RICHMOND, Va. -- The stories that have created a buzz this year wouldn’t have been noticed much last summer. A fan collecting signatures on his arm and then having them tattooed. A rookie getting his head shaved rather than perform a skit for the rest of the team. Both stories drew national attention.
How different from 2013.
A year ago the focus was on Robert Griffin III’s surgically repaired right knee, which seemed to be discussed -- heavily -- each day. It segued into a discussion on Griffin’s relationship with his coaches, Mike and Kyle Shanahan -- from his trust level to how they were handling his return. Griffin would address the media; his coach might say something to contradict him; and, on one occasion, Griffin had to return to clarify comments.
By season’s end the Redskins had become a reality show.
But with Jay Gruden in charge, the Redskins have been devoid of camp drama. Of course, a franchise on its sixth head coach since the 2001 season typically ends up finding drama. For now, the Redskins are enjoying a quiet summer.
“It’s definitely about football right now. We’re not in the headlines. I don’t see us on the 'SportsCenter' ticker at the bottom every day,” Redskins nose tackle Barry Cofield said. “It’s a good feeling to just be focused on football and only fielding questions about players and their activities on the field.”
Gruden’s easygoing demeanor has provided the Redskins a fresh approach. Of course, everything could change if he loses a game -- or three in a row -- and the questions become harsher, the scrutiny greater. And if Griffin doesn’t respond in this offense, well …
But, for now, Griffin looks closer to his old self and all is well.
"It's a normal head coach-quarterback relationship," Griffin said. "Jay brings a lot of energy. He's funny. He's personable. We're excited to have him here."
THREE REASONS FOR OPTIMISM
The Redskins have more speed offensively than a season ago. It’s not just DeSean Jackson, it’s Andre Roberts and quarterback Robert Griffin III. The Redskins' quarterback again is running like he did two years ago, when he was more of a dual threat before his knee injury. He’s able to get more juice on his throws, at least when his footwork is right. Jackson’s deep speed has been evident and he has shown the ability to immediately adjust when Griffin scrambles. Not all wideouts do so. Roberts is more of a threat underneath and the Redskins have hurt the defense a couple of times with short throws against blitzes, allowing the speed guys to catch and run.
During camp, the Redskins have spent more time during individual drills on teaching fundamentals, whether it’s blocking by the tight ends or pass rushing with the outside linebackers. In the past there was more prepping guys on assignments. The outside linebackers, for example, have received much more pass-rush instruction -- focusing on all aspects, such as hand placement, get-off and how to use their inside arm at the top of the rush. It’s a good long-term strategy. The Redskins need and want more production from their outside linebackers, Ryan Kerrigan and Brian Orakpo. Both can be helped by a little extra knowledge and refinement of their rushes. The extra teaching has made a big difference inside with Keenan Robinson, too.
It’s difficult to get a full sense of the run game in camp because there’s no real live tackling. But in the practices against New England and then in the preseason opener it was evident that this should be a strength. Aside from one addition (left guard Shawn Lauvao) it’s the same group and they’re using the same run game as the past several years. It’s clear the line works well together in the run game and then gets a boost from tight end Logan Paulsen and fullback Darrel Young, who continues to improve as a blocker. The Redskins need the run game to be their focal point. It’s the most consistent part of the team.
THREE REASONS FOR PESSIMISM
For whatever reason, there have been too many times when Griffin has not unloaded the ball. It was more pronounced early in camp, but it remains an issue worth watching. It’s hard to always know why he didn’t throw the ball -- no one open? Pressure? And his ability to extend plays will be crucial in games, so it’s also hard to know how much to extrapolate from this. But there have been times when the protection has broken down and there have been times when Griffin needed to unload the ball or make a different read. Griffin’s maturation as more of a pocket passer will take time, as the Redskins have pointed out many times.
Age and injuries. This isn’t going to change and will be a concern for a while given the Redskins have some age on their defense (five likely starters 30 or older). Defensive end Jason Hatcher, 32, missed the first two weeks of camp. Safety Ryan Clark missed the preseason opener with a hamstring issue. Clark’s on-field leadership matters a ton, so when he misses time it’s a loss. You can’t panic because he has a sore hamstring, but when a player is 34 it makes you wonder about his durability. The Redskins need the younger safeties to develop because they will be needed. They also need Hatcher to work with the other pass-rushers to establish a rhythm when it comes to stunts and games. Jackson, too, has dealt with minor leg injuries since joining the Redskins, once in the spring and twice in camp.
When there’s a first-time head coach and a lot of new assistants, and you’re coming off a 3-13 season, there will be growing pains. It’s not just the coaching staff; you see it with some players. Linebacker Keenan Robinson, for example, will help because of his size, speed and athleticism -- he’s taken plays away in practices and the preseason opener with that combination. But he has to experience so much more to be consistently effective; he was fooled a few times in practice by New England’s play-action passes; he needs to prove himself as a run defender. We haven’t seen Hatcher work with the other linemen yet. And while Gruden’s demeanor has received praise, there’s no way to know how it will play out in the season. The Redskins have faced no public issues yet that had to test him.
Inside linebacker Perry Riley has had a strong camp and played fast in the preseason opener. New inside linebackers coach Kirk Olivadotti was the right hire for this group.
One important development has been the play of defensive tackle Jarvis Jenkins. The Redskins need more help collapsing the pocket and Jenkins has done so this summer. They need this to continue once the regular season starts. Jenkins’ ability to collapse the pocket helped Brian Orakpo record a sack against New England in the preseason opener. Patriots quarterback Ryan Mallett was forced up but had little room thanks to Jenkins. The Redskins have been waiting for the former second-round pick to show something the past two seasons. Now he needs to do it again during this season.
The Redskins have small receivers and I wonder how often that will be an issue. Of their top six receivers, none is taller than 6 feet (Pierre Garcon). He’s the only real physical player of the bunch, too. It’s why tight end Jordan Reed will be a pivotal player on third downs and in the red zone. His size and quickness enable him to win quickly.
I don’t see any of the starting offensive linemen losing their jobs anytime soon. Guard Spencer Long could be ready to start at some point this season. He’s not there yet.
Ryan Grant has impressed all summer thanks to his route running; he's much savvier than most rookies. He does the subtle things well to create separation, like coming back for the ball. It’ll be a test for him when he faces starting-caliber corners, but if he can adjust then he’ll be a nice find.
The tackling was so much better in the preseason opener and the misses the Redskins did have were covered up by more gang tackling. This needs to continue. It’s not as if the Redskins have had an extremely physical camp, but it’s been more than in the past and perhaps that helped.
Safety Ryan Clark is every bit the leader everyone anticipated; the players tease him quite a bit about his ESPN persona. When the season begins I think they’d like to see more of the non-ESPN Clark.
Corner DeAngelo Hall truly enjoys playing the role of wise veteran. He hasn’t played with many winning teams, but he has lasted awhile and evolved his mindset over the years. He prodded corner David Amerson to work harder in the offseason; the young corner responded.