They're connected by one of the biggest draft trades in history. They’re also going in opposite directions, in some ways as an indirect result of the 2012 trade in which the Washington Redskins sent three No. 1 picks and a No. 2 in exchange for the St. Louis Rams’ second overall pick.
When the teams last met in Week 2 of the 2012 season, it looked like that trade would pay dividends for the Redskins. Quarterback Robert Griffin III, then a rookie, was clearly a standout. Now? The Rams haven’t exactly reaped major rewards from their haul, but the Redskins again have questions at quarterback and Griffin is no longer playing.
ESPN.com Rams reporter Nick Wagoner and Redskins reporter John Keim look ahead to Sunday’s game:
Keim: Have you been able to figure out this team yet? They have some impressive wins and lopsided losses. Why are they on such a roller coaster?
Wagoner: Well, in some sense figuring them out is a function of understanding that there isn't a real rhyme or reason to what happens from week to week. The strange thing about this team is that it was built to win with defense and a strong running game. But it took them about eight weeks to start doing that. Early in the season, they were trying to win by outscoring teams and throwing it all over the yard. Clearly, it didn't work. But it's also instructive to note that they've played an incredibly difficult schedule. Before last Sunday's game against Oakland, they had played nine straight games against teams with winning records. So some of those losses have been a product of that and the impressive wins are as well. And really, aside from the Kansas City game, most of those games were close, even if the final score didn't indicate it. It's cliché, but the Rams epitomize the importance of winning the turnover battle. When they are on the plus side, they win; when they aren't, they lose. When they're even, it's a toss-up.
Let's stay big picture. Obviously, this season hasn't been what the Redskins hoped. Are they as far away from being a contender as they appear? If so, what are the most pressing areas that need to be addressed?
Keim: Well, quarterback must be put on the list, given what’s transpired here the past two seasons. It’s a surprising turn of events, but Griffin has a ways to go if he wants to be a good starting quarterback in the NFL. The same is true of Kirk Cousins, and I’m not sold that Colt McCoy is anything but a good backup capable of being an excellent tutor for younger quarterbacks. Also, the secondary needs fixing at multiple spots. They need to solve a couple issues on the offensive line and they could use more young players on the defensive front. If they don’t think rookie Trent Murphy will develop into a quality pass-rusher (and they let Brian Orakpo bolt via free agency), then you can add this to the list as well. They’ll also have to address whether or not they want to make changes to the defensive staff. It always sounds more daunting when you’re in the midst of a bad season, and in the NFL, hope is always right around the corner. But the Redskins have to prove they know how to solve their issues.
Where the heck did that offensive output come from last week? And what’s the deal with running back Tre Mason -- what’s stood out about him?
Wagoner: There were a few factors at play. First, it was against the Raiders. While they have been decent defensively this year, they clearly aren't all that good. The other thing is Oakland turns the ball over at a rate that other teams simply don't. The Rams had some pretty favorable situations because of that, and the general ineptitude of the Raiders offense also set the Rams up in nice position multiple times. Nonetheless, the Rams were able to move the ball well, even when they had a lot of field to work with. Shaun Hill did a good job getting them into better plays at the line of scrimmage and he didn't turn the ball over. He also was solid against the blitz, getting the ball out quickly and to the right spots. As for Mason, I have to admit I was wrong on that draft choice. I didn't dislike the choice of Mason himself, but I wondered why the Rams used a third-round pick on a running back after Zac Stacy's success last year. It's become obvious why they did it in recent weeks. Mason gives them an explosive element that Stacy simply doesn't offer and that was exceedingly evident on his 89-yard touchdown run last week. He still has some work to do, both in making more consistent reads and in pass protection, but he's a pretty solid young talent with a lot of upside. If nothing else, I think the Rams can move forward confidently knowing he's the back of the present and the future.
I'm sure you're probably tired of the subject at this point, but fans here are curious about what's gone wrong with Griffin? From the outside, it would seem that without his ability to run and a scheme designed around his abilities that we might have seen the best he has to offer in his rookie year. Do you believe there's still room for growth there, and if so, how do they get it out of him?
Keim: Well, there’s a lot of room for growth, but the question is can he get there -- and how long will it take? Griffin has not shown the explosiveness that he did as a rookie, but he’s still a fast quarterback. He has a good arm, too. But I’m not sure the current coaching staff has the patience to try and develop him, knowing how long they think it might take. Griffin wasn’t playing with the confidence he showed as a rookie, some of which stems from him needing to develop more as a passer. That’s not just in the pocket, either. Even as a rookie he left a lot of plays on the field by opting to run too soon or putting his eyes down too early or not being confident in what he saw. He has to dedicate himself to becoming a pocket passer, learning how to slide and maneuver, for example. Griffin has talent, but what’s coming out now is what was whispered about before (and occasionally mentioned): He needs to focus a lot more on developing as a passer than working in the weight room. Griffin is not lazy and he is a smart kid. But his pace of development was slow. I don’t know if the coaches asked him to do things he wasn’t capable of yet or if he just will never get it. Maybe Griffin needs to see how far he has fallen before he really gets his mind to how far he has to climb.
The sacks have been down for the defense, though it looks like they’re getting more pressure lately. Why is that? Also, what’s your take on Aaron Donald and what he’s meant to the defense?
Wagoner: It's crazy to think that not too long ago the Rams had just one sack and set a league record for futility in that area. Not only because they have too much talent up front for that, but also because they now sit in a tie for 14th in the league with 28 sacks. Some of the early struggles were a major function of their early inability to stop the run. Teams simply didn't throw against them much because they were having so much success on the ground. When they did pass, the ball was coming out fast. They also missed end Chris Long, who just returned from ankle surgery last week. Adding to the complications, the Rams seemed uncomfortable adjusting to defensive coordinator Gregg Williams' scheme and all that they were asked to do within its confines. Now he seems to have a good idea of how his guys are best used, and they seem to know what to do from down to down, as well as what they're seeing from the offense.
As for Donald, his addition to the starting lineup coincided with the Rams' pass rush improvement. That's not a coincidence. His snaps went from about 25-28 a game to now in the 50-55 range. He's their best interior pass-rusher and one of the most mature and polished rookies I've seen come through St. Louis in my 11 years covering the team. Donald and Robert Quinn are two outstanding building blocks on that defensive line. Long still has plenty of gas in the tank and Michael Brockers has been a bit disappointing, but is still young with upside. They have the pieces in place to be stout up front for a long time.
While we're on the topic of defense, Jim Haslett spent some time in St. Louis as defensive coordinator and is now handling those duties in Washington. It was a bit of a surprise here when he was retained by the new staff, but he's still hanging on. What can you say about the job he has done and his level of job security after this season?
Keim: Oh, I think there has to be concern about his security. Fans blame Haslett for anything that goes wrong defensively. This is not just going to be fixed by changing coordinators, unless you find an elite one. Before last week, when you looked at some numbers and saw what the defense has lost this season, then you could say the defensive staff overall had done better than anticipated. They were far from a dominant unit, but entering last week they were 10th in yards and 20th in points despite losing DeAngelo Hall and Orakpo and Barry Cofield (until recently). With their talent healthy, I never viewed them as anything other than a medicore unit. This defense has not been put together well and that’s an organizational failure, so if you get rid of Haslett, there’s more work that needs to be done. That said, five years is a long time if you’re not getting results. In that stretch, the Redskins are a cumulative 27th in yards per game, 29th in yards per play and 30th in points per game. Whoever’s fault it is, it hasn’t been working. The results aren’t there.