, a signature sound that season. And it became a run that is mentioned seemingly every Super Bowl week. It was the first of three Super Bowl victories under Gibbs, giving Redskins fans a taste of success that had eluded them forever.

For Riggins, it enabled him to post a Super Bowl record 166 yards rushing and then to make this statement after a congratulatory phone call from President Ronald Reagan: “At least for tonight, Ron’s the president, but I’m the king.” Decades of frustration had ended for Redskins fans. They, too, finally felt like football royalty.
The guy coming off the record-setting season opted for the same trainer as the one just trying to hang on. Washington Redskins wide receiver Pierre Garcon wants to build on 2013; Chris Neild wants to make the roster. And Mike Barwis worked with both toward that goal -- as the series, "American Muscle," will highlight.

Barwis, a senior advisor to the New York Mets and a consultant for the Miami Dolphins, has long worked with Neild and became a strong admirer years ago. This past offseason was the first time he worked with Garcon, who wanted to improve his explosiveness with route-running.

Barwis worked with a number of other pros, including Seattle Seahawks corner Richard Sherman and Detroit Lions defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh, both of whom also will be part of the series that begins at 9 p.m. ET Wednesday on the Discovery Channel. Garcon will be part of a later episode, though Neild will be on Wednesday night.

Neild spent nearly two months working out with Barwis, who said Garcon's stay was considerably shorter because what he wanted to achieve was more specific. But Neild also has worked with Barwis since his freshman season at West Virginia.

"Chris is blood to me," Barwis said. "He's an absolute warrior. His mentality is incredible. He's one of the major aspects of the premier of our show. ...You won't find a lot who are tougher and work harder than Chris."

For Neild, spending so much time with Barwis could make the difference in making the roster. He's already lasted three seasons, but if the Redskins keep six defensive linemen as they've done in the past, then Neild has work to do. He's not as versatile as some of the other defensive linemen because he's just a nose tackle.

But Barwis, who said he has trained more than 500 Olympic and professional athletes in his career, said Neild stands out.

"He always makes the chemistry better," he said. "He's the soldier. He's the one who will fight. He gives everything he has to be good. ...That type of attitude and charisma is what builds championship teams."

They focused on helping Neild with the demands of the position, with the need to take on two blockers with regularity. Neild benches more than 450 pounds and squats better than 600. They worked on nutrition, supplements as well as balance and functional training to better control your body; increasing the ability to play with leverage, working on increasing explosiveness through plyometrics, among other means.

"It's a lifestyle," Barwis said.

Garcon's stint wasn't as involved. Barwis said he wanted to refine his speed and running mechanics. He did not want to get specific with what Garcon did, but, in general it could involve minute details. For example, Barwis works on his clients on where their toes should be pointed when their foot is off the ground (up; leads to better explosion when you hit the ground). Or on where his body should be when you cut.

"Pierre was a very disciplined guy and a very hard worker," Barwis said. "Very coachable. He's a guy that stays focused. He's soft spoken and he gets after it. He's a great leader by example, does what he has to do and works hard.

"He's a tremendous athlete. The thing that's neat to me is when you get top athletes like that and they still want to be better and are still focused on how to make themselves two steps quicker. The kid is saying, ‘I'm not satisfied with having a record year.'"
Darrell GreenAP Photo/Fred Jewell
» VOTE HERE » NFC Plays: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

This is the second of three plays nominated as the most memorable play in team history. We already featured Darryl Grant's interception return for a touchdown, and on Wednesday we'll feature John Riggins' game-winning touchdown run in Super Bowl XVII. Please vote for your choice as the Redskins' most memorable play.

Score: Redskins 21, Bears 17
Date: Jan. 10, 1988 Site: Soldier Field

Redskins cornerback Darrell Green had burst onto the scene in a much different situation. Dallas running back Tony Dorsett sped down the field, and as anyone knew at the time, no one caught him from behind. Then Green did just that, a rookie coming out of nowhere -- shot like a bullet -- to tackle Dorsett. Green denied Dorsett an 83-yard touchdown run, tackling him at the 6-yard line and forcing a Cowboys field goal.

It didn’t matter that Dallas ended up winning the game. Green announced himself to the NFL, flashing his speed and creating a memory. But it wasn’t as big as the one he created in 1988 in a much tougher spot: a first-round playoff game at Chicago.


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By then, Green was an established corner, having earned a third Pro Bowl berth that season. The Redskins were an established power.

But they had a rough assignment: win at Chicago for a second straight year in the playoffs. This time they faced bitterly cold conditions. Former defensive end Charles Mann once said the Vaseline he had applied froze to his body that day.

Chicago, just two seasons removed from Super Bowl glory, led 14-0. But the Redskins rallied to tie the game, and, with 11:40 left in the fourth quarter, Green started a punt return for the ages. He retreated to the Redskins' 48-yard line to field Tommy Barnhardt’s punt and started up the right sideline.

Out of the corner of his eye, Green spotted Cap Boso diving at his legs around the 34. Green then created the memory: He hurdled Boso, then cut back inside and, within a few yards, grabbed his left side. He clutched his side for the final 30 yards en route to a 52-yard game-winning punt return.

Green had torn his rib cage on the return and could play only one more snap. But his efforts on this play led to not only a 21-17 win but also a moment that was hard to top in Redskins history. A week later, he defended the final pass at the goal line in the NFC Championship Game victory over Minnesota. But his play against the Bears was more impressive. It required vision, athleticism and toughness. In a Hall of Fame career, it’s hard to believe one moment can stand out. The return against Chicago did.