ASHBURN, Va. -- The downfield throws haven't always been successful, but they have represented hope. Developments this spring might be a mirage, or it could be the start of something -- which would be good news for receiver Josh Doctson and the Washington Redskins.
During practice Wednesday, quarterback Alex Smith targeted a covered Doctson twice, giving him a shot at catching a contested pass. The first one, an out-breaking route vs. corner Josh Norman, was wide and ended up out of bounds.
For Doctson, the Redskins hope it's a continuation of his development. For Smith, they hope it's what they also see during the season, a quarterback placing trust in his wideouts.
This was a topic within Redskins Park last year with quarterback Kirk Cousins. Coach Jay Gruden said late in the season that he wanted Cousins to trust his receivers more. It would be incorrect to say Cousins never took any shots or threw only safe passes. And, as receivers coach Ike Hilliard said last season, the wideouts also had to earn that trust: Doctson was new, Terrelle Pryor Sr. was hurt and Jamison Crowder was playing injured as well.
But there were other games in which the coaches simply wanted a receiver who appeared to be covered to be given a chance. And, Gruden said at the time, he also wanted Cousins to take more chances in practice -- to see what both he and the receivers could accomplish.
Through two practices open to the media, Smith has taken some of those shots. He's not reckless; he's thrown only 33 interceptions the last five years combined. He hasn't been intercepted in the two open sessions. He has thrown passes that have given receivers a chance to make plays.
After that practice, Smith said, "Most of the time you're just trying to be the point guard out there based on the play call and the defense that you're getting; that really dictates where the football goes. Matchups play into that, but certainly this time of year, there's something to be said about pushing it a little bit. When we get to camp and real ball, you can kind of rein that in a little. This time of year there's something to be said about taking some chances down the field and taking some opportunities."
"It helps any offense to be able to have somebody to go to, especially when someone is on them stride for stride," Richardson told reporters Wednesday. "They might not look open but they can attack the ball and make the play."
Gruden, a former quarterback, said throwing these 50-50 passes doesn't just help the receiver.
"We don't know if these guys can come down with the ball unless we give them some opportunities," Gruden said. "And it's the same with the defensive backs. I want them ... sometimes I'll tell them to take a shot whether they want to or not because I have got to see the defensive backs play the ball in the air and I want to see the receivers play the ball in the air."
Then there's Doctson and what this means for him. The strength of his game coming out of TCU was his ability to track the ball downfield and make contested catches. Gruden would compare his tracking skills to that of Cincinnati receiver A.J. Green, though not quite as good.
"It's just a matter of getting that rapport with Alex," Gruden said. "I'm not worried about his confidence. ... He's an ultra-talented kid, without a doubt. His ball skills are top-notch and we've just got to find ways to get him the ball in those situations."
Doctson played in just two games his rookie season -- and missed all of the spring workouts -- because of issues with both Achilles. He played all 16 games last year, eventually starting as the X receiver and catching 35 passes for 502 yards and six touchdowns. He said he's noticed a difference in himself this spring. The Redskins need their 2015 first-round pick to continue developing, both as a player and in his rapport with Smith. The two also connected on other plays in which Smith scrambled, including one in which Smith found Doctson in the back of the end zone.
Doctson had some big moments last season, such as a 38-yard catch to help set up the game-winning touchdown at Seattle. And he had some tough ones, including a failed catch in the end zone against Kansas City in which he grabbed the ball, but in bracing for the fall with one hand, it fell out.
"It's just being comfortable, man. Being comfortable and trusting myself. ... The biggest thing is confidence level. You give anybody confidence and he'll be fine," Doctson said. "You have high school players who could come out here and play through confidence.
"It's kind of surreal when you first get here, then last year was my first year playing. Just kind of calmed it down and now I'm just back like I was at TCU."