NFC East: Washington Redskins
PHILADELPHIA -- The dancing started on the sideline, a joyful celebration guided not by music but by emotions. It spilled into the locker room, where a group of players, notably Jason Hatcher and Chris Baker, danced to the beat of the music and their hearts.
For a change, the Washington Redskins felt good in late December. That is well-deserved; the Redskins are the NFC East champions, and if anyone wants to let them know how bad the division is, well, the Redskins really don't care. The rules of the NFL stipulate that all you must do is be better than the other teams in your division, and after Saturday's 38-24 win over Philadelphia, the Redskins are.
Washington has been bad when the division was mediocre and when it was good, so do not expect the Redskins to apologize for being the best of a mediocre bunch. They were picked by many to win fewer than six games, and some predicted they'd be the worst team in the NFL.
Instead, Saturday night they donned gray NFC East champion hats and black T-shirts reading "NFC East is on lock." It was a celebration of a change of culture, overcoming key injuries, surviving a quarterback change, showing resilience time and time again this season and, yes, winning the division. But this was as much about the journey as it was about the destination.
"You have those moments when you're 4-12 and 3-13 where you wonder, 'Are you going to go back to the playoffs?'" Redskins linebacker Ryan Kerrigan said. "You gain a greater appreciation for going back, and you learn to appreciate these moments more, appreciate coming into the locker room and getting hats and shirts. You've got to appreciate these moments."
That's especially true in Washington, where the postseason doesn't happen all that often. Usually, if the Redskins aren't in the playoffs, they're really bad. Since Joe Gibbs returned in 2004, the Redskins have made the postseason four times; they've finished last seven times.
Washington's journey this season included a quarterback change that seemed controversial to the fan base but wasn't to the players in the locker room. They were rewarded with stellar play by Kirk Cousins down the stretch and watched him throw 20 touchdowns with just three interceptions in the last nine games. Some might never forgive Jay Gruden for benching Robert Griffin III, but inside the locker room, that change was among the early reasons for optimism.
The Redskins overcame injuries to players they felt would play key roles. They overcame a five-game road losing streak to win two straight away from home when they needed wins most.
Maybe in other seasons, if the NFL didn't have the imbalance of this season, the Redskins would be an afterthought. They didn't beat a team with a winning record, after all. But that's not their focus -- not even for a minute. Redskins general manager Scot McCloughan wanted to change the culture and establish a new foundation. That a division title accompanied that change is gravy.
"This locker room believed, this organization believed, our leader believed, Jay Gruden," nose tackle Terrance Knighton said. "This is what I came here for: to be part of a culture change. We expect to win in this locker room. So many ups and downs all year. This is the best feeling I've had in any locker room I've been in. ... We work so hard, and we overcame so much."
The Redskins survived more issues Saturday and received more good fortune. The Eagles drove down and took a 7-0 lead; the Redskins then scored and missed an extra point. They should have been burned for a few long touchdown passes, but one was an overthrow, and the other was a drop. The Redskins committed a big gaffe at the end of the first half, with Kirk Cousins kneeling instead of throwing a fade and the clock running out.
Yet as they had done all season, the Redskins didn't flinch. It was something the players saw throughout the season -- even in the loss to the New York Giants, when they felt they competed well in the second half. During the season, they brought in free agents who contributed. They coaxed positive performances out of five draft picks and one undrafted receiver-turned-corner.
There was a different atmosphere in training camp, and it was noticeable -- if you wanted to notice it, that is. The veteran leadership was strong, but would it be enough? There are definitely those in the organization who are surprised the team won eight games and consider this the start of something -- not the finish.
"You're happy as heck for them, and to get rewarded like this is something special we'll never forget," Gruden said. "[In camp], we felt we were an up-and-coming team, like we could compete with anybody. It was just a matter of putting it all together, handling the ups and downs."
The Redskins have known the downs. Go ahead and mock the NFC East; it's not the best. But after all the downs, the Redskins are going to enjoy the ups.
"We didn't just earn it," said Kedric Golston, in his 10th season. "We took it. ... It's a special moment."
PHILADELPHIA -- The preseason picks stuck with his players for a little while, which is why Washington Redskins coach Jay Gruden brought them up again this week. He rattled off the names of publications that picked his team last and likely missed a dozen more that did the same.
Here they are: champions of the NFC East after beating Philadelphia 38-24 Saturday night. Go ahead and scoff at the bad play of the division, but remember this: In 2011, the division champion won only nine games, and the Redskins still lost 11, so just because the division was bad did not mean the Redskins would contend -- not after the team lost double-digit games in five of the past six seasons, not after a 7-25 record the past two years combined, and not after losing key players and switching to a turnover-prone quarterback to open the season.
Say what you want, but most of the people who say they saw this coming -- beyond ever-optimistic fans -- are lying. That the Redskins won eight games is quite good; the division title just happened to come with those wins.
To win this division title, the Redskins used strong veteran leadership. The culture is infinitely better than it was the past two seasons: stronger and more mature, and those who goofed around fell in line.
The Redskins played for one another as much as any recent team did. Also, that turnover-prone quarterback, Kirk Cousins, stopped turning the ball over.
Here they are: After two of the worst Decembers in team history, the Redskins turned in one worth remembering.
What it means: The Redskins won the NFC East for the first time since 2012 and will host a playoff game, most likely against Seattle, which has eliminated Washington in the team's past three playoff appearances. Amazingly, the Redskins, a team picked by many to finish last and as one of the worst in the NFL, can, if they so desire, rest their starters in the season finale next week at Dallas. The win also means Cousins will receive a hefty raise in the offseason after he threw 19 touchdown passes with only three interceptions in his final nine games. The pending free agent “will be taken care of,” one member of the organization said recently. The price, though, has increased.
What were they thinking: That statement could be applied a few times to punt returner Jamison Crowder. He just hasn’t had the anticipated impact in this area, and he flirts with danger too often. His decision-making Saturday wasn’t his best.
One reason to be excited: If a division title isn’t enough, just look at the Redskins' skill position players: They’re mostly young, which gives the team a chance to develop a good, young core for a few seasons.
One reason to panic: The inconsistency of the run game and the big plays allowed by the defense -- the Eagles would have had two more touchdown passes, had it not been for an overthrow and a drop.
Fantasy watch: Tight end Jordan Reed once more reminded everyone of his talent by catching nine passes for 129 yards and two touchdowns. At times, he was the best player on the field.
Game ball: Cousins committed a major gaffe at the end of the first half and cost Washington a chance at three points, at the very least. But he finished with 365 passing yards and four touchdowns, and he became the first quarterback in franchise history to throw for more than 300 yards and four touchdowns in consecutive games.
Ouch: Redskins safety DeAngelo Hall exited with a calf injury late in the game.
For the third consecutive year, the Philadelphia Eagles are playing a December game for the NFC East title. They won’t be facing the Dallas Cowboys this time, though. Saturday’s game against the Washington Redskins will decide who wins the division and gets to host a wild-card playoff game in two weeks.
Washington defeated the Eagles 23-20 back in October, as Kirk Cousins capped a 90-yard touchdown drive with a 4-yard pass to Pierre Garcon. Since then, Cousins has established himself as a starting quarterback capable of winning big games. Meanwhile, Eagles quarterback Sam Bradford has begun to do a little of that himself.
ESPN.com Redskins reporter John Keim and Eagles reporter Phil Sheridan discuss Saturday’s game between the two teams.
Phil Sheridan: It has always been tempting to see Jay Gruden as the Beau Bridges of NFL coaches. Jon is the sharper, more accomplished brother. But how much credit does Jay deserve for the team’s improbable run to first place in the NFC East and for Cousins’ excellent play?
John Keim: It’s funny, because some Redskins fans have roasted both Cousins and Gruden this season. Neither will ever be good enough, because one made the decision to bench Robert Griffin III and the other replaced him.
But one of them has to be doing something right, because no one expected this type of season given the preseason expectations (low) and the injuries (high). So any coach should deserve credit for what they’ve done this season.
I do believe the team's culture changed for the better with several key additions (give general manager Scot McCloughan credit), and that’s been a big plus as well. But Gruden inserting Cousins went a long way with the players, and they do like his style of coaching -- Gruden interacts with all players, takes care of the veterans and sold his game plan better this season. Gruden has given Cousins time to grow, and Cousins, in turn, showed reason why he should be given time.
I’m not going to canonize Gruden just yet, but he has done a good job this season.
The Redskins are excited about the opportunity they have and view themselves as a team on the rise. Considering the expectations surrounding the Eagles entering the season -- and Chip Kelly’s controversial personnel decisions -- what is their state of mind? More disappointment or solely focused on a possible playoff berth?
Sheridan: I think it’s a little of both, frankly. After Sunday night’s loss to the Cardinals, there was a lot of talk in the locker room about “the playoffs start now” and how the players were grateful for the short week so they couldn’t dwell on that game.
But I also sense quite a bit of disappointment. This team was horrible for three games in a row, culminating in those blowout losses to Tampa Bay and Detroit. They rallied to beat New England and then Buffalo. I think they felt like they had righted the ship and were beyond the kind of performances they endured during that three-game slide.
So losing 40-17, even to a very good Arizona team, felt a little bit like waking up in the morning and finding the boulder back at the bottom of the mountain. The players talked about still having a chance at the postseason, and that’s something to play for, but I also think the Cardinals game was a convincing argument that this Eagles team is in no way ready to contend.
They may win the NFC East, but that says more about the state of the division than any claim the Eagles have to being a good team.
Back to Cousins for a second: His play reminds me of Nick Foles' 2013 season. Foles was drafted 14 spots ahead of Cousins in 2012. In 2013, he threw 27 touchdowns and two interceptions and was MVP of the Pro Bowl. Since then, he has been pretty pedestrian. What signs are you getting as far as Cousins’ ability to continue doing this?
Keim: The talent around him.
It’s funny, because before the season, I did not picture Cousins as the game-manager type; he had an aggressive mindset that led to forced passes and interceptions. But he’s been much better in that area the past eight games (16 touchdowns, three interceptions) and has mostly managed games well.
I also like that Cousins knows who he is and, more importantly, who he is not. He knows there’s talent around him, so he lets them do their jobs. He has an elite downfield guy (DeSean Jackson), a top tight end (Jordan Reed) and a solid target (Garcon). Cousins needs that. So as long as there’s no Chip Kelly giveaway, he’ll have that talent.
Also, Cousins does well with play-action and bootlegs -- and the run game has been bad. If they can improve that next season, it would allow him to continue playing well. I’m still not sure just how good he can be and wouldn’t be surprised by any direction he goes. But he definitely has improved and proved that Gruden made the right choice in August.
What’s your assessment of Sam Bradford?
Sheridan: Oh, boy. This is a thorny one, because there is so much at stake on it. Not on my assessment, of course. Kelly isn’t going to base his decisions on what I say. But in trying to analyze Bradford, you have to take everything into account: his current performance, his room for further growth, his contract situation, the talent around him and so forth. In short, there is no simple answer.
So let’s start with his performance during the season. Bradford looked great in the preseason, and that probably raised expectations to an unreasonable level. That made Bradford’s first seven games a little bit underwhelming: nine touchdowns, 10 interceptions, 3-4 record. It was basically what the Eagles got last year from Foles and Mark Sanchez.
But beginning with the Dallas game on Nov. 8, Bradford began playing markedly better. He missed two games because of injuries, but his work since then is pretty good: 66.5 percent completion rate, seven touchdowns and three interceptions, a 3-2 record.
If Bradford had another year on his contract, you’d look at his recent play and decide he had a chance to develop into something good next season. But the economics are tough here. Committing $15 to $20 million a year means you need a little more than a chance. And I don’t think Bradford has proved himself beyond that point.
Sunday’s game against Arizona was a perfect example. He made some really terrific throws, but he turned the ball over three times. In the five games I cited where his stats are pretty solid, the Eagles’ offense has averaged 21 points per game. Bradford cut back on his interceptions, but I think part of that equation is that he cut back on taking chances and being aggressive.
Another thing Foles and Cousins have in common: When they had their breakout seasons, they were throwing to a guy named DeSean Jackson. Two years into his tenure there, how is DeSean fitting in? Is he the problem that Chip Kelly apparently thought he was, or does his big-play capability make him worth it?
Keim: I believe that question gets asked every week. But consider this: The Redskins’ offense is much better with him on the field in almost every key statistical category than when he’s not.
He can’t be that big of a problem considering they’re a game ahead of the Eagles entering Saturday’s game. When Jackson missed OTA workouts, the common refrain from teammates was, “As long as he produces on Sundays.” He produces.
Cousins’ passer rating the past four games throwing to Jackson is 154.0, and his QBR is 98.5. Both are nearly perfect. Jackson does not block too often, can be all about himself and will miss workouts. But in 23 games the past two seasons, Jackson has 19 catches of 30 or more yards -- fifth-best in the NFL by three catches (but everyone ahead of him played more games). They could cut him this offseason and save $8 million against the cap, but then they’d have to find someone to do what he does -- and there aren’t many with his skills.
A lot has been made about the running back situation in Philadelphia, but I’m curious: What are some issues with the team that have not been discussed enough?
Sheridan: There are a few. The offensive line has been up and down all season. That has affected everything. The guards who replaced Evan Mathis and Todd Herremans have good games and bad, but I think the biggest thing is that left tackle Jason Peters has been dealing with nagging injuries all season. That probably has something to do with Peters being close to 34 years old and closer to the end than the beginning of his career.
Meanwhile, Kelly’s other offseason moves are as questionable as the running back situation. The past two seasons he let the team’s best wide receiver leave. Instead of DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin, Bradford is throwing to Jordan Matthews, Riley Cooper, Nelson Agholor and Josh Huff. Only Matthews has been an NFL-quality wide receiver.
Over on the defensive side, Byron Maxwell has been OK but hardly the difference-maker you'd expect for a $63 million contract. And Kiko Alonso looks nothing like the player he was in Buffalo. Whether that’s because of injuries, scheme or something else, I don’t know. I do know that it isn’t particularly promising.
“That’s sweet, man. That’s fun,” the Washington Redskins cornerback said.
He was serious. It returned him to his first season in Green Bay, when he’d face either Brett Favre or Aaron Rodgers in practice. And Blackmon enjoyed that time.
“It was bullets flying all day,” Blackmon said. “So it was an advantage of ours; if you weren’t better than our two quarterbacks then you had issues.”
So after Sunday's visit from the New Orleans Saints, the Redskins can know they might not face a better quarterback the rest of the season. Not after facing future Hall of Famers in consecutive weeks. And what the Redskins know is that there are aspects of the games of Brady and Brees that are similar and some that are not.
Here’s a look at the styles of both quarterbacks through the Redskins' eyes:
Familiarity with the system
Brady has operated in the same offensive system under coach Bill Belichick for 16 years, one of the most beneficial streaks in the NFL. But Brees isn’t far behind, having played 10 seasons in the same offense under coach Sean Payton.
“They’ve been in their offense for a lot of years and know it like the back of their hand,” Redskins corner DeAngelo Hall said. “There isn’t much you can throw at them from a defensive standpoint that’s going to get them off their game. They know where the ball is supposed to go in every situation.”
Style of passing game
It could be more about personnel, but Brees is more apt to throw downfield than Brady. In eight games this season, Brees has attempted 42 passes of 20 yards or more -- 14 more than Brady, according to ESPN Stats & Information. And Brady has yet to throw a touchdown pass that has traveled that distance (Brees has three).
“Drew can stretch the field,” Redskins defensive end Ricky Jean Francois said. “You’ve got Brady who has his guys running every damn route tree in the book they can get. And I’m not saying the Patriots don’t have those roadrunners, but the Saints have that. So if Brees needs to get the ball down the field, he has the arm strength with the speed to do it.”
Hall sees a difference in this area, too. However, it’s not as if Brees only looks downfield: He has attempted 181 passes of five yards or less -- one more than Brady.
“Tom is more systematic with it,” Hall said. “His offense is a bam, bam, dink-and-dunk style. But I’ve seen Drew go out two or three series and hit all checkdowns. Even though shots are built in, he’s patient enough to take what the defense gives you. As soon as he finds that one guy open and it’s a bomb, he’ll let it fly.”
Blackmon said the signal-callers just run different styles that suit their strengths.
“With Brees, it’s more I’m going to drop back and dice you guys up,” Blackmon said. “I remember playing against him and no matter how tight the coverage is, he’ll throw it to a perfect spot where the receiver will catch it. With Brady, it’s more, ‘I’ll take advantage of my matchups and every time I line up I’ll get us into a perfect play.’ Brees just scans the entire field and he’ll find the open man.”
Moving in the pocket
Neither player is going to try to win with his legs -- they’ve combined to run the ball 33 times this season. But both can move well in the pocket, though they do so differently.
“Drew will get outside the pocket,” Hall said. “Tom seems to step up in the pocket and go left or right, but he won’t try to get outside the pocket. Drew will really move around.”
Some of that stems from Brady being 6-foot-4 and Brees standing 6-foot. Brady can see over the offensive line; Brees needs to create more passing lanes.
“Brady knows how to maneuver through his line if the pressure is coming and he’ll get the ball where he needs to,” Jean Francois said. “With Brees, you just have to get your hands up. You have to do something for him not to look over that line of scrimmage.”
Brady can move defensive backs with his eyes, getting them to cheat to one side before hitting them back the other way. Brees will do that as well, but he has a strong shoulder fake that burns corners. Brees used that shoulder fake to burn Tennessee for a touchdown last week.
“It’s definitely something that’s taken years to perfect, but he can move you off the spot with his shoulder,” Hall said. “It’s amazing how he’s moving guys out of the way and opening a window for someone else.”
Regardless, the Redskins know Sunday will be another challenge.
“For us it’s about going out there and competing,” Hall said. “You won’t see two better quarterbacks than we’ve faced in back-to-back weeks.”
ATLANTA – The final play, one that turned a potentially resilient win into a crushing defeat, unfolded exactly how the Atlanta Falcons wanted.
One week after leading a game-winning drive to beat the Philadelphia Eagles, Washington Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins threw an interception that turned into the game-winning touchdown as Robert Alford ran 59 yards for a touchdown.
It was a good news, bad news for Cousins and the offense. He led some clutch drives; he missed some key throws.
“I wasn’t good enough on some of those throws,” Cousins said. “There’s nowhere to point except at myself. I have to make those throws. I can make those throws, and I believe I will over the long haul. But today I left too many out there.”
Cousins and the Redskins’ offense finally displayed life in the fourth quarter by scoring 12 points -- three of which came on a drive with 24 seconds left in regulation. A second straight week of such late success would have delivered quite a bounce.
But the crushing play started with a good blitz from Atlanta, which left linebacker Nate Stupar with a free rush. Cousins knew where he had to throw the ball, but with Stupar free, it bought him little time. It provided Alford a chance to read the play well, starting slightly inside Grant and resulting with him sliding outside and then breaking as the ball was thrown wide. When Grant tried to break after turning around, he slipped.
Redskins coach Jay Gruden wasn’t going to overanalyze what happened.
“Ryan Grant just slipped and fell, and that was unfortunate,” he said. “There really isn’t anything to say on that.”
Grant did not talk to reporters, so it’s tough to know what happened from his perspective and what he was supposed to do on the route. He has declined multiple requests this season. Cousins didn’t mention anything about Grant slipping after the game.
“I felt the need to get rid of the ball and not take a sack and kill a drive,” Cousins said. “I threw it, and the guy made a play, and that was it. I tried to put it where I felt it needed to be put. Until I see the film, I can’t say much else without conviction.”
Redskins nose tackle Terrance Knighton said, "Kirk did a good job all game. I went to him after the game and said, 'Don't hang your head. Their defense made a play.'"
Cousins was, at best, inconsistent -- completing 21 of 32 passes for 219 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions. He was intercepted in the first half on a ball that bounced off Pierre Garcon’s hands. While Garcon said he should have caught the ball, the pass was also off-target. He misfired several other times to Garcon but connected with him for 19 yards on the game-tying drive.
But Cousins also drove the Redskins 80 yards in three plays after Atlanta took a 12-7 lead early in the fourth. Then he drove them 46 yards in four plays for the game-tying field goal. It was good enough to nearly win; it wasn’t good enough to win.
“He was up and down,” Gruden said. “He’s a young quarterback on the road, hostile environment. He competed, made some big-time throws, missed some throws he would normally make. We want to be in the game at the end, and he put us in the position to be there. Unfortunately, Ryan slipped, and they made a good play. We can get better from Kirk. We can demand better from Kirk, and he will get better.”
Much has been made over the past year about Cousins' ability to recover from bad plays. But Cousins showed Sunday that he was resilient, and he rallied in the fourth quarter. He must wait a week to display his resilience after this game. It helps when you know why something happened, and the fact that the interception can't be blamed all on him matters too. Just like the Giants loss, however, it was the misses on other throws aside from the interceptions that hurt. Coaches have mentioned Cousins' poise all season; he'll need to keep displaying that attribute.
"The bounce-back thing was never an issue for me," Cousins said. "If you go back through my story, my life is bouncing back and fighting adversity and being mentally and physically and emotionally tough. I've always been able to do that, and to play quarterback in this league you better be able to do that. That's something going forward I'll continue to have to do."
ASHBURN, Va. – The accomplishment might become routine for some players, but scoring a touchdown doesn’t get old for many others. It’s a rarity – and they also know how difficult it is to do. Last season, for example, 124 players rushed for at least one touchdown. But only 75 rushed for more than one.
Washington Redskins fullback Darrel Young understands the feeling – and he’s never forgotten his first NFL touchdown. It happened on Nov. 15, 2010 in a 59-28 Monday night loss to Philadelphia, when Young caught a 3-yard touchdown pass. Young has scored 12 more touchdowns in his career; the first one stands out, as he explains in his own words:
The memory: “Hell, yeah, I remember. Monday Night Football. Donovan McNabb. Mike Sellers was poked in his eye so I came in. It was my mother’s birthday so I can’t forget it.”
How it happened: “Donovan looked at me in the huddle and said, ‘It’s coming to you.’ I was like, 'All right, it’s cool.' It was a pass play, a keeper. That’s my play. Don’t tell anybody. I scored and I remember saying, 'This is something.' I accomplished my dream and since I’m playing in the NFL, now I want to make it to the top-tier level and be a starter. But this is something everyone lives for – Monday Night Football, scoring a TD and my brother was watching in Afghanistan. It was something I’ll never forget.”
The feeling: “The air felt different in the end zone. It’s not butterflies. It’s this sense of excitement because you know everyone is cheering for you in the stadium. You come back to the sidelines and everyone is excited for you and it’s that feeling. Not that it’s a selfish moment, but you did something to help the team out. It’s different than scoring at [other levels of football]. This is the highest level. Being a professional athlete, what better stage to go out and perform than in front of the world and have everyone cheer your name in a positive way. I still haven’t come down from it. It’s all people talked about, ‘Hey, I remember when you scored on Monday Night Football.’ I’m never going to come down from that. That’s what you live for, you live for memories. Football has helped me to try and become a better player and person.”
On keeping the ball: “Hell, yeah. It’s hanging up at home in a framed case. I got it painted with the date, the touchdown, who we played and the score.”
ASHBURN, Va. -- The low expectations returned, with one publication or website after another predicting doom and gloom. Five places tabbed the Washington Redskins as the NFL's worst team. Seven others were more optimistic – picking the Redskins as high as 30th.
Meanwhile, the team ignores all talk.
"You don't pay attention to it," Redskins left tackle Trent Williams said. "I understand there will be headlines, that you guys have a job to do. There are a lot of things you have to learn to tune out, that being one of them. When you guys think the sky is falling, we sit in this locker room with a lot of optimism."
That's how players and coaches must think; otherwise, why play the games? For the outside world, the Redskins have: won seven games combined the past two years, have no quarterback and remain a dysfunctional franchise; they moved the fifth overall pick from tackle to guard; they benched Robert Griffin III before the season opener and lost a top pass-rusher in Junior Galette to injury.
For Williams, he's used to whatever attention comes the Redskins' way.
"We're a pretty big market and we're vulnerable for people to come in and pick on us," Williams said. "It ain't like it's popping out of the blue. We've been dealing with this the last five years of my career. We're used to the noise. You just have to learn to tune this out and know what you do on Sundays is the ultimate end all, say all."
The Redskins have lost double-digit games in five of the past six seasons. They also haven't solved the most important position, quarterback. They benched Griffin and spent part of the past two weeks with speculation about whether he'd be released. It added to the belief the Redskins were a mess entering the season. ESPN's power rankings placed the Redskins 32nd.
"We're just ready to put everything behind us," Knighton said. "With all the quarterback controversy and just off the field study, we're ready to focus on football. Once Sunday comes, everyone will forget about that as long as we put up Ws, and we're playing well as a team and putting our best product on the field."
Redskins coach Jay Gruden pointed to additions such as Knighton, corner Chris Culliver and even safety Dashon Goldson as reasons he feels confident. He likes the physical mindset of the players they've added overall, including draft picks Brandon Scherff (guard), Matt Jones (running back) and Jamison Crowder (receiver), among others.
"We feel like we added the toughness that we're looking for. Now, it's a matter of going out, handling adversity, playing hard and keeping that toughness level up at a consistent basis," Gruden said.
And the players know they control their fate, not preseason pundits.
"We know what talent we have, it doesn't matter what outsiders think," receiver Andre Roberts said. "You just have to go into the season with the right mindset. Everybody's 0 and 0 and you can have some down parts in the season but as long as the team is clicking at the right time, you can do some good things."
After quarterback Robert Griffin III visits the independent neurologist (a different one from last week) Friday, the Washington Redskins will have a decision to make -- if he's cleared, that is. It's believed they would not make a move until he is cleared.
The choice is simple: Does the organization see a future in Washington for him or not? Earlier in the week, coach Jay Gruden said he did see one, but that's hard to imagine. The football side hasn't seen the sort of growth needed to make a long-term investment in him (in terms of coaching). The question is, how does the business side view the situation? That's why there was genuine uncertainty among several in the organization over the direction this decision will go.
Griffin would count $6.7 million against the cap whether he's here or not -- the Redskins can absorb it considering they have $8.9 million in available space. Their quarterbacks as a group only would cost $8.9 million vs. the cap, which is 36 percent below the league average at this position, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Owner Dan Snyder was OK with not starting Griffin, but would he be fine with the team cutting him? He hired football people to make football decisions, but this remains his team and Griffin remains someone he views fondly.
But even if Griffin gets through the final cuts Saturday, there's still a chance he could be cut before the opener. The real deadline for making the roster is Tuesday, the day by which teams will have made their final moves.
If you see no future for a player, don't you owe it to yourself -- and to him -- to let him go? Let Griffin see if he can make it where he's wanted. You can argue all day whether it's fair or not, right or wrong, but the Redskins' coaches do not have full belief or confidence in Griffin; hence, the benching before the season opener (a decision supported by the organization). It doesn't matter what you or I or anyone outside thinks. Again, their issue boils down to basic fundamentals of the position. Pierre Garcon's drop had nothing to do with this move -- passes that weren't made; hesitation on throws and pocket presence all played a factor.
If it's over, then it's only fair to both sides to move on. As hard as it would be for some fans to see Griffin leave -- 2012 was that magical; the promise of him that strong -- it might be harder for him to stay at a place where he has no future.
- While this decision certainly puts some pressure on Gruden to win with another quarterback, is it really as much as everyone thinks? After all, the organization knew entering the offseason that it did not have one quarterback they all wanted to see play. One person in the organization said last season picking a starter was like pulling names out of a hat. Each guy offered something the other didn't. If general manager Scot McCloughan agrees with this move -- and there's no reason to believe otherwise -- then that's good for Gruden. This was not a one-man decision, though ultimately it's the coach who powers this engine of change.
- Gruden didn't say Cousins was the greatest quarterback ever; nor did he stake his reputation on him. He just said he was the best quarterback on the roster right now. It's hard to find a legitimate football person who would disagree. That's not a statement on Cousins' future -- I see good and bad in his game, so I don't know if he's the future or just the present. But in the present, he deserves the job.
- And it's not as if Robert Griffin III was lighting it up to the point that anyone would say, 'How could you bench him?' As much as Cousins might have improved, this always has been about the state of Griffin's game more than anything. Had Griffin made strong progress, he would have the job. Period.
- If everyone in the organization agrees with the move, then how does that put more pressure on Gruden? His decision was really between two quarterbacks he inherited. He wasn't 'standing on the table' to bring in these players; others did that before him. Had Gruden opted for Colt McCoy, I think the pressure would have been greater. Cousins has only started nine games, so potentially there's still room for growth -- and a possible payoff. McCoy is the most known commodity of the group. He might be the smartest of them all, but has more limitations. Starting Cousins is the right move; anything else was a risk.
- Players know who can and should be playing. A move like this will earn Gruden applause. That has nothing to do with how they feel about Griffin personally, but all about which player they know is capable of producing this season. Maybe benching Griffin looks like a tough move because of his name and what everyone thinks the owner feels. But when a coach makes the right move it shouldn't result in more pressure -- regardless of who the quarterback is, a bad season will do the trick. The Redskins are a work in progress and this season will be spent, once again, finding out if they have to address quarterback in the offseason. Cousins, though, gives them a better chance for whatever success they might have.
- The pressure, though, obviously comes from failing to develop Griffin. I don't care if the owner loved Griffin or not, they had a heavy investment in him and Gruden was hired to make it work. But this offseason they named Griffin the starter, hired a quarterbacks coach and had tried to fortify the line and focus on the run game. It just wasn't working. It's not about (ridiculous) conspiracy theories. It's about production; coaches like players who do one thing: Help them win.
- And that's the thing. This should be about developing a team, not a player. If you watched the last two preseason games (not to mention last season), you know that having Cousins in the game will help the young right side of the line by getting rid of the ball quicker. Of course, if he throws too many interceptions the defense won't be developing -- and will be sort of ticked. Sacks lead to punts; turnovers lead to points.
- Also, if there's added pressure, it's not just on Gruden. It's on president Bruce Allen, too, who hired the coach. Here's another reminder: The Redskins have one winning season since 2007. Just about everyone in the organization should feel increased pressure given that track record. In fact, there are only two people who shouldn't feel more pressure this season: Dan Snyder and general manager Scot McCloughan, who just arrived in January.
ASHBURN, Va. -- The response he needed to see occurred two seasons ago, near the end of a loss at Atlanta. Washington Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins had tossed two interceptions that day, yet still drove the team to a late touchdown, only to lose on a failed two-point conversion.
But the point for Cousins: He threw interceptions and he didn't wilt. Last season, that's what the coaches felt happened and it's one reason Cousins was benched after five starts.
"You're going to throw picks," Cousins said. "It's, can you come back? I want to come back better. You're going to get in situations that are tough. To make quick decisions and get rid of the ball and avoid sacks, you're going to have times where you get rid of it quickly to avoid a sack and you saw the play wrong."
Here's why this matters: Last season, Cousins had a 47.08 passer rating after throwing his first interception in a game. After that first pick, he completed a combined 15-of-30 passes for 229 yards, one touchdown and four interceptions (three of which occurred in one game). He threw interceptions in 10 of the 14 games he's played with six multi-pick games.
Before his first interception, Cousins had a 113.8 rating -- completing 68-of-101 passes for 948 yards and five touchdowns.
"Interceptions are going to happen," he said. "It's not the turnovers as it is throwing the turnover and then not losing an ounce of confidence. That's a bigger deal. I feel good about my ability going forward to respond."
There's no way to know, of course, whether that remains an issue until he actually gets in a regular-season game, throws a pick and must respond. A lot of that depends on how well starter Robert Griffin III plays. For now, the Redskins like what they've seen when it comes to Cousins and interceptions this summer.
"He hasn't thrown many this camp. He's improved on the turnover issue very much so through OTAs and training camp and preseason games," Redskins coach Jay Gruden said. "We're impressed with the progress that Kirk has made very much. He's done a great job."
Cousins, like the other quarterbacks, feels good about where he's at entering his fourth season and second in Gruden's offense. Yes, he's facing backups in preseason games but Cousins has shown what the coaches wanted to see: a quarterback getting rid of the ball right after he hits his last step in his drop and a quarterback who has improved his ability to move in the pocket. The latter trait was evident in both the preaseason wins against Cleveland and Detroit.
Against the Browns, he created time and space in the pocket one time by sliding left, backpedaling and then dumping over the line to running back Matt Jones. Another time, he slid left thanks to pressure to his right and then connected with receiver Reggie Bell. Last week, with pressure coming upfield on the right side, Cousins kept his eyes upfield while stepping up, then slid all the way to the right, almost by the sideline, before finding Rashad Ross.
Cousins focused on this area after watching film from 2014. The hard part is improving here without facing a rush. Cousins tried to simulate game-like conditions in his head. He says he's a work in progress in this area. It's about feel.
"If you expect to sit back there in one spot and read a defense, you're kidding yourself," Cousins said. "The ability to manipulate an imperfect pocket is very important. When I take drops [in practice] I try to envision in my mind a pocket collapsing and operate as if it's a tight space. The number of times you get a wide open [pocket] is rare. In a game you're falling away and we never practice that. Some of the great ones come up with drills that mimic what they do.
"I learned in this league you have to be anal and paranoid and very much have attention to detail and constantly saying, 'What else can I do better?' At this level guys are doing that and if you're not, then you can't hang."
While Cousins has experience, he -- and his supporters -- will point out that he only has nine starts. He's only started and completed one game in which the Redskins won (vs. Cleveland his rookie season). But he has played well in relief appearances vs. Baltimore as a rookie and against Jacksonville last season.
The learning curve continues; where it takes him remains unknown -- whether it's as a future starter or career backup. Opinions have always been split on him and as a backup, there's always the promise of the unknown. But Cousins is encouraged.
"I'm still learning; I have a long ways to go and I'll be the first to admit that," Cousins said. "My mistakes are correctable. I'm not sitting here going, 'Oh my goodness, I don't have arm strength to play in this league.' Then I'm screwed. I look at it like if that's my issue I'll be fine. Every year I've gained more confidence and every year I get more experience and every year I'll be better coming back and learning from those situations and being a better quarterback. If that's my issue I just have to keep working because we can get it corrected."
This will be brief, or at least mostly about the starters considering that's about all I was able to watch Thursday night. Too much going on with the Robert Griffin III story to focus on some of the backups.
- Wrote a lot about Griffin after the game, in a news story and an analysis. Did not get much into coach Jay Gruden's decision to put him back on the field. Yes, I wondered about it as well. Thing is, the last time Griffin went in, the first offense was facing Detroit's second defense. But here's the other part: The Redskins were using a left tackle in Willie Smith who has not had a good camp and who remains, for me at least, a longshot to make the roster. And he did not have a strong night. Sure enough, he was driven back on one play for a sack.
- Still not sure why Griffin decided to run on that last play; he wasn't going to pick up the third-and-16 with his legs and he could have dumped the ball off. Get some yards, punt and move on. Do the ordinary. I admire his toughness, but it's hard to watch all the hits -- he can't stop all of them, but he can prevent some. I'll say this again, too: The throw to Andre Roberts under duress was terrific. Griffin stood in there; feet turned properly and made a good throw before Roberts broke -- the ball skipped off his hands -- and before he was drilled.
- I've written about the line's responsibilities, too. Just know that having a quarterback who lacks great pocket presence playing behind a developing line is a difficult proposition. It's not about blaming one or the other, either. And I don't think it's about pre-snap reads all the time; it's about instincts. Some of the pressure that reached Griffin was so quick, you have to allow those natural instincts to take over (in some cases there wasn't much time for that to happen).
- Tom Compton lined up at tight end on a handful of occasions. Paid attention to him on two plays, both of which ended with excellent blocks. He turned the defensive end outside on the second play of the game on Alfred Morris' 10-yard run. On a play in the second quarter, Compton drove the linebacker a few yards downfield. I like him in this role; he's still limited because, you know, he's a tackle/guard, but he should provide help. Did not like him as a tackle, but like him in a hybrid role as a backup lineman/tight end option.
- Each of the top four running backs had at least one good run, from Morris to Matt Jones and then Chris Thompson and Trey Williams. For a big guy, Jones at times gets taken down by one man more than I'd imagine (around the line of scrimmage). But when he gets going, it's a little tougher. That's when he can use his feet to fool people or just try to lower his shoulder. On one run, he swerved to miss one linebacker -- he kept the linebacker uncertain of where he was going, too, and that allowed him to stay blocked -- and then did the same to a defensive back en route to 24 yards. Thompson and Williams have the ability to cut and move without losing speed. Williams' footwork is terrific, as he showed on his 38-yard run. He bounced wide and two cuts left two defenders upset. And Thompson juked a defender over the middle on his 19-yard run up the gut. The Redskins should be encouraged by this group, but they should be discouraged by the first-down runs with the starters. Not good and it set up bad passing situations.
- I like the way end Jason Hatcher is playing. Beat both guards with outside moves for pressure; he's healthier than last summer and playing accordingly. Last summer he could not sustain the early dominant flashes that he showed. Can't say he did Thursday because he only played a quarter, but it was another good showing.
- Of Detroit's 13 runs, only one was for more than seven yards. It's not just about Terrance Knighton in the middle; the ends are doing an excellent job of holding their ground, but also penetrating to force the action. And though there was some sloppy tackling, the Redskins compensated with more of a swarming defense so those misses led to little damage. It's when you have no one else around the ball when they become a bigger issue.
- The pass defense needs some work; I'm guessing they'll feel better when they have all their guys out there (linebacker Junior Galette; corners DeAngelo Hall and Bashaud Breeland). But it's an area they must improve. They did do a job on a blitz/sack by slot corner Justin Rogers. Liked how quickly safety Dashon Goldson rotated to Rogers' area to prevent a throw by Matthew Stafford. Ricky Jean Francois had a sack -- and performed the "Peanut Butter Jelly" dance. He also got off one block to help on a tackle for a short gain.
RICHMOND, Va. -- The old-school players drew his attention, as they always have. Washington Redskins running back Alfred Morris didn't grow up watching them, but he takes advantage of learning about them whenever he can. So when the Redskins spent a few hours at the Pro Football Hall of Fame last week -- a day before they played Cleveland -- Morris checked out his football ancestors.
It wasn't the first time he's visited the Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. But it did provide him another chance to watch players he's grown to love, for their games and more. He watched video clips of players such as Gale Sayers, O.J. Simpson, Earl Campbell and Walter Payton among others. He paid homage to his Washington lineage and checked out, among others, former Redskins quarterbacks Sonny Jurgensen and Sammy Baugh.
"I prefer old-style running backs," Morris said. "Those are the guys I like. I don't have a problem with the newer backs, but those are my favorites. I used to watch clips on YouTube. I didn't have the privilege of watching those guys growing up. It's just cool to see their stats and see what type of guys they are and read a quick bio on them."
Morris wasn't the only Redskin watching videos of ex-players, but he is among the most interested. And one man stands above for him: Payton. It goes beyond football for Morris, who said he's seen all he can of Payton. A big part of that admiration stems from Payton's off-field impact as well.
"It's an honor to play running back when guys like that come through this league," Morris said. "It's cool to see how he has an influence on people even though he's gone."
That influence is felt on the field, too, in the form of his style more than the position he played. That's why Morris calls him his favorite player.
"It's because of the way he played. He played every play like it's his last play and never shied away from contact," Morris said. "You see clips from him and he could easily just walk in [to the end zone] and he'd just go at guys. He wanted that contact. He wanted to assert himself, 'Hey, I'm Walter Payton, you're gonna respect this.' I carry myself like that as well, whether it was in high school or college, and now I get to play in the NFL. I still carry myself like that. I don't shy away from contact. I don't go looking for it, but I don't shy away."
Morris always has had a sense of history. And some of those backs have been drawn to him: During his rookie season, he received a request for a jersey from Campbell. And at one point after rushing for 200 yards in a division-clinching win over Dallas in 2012, Morris paid tribute to John Riggins and took a bow, something Riggins did at the end of a 1983 playoff win.
The Campbell jersey swap still amazes him.
"That was an awesome experience," he said. "I was like, 'What, you're a fan of me? No, I'm a fan of yours.' He's another one of those older guys that I love watching. His thighs were probably four of mine put together. He was impressive and I always remember the run against the Rams when he plowed into the guy and knocked him backwards and then kept going. He was a hard runner."
It's hard to match what Campbell or some of the other backs did. Morris, though, is off to a good start in his career with 3,962 yards and 28 touchdowns in his first three seasons. He'll be a focal point again this season as the Redskins are expected to deepen their commitment to the running game. And while Morris' career keeps pointing forward, he'll always take time out to look backwards.
He admits he has a running backs bias, but will watch some others, including the old Redskins as well as former Bears linebacker Dick Butkus. Morris checked them all out during the visit to the Hall of Fame. Some teammates, barely in their adult years, played games on Madden. Morris capitalized on a chance he won't always have.
"It was cool," he said. "It was interesting to know what it means to play in the NFL. It's not just playing a game, it's paying homage to the guys who came before us. We're standing on the shoulders of giants. They opened doors for us. Me being African-American, guys like Ernie Davis and all of them who paved the way for us. They made it so it's possible for us. I'm definitely not a numbers guy so I can't tell you the stats. But it's just so I know what it took to be here and it makes you appreciate that much more. I feel more people should do that, even guys who are now in little league or high school. They should start learning what it took for them to be able to do what they do."
RICHMOND, Va. – They didn’t view his game as perfect by any means. That’s not what they expected anyway. But the Washington Redskins say they saw what they needed: progress from quarterback Robert Griffin III.
In their preseason opener vs. Cleveland, Griffin completed 4 of 8 passes for 36 yards, with one deep ball dropped. They say he got rid of the ball on time and avoided negative plays.
“His comfort in the pocket looked a little better,” Redskins coach Jay Gruden said. “Overall, managing the game, the position, getting the plays out...
"Like I told Robert before the game, 'Whether you go 10-for-10 or 0-for-10, all we're looking for is to learn from the experience, continue with our process of building you as a starting quarterback and go from there."
Others in the organization echoed Gruden’s sentiment, saying they liked how Griffin got rid of the ball quickly and was protected by the line. The times he got hit involved blitzes. He played only the first quarter, which might be all that Griffin will play vs. Detroit as well, though Gruden left open the possibility of playing into the second quarter.
Thought it would be interesting to offer my take on some plays by Griffin from the first preseason game along with theirs.
The play: The play-action deep ball to Pierre Garcon that was dropped inside the 10-yard line.
My thought: I had been told there was an adjustment on this play, so I wasn’t bothered by Griffin being late with the throw. The result was that Garcon and Griffin sort of adjusted on the go and it should have resulted in a touchdown. Griffin still put the ball where Garcon could have, and should have, made the catch.
Their thought: Gruden said Garcon was supposed to sit down on the route, but made an adjustment. Because the safety was holding in the middle of the field and the corner had stopped, the outside was open, so Garcon made the cut. That’s why it looked a little awkward at one point.
The play: Two missed fade routes to Garcon in the red zone. Both were overthrown.
My thought: Another missed opportunity in the red zone. The first one was just too far, as there was enough room to work with to give Garcon a better chance. No one would disagree. However, on the second one, the ball initially was supposed to go to Andre Roberts, but it was wise not to throw to him because Roberts would have been short of the first down.
Their thought: He had a free nickel pass-rusher running at him and needed to get rid of the ball. Yes, the pass was incomplete, but they knew once the blitzer was unblocked, there would be trouble. So Griffin earned kudos from them for getting rid of the ball and saving the short field-goal attempt.
The play: A third-and-2 in which Griffin took off running for the first down.
My thought: He made life more difficult than it needed to be. He had Ryan Grant about to turn open for an easy first-down completion. But Griffin looked off the left side and swung his eyes to the right, where Garcon was doubled. So Griffin ran for a first down. He picked up the first down, but the more he runs, the more he courts danger.
Their thought: He got the first down. Get it any way you can, so multiple people said they had no issue with him running on this play.
The word earlier in the week suggested the Redskins’ starters would play at least a quarter of Thursday's preseason opener against the Cleveland Browns. Now, though, it will be no more than that – and possibly less.
Redskins coach Jay Gruden told reporters Wednesday that he’ll go by feel as to how much his starters will play. In last year’s preseason opener, the starting offense played in one drive, but it took 11 plays. A day earlier, Gruden had said he wanted the starters to anticipate playing at least a quarter. Other members of the organization echoed that sentiment.
“Obviously if we go three-and-out, we’ll bring them back for another series or two,” Gruden said. “But that’ll be a game-time decision for me.
“We’ll play it by ear. I told these guys, anticipate playing a quarter. It could be less. It won’t be more than a quarter unless we’re finishing a drive.”
The Redskins need to balance getting ready for the opener and taking care of some starters who don’t need the same amount of preseason reps, such as left tackle Trent Williams or nose tackle Terrance Knighton. However, the Redskins have a new offensive line coach, two new starters on the right side of the line and several new starters defensively. But Gruden sounded as if the offense needed more work.
"We have to get them back in the flow of playing football against a live pass rush," Gruden said. "Our whole offense needs to do that, come off the football. Our running backs need to work on their ball security and hitting the new running lanes and the plays that we have and get some good practice. We have got a new line coach and some new schemes going on both offensively and defensively and we need to work.”
But quarterback Robert Griffin III could use as much work as possible. Last summer he attempted only 20 passes in the preseason – 34 fewer than Kirk Cousins and 24 fewer than Colt McCoy. The offense then managed only six points in the season opener vs. Houston.
Though the Redskins have sounded upbeat about Griffin's progress, there are still concerns and areas that need more growth.
“We want to go out and get points and put good drives together and start getting in a rhythm,” Griffin said. “That’s all that matters.
“Whatever they call, we’ll execute it and make sure we’re on the little things, the fundamentals, so we can get back in the swing and feel the guys at game speed and get going. I’m not worried how many passes we throw. We just want to make sure we’re all on the same page.”
RICHMOND, Va. – The assignment might not last long. That’s OK for three Washington Redskins corners, because it will still provide them with what they want: an opportunity.
All three will try to replace Bashaud Breeland as the slot corner for the next month as well as the season opener vs. the Miami Dolphins. Breeland is sidelined four to six weeks with a sprained MCL in his right knee. The NFL also suspended him for the season opener.
Rogers will get the first chance with Mitchel and Jarrett both rookies -- and Jarrett having to move over from safety. Rogers’ experience shows, as he played in the nickel with Buffalo from 2011-13. He also started five games as a replacement in 2013 but was cut shortly thereafter. The Bills did not think he was big enough or strong enough to play outside. He also spent one game with Houston in 2013 but has not appeared in an NFL game since.
“I started my career off in the nickel, so it’s refreshing going back,” Rogers said.
The Redskins just need him to be smart enough to handle inside duties. Slot corners must be able to handle a wider variety of route options by the receiver, as well as play run support and work more in concert with linebackers.
“Ask any guy who has played the slot, it’s different,” Rogers said. “There are tricks to the trade you need to know playing in there. You got to have savvy players because a lot of teams have a good slot guy. The more reps and experience you get, you learn what quarterbacks try to do to nickel guys.”
Mitchel injured his right shoulder Saturday, and it remains uncertain how much time he’ll miss, if any. Like Jarrett, he’s learning the pro game. However, he at least played in the slot at Arkansas -- he was better there than on the outside.
For Jarrett, it requires him to learn a spot he never played in a game at Virginia Tech. But Jarrett said he did practice there quite a bit. He said the coaches at Virginia Tech wanted the corners to know how to play safety and vice versa -- just in case.
The reality is that Rogers has an edge just because of his experience. He also looked solid in that role in the spring. But for someone such as Jarrett, even if he doesn’t end up playing the position, if he shows he can handle it in a pinch, his odds of making the 53-man roster increase.
And Jarrett said his skills can translate to success in the slot.
“My knowledge of the game, that definitely helps,” Jarrett said. “I feel I have the man skills to do it, and it’s something I’ve done. Who I’m surrounded by, with the veterans and the coaching will help me enough to go out there and perform.”