It’s no secret that Washington has a lot of question marks headed into this year’s training camp, when’s the last time they didn’t? However, this offseason, unlike others, has bred an optimism that has Redskins fans in an extremely ‘weird’ space. No, Washington didn’t completely bomb this offseason by giving a 6-foot-6, 320 pounder, a seven-year, $100 million deal. (Yes, we’re still salty about that, Daniel). But they also didn’t ‘knock it out the park’. Not offering an appropriate contract extension to a quarterback who’s finished top 8 in QBR, passer rating, completion percentage and yards per attempt in each of the last two years, plays a huge part in that. And don’t get me started on the financial catastrophe their romanticizing by doling out franchise tags like UNO cards.
Yes, Washington isn’t perfect, but as training camp approaches, here are the 3 key questions they will seek to answer in the coming weeks.
1. Emergence at the Running Back Position
“Hey, hey, hey, who wants to play!?” Fat Rob is. Second year running back out of Tulane, Robert Kelley, headlines the corps of five running backs the Redskins will bring into camp this July. Kelley was a free agent addition in 2016 who saw very limited snaps throughout the beginning of the season; all that changed week 8. After running back, Matt Jones, (we’ll get to him later) had difficulty producing while keeping the ball OFF the turf, ‘Fat Rob’ got his chance. Kelley made his first start in London against the Cincinnati Bengals. In that outing, he carried the rock 21 times, tallied 87 yards and a touchdown; no fumbles. That last stat was seemingly all the Redskins needed to see; a back that could keep the ball off the ground. Unfortunately, his first career start ended in a tie. Thanks Dustin Hopkins. Kelley went on to finish the season with 168 carries for 704 yards and six touchdowns. Most importantly, he became one of only four players in franchise history to record at least 150 carries in a season without fumbling. The company: Cliff Battles, Jim Musick and Alfred Morris.
What happened to Matt Jones? I told you we’d come back, because this gets juicy. Jones didn’t see the field at all in the second half of last season. Mind you, Jones had a very promising stint as a starter; he ran for 950 yards and six touchdowns, however, his six lost fumbles is the reason he was shut down in the latter part of the 2016-2017 season. Fast forward to this offseason, according to Jones’s former agent, Hadley Engelhard, Jones “very politely” asked the team to release him so he could have a chance to fill another teams roster spot. Jones felt his time was done in D.C., rightly so. Well, he’s still here, which means Washington isn’t in any rush to release him, for obvious reasons. ($$$) I assume Hadley Engelhard’s inability to get Jones out of D.C. infuriated Matt … seeing as though he fired Engelhard. Cold. Jones is now being represented by one of the most well renowned agents in the industry, Drew Rosenhaus. Rosenhaus tweeted out this picture, poorly cropped I might add, welcoming Jones to the “RSR Family”:
— Drew Rosenhaus (@RosenhausSports) July 2, 2017
One would assume that Jones is still seeking to be released from Washington; I’d bet that Rosenhaus will use other tactics that don’t include the phrase, “very politely”, to please his new client.
Rookie, Samaje Perine, has his eyes on the starting role. Perine worked closely with the second-team during offseason workouts. Perine was Washington’s fourth round pick out of the University of Oklahoma. There, he rushed for a total of 4122 yards, and 51 touchdowns. With his 5-11, 233lb, brute strength frame, all eyes are on him to contribute to a one-two punch out of the backfield, paired with Rob Kelly.
Mack Brown, Keith Marshall and Chris Thompson are all returning this year as well. Thompson has seen the most snaps out of the group I just mentioned. He finished 2016 with 705 yards and five touchdowns. He was used as the Redskins third-down back last year and played his role well.
Mack Brown made his debut against the Chicago Bears late in the season. He scored late in the contest on a 61-yard house call; a fiery fist pump ensued.
Speedster, Keith Marshall, missed the entirety of the regular season with an elbow injury. He’s most known for his 4.31 speed; however, his injury history has plagued him for years.
The starter of this running back corps is all but solidified. Kelley had fair production throughout the second half of the season but, can that transition to 2017 as a full-time starter from the jump? The pressures of a replacement vs the pressures of being deemed “the man” carry different weights. (No pun intended – well maybe) Also, can Kelley improve enough this offseason to be a solidified starting running back in the NFL.
Fat Rob isn’t that far ahead of his teammates to be deemed “untouchable”; Some would argue that he’s simply more familiar. If Thompson, Perine, Brown, Marshall, and Jones (well, maybe Jones) stay healthy, this may be a tougher decision for the coaching staff than some anticipated.
2. Unequivocal Leadership
The impact of losing a player of Pierre Garçon’s caliber isn’t only felt on the field, but off. In 2016, Garçon led the Redskins in receptions (79), and receiving yards (1,041), serving as one of Kirk Cousins most viable option through the air. “I think he is our most consistent player, quite frankly,” coach Jay Gruden said of Garçon. “The way he practices also, he practices exactly like he plays and it’s great for the young guys to see that, a veteran-type guy like that with a talent that he has work as hard as he does on the practice field. And it carries over to the game because all the routes are the same and [Cousins] is very comfortable to throw to him because he knows how he’s going run them because he runs them every day the same.” Garçon’s consistency, involvement, and character set him apart from just any “talented” athlete. His locker was situated next to fellow wideouts so he could act as a mentor. He showed the most signs of involvement in the offense in between reps. He was Washington’s nomination for the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award, an honor given to the player in the NFL who meets high standers on the field while also representing the NFL in the community. The list goes on and on.
That being said, who fills those shoes?
Quarterback, Kirk Cousins, has definitely been striving to assume that role; it’s pertinent he take full command of it now. “I need to be more of that guy. I think from the day I entered the league, I’ve tried to be a little more buttoned down, a little more careful to not stick my foot in my mouth, and I think I need to let myself come out. The guy that the teammates see at practice and at OTAs, the guy that the teammates see in the locker room, from behind closed doors. I think people need to see that, like you said, from the kickoff. As I get a little more experienced in this league, I think it will come naturally, but I think I need to make a more concerted effort to make that happen. I think if I do, I think it will help.” However, the question looms: Does Washington trust Cousins to be the leader of their franchise?
The answer is, no.
“Money talks and bull…” well, you know the rest.
If Washington really had faith in Cousins, this deal would have been done. No solidified, pro-bow caliber, field general, is being strung along from franchise tag to franchise tag. It’s simply a sign of uncertainty and dubiousness. Which now creates the question of: How can Cousins assume the full-time role of leader if he doesn’t have the necessary backing from the front office? Cousins is perfectly capable but, he doesn’t have the support system. It’s one thing to say it, it’s another to do it. Washington sure isn’t doing it, they must not want a leader.
3. “New Coach, Who Dis?”
Jay Gruden: “Rollllllll callllllll! Callahan!”
Bill Callahan [Offensive line coach]: “Here!”
Jay Gruden: “McVay!”
Jay Gruden (annoyed): “I said McVay!”
Matt Cavanaugh (reluctantly): “Sir, he’s in Los Angeles…he’s now the head coach of the Rams”
Jay Gruden: “Well aint that some – forget it, I’ll call the plays my darn self! Cavanaugh, you’re the new offensive coordinator … well kinda”
Matt Cavanaugh: “Thank you sir, I won’t let you – “
Jay Gruden: “Oh and Joe Barry! He’s gone right? Make sure he’s gone. Manusky, the defense is yours now, you played linebacker right? Have at it”
Greg Manusky [New Defensive Coordinator]: “10-4”
With former offensive coordinator, Sean McVay, and former defensive coordinator, Joe Barry, in the City of Angels, Washington had to retool their coaching staff fast. Rather than bringing in a fresh face, they decided to keep it in house; promoting former quarterbacks coach, Matt Cavanaugh, to offensive coordinator and, former outside linebackers coach, Greg Manusky, to defensive coordinator.
Cavanaugh and Cousins have built a strong rapport with each other throughout their tenure together. Quarterback play was a key element in the Redskins setting single-season team records in yards per game (403.4), yards per play (6.40), net passing yards (4,758), completions (407), passing first downs (226) and 500-yard games (three). Meanwhile, Cousins finished the year with single-season team records in attempts (606), completions (406) and passing yards (4,917) and matched his team record for 300-yard passing games (seven). Cousins’ 4,917 passing yards ranked third in the NFL in 2016 and were the 15th-most in a season in NFL history. (Stats via Redskins.com)
Manusky has 29 years of experience under his belt, as a player and coach. Washington’s defense ranked amongst the worst in the NFL in 2016. They allowed 23.9 pts/g, 377.9 yds/g, and a total of 6,046 yards on the year. With his promotion, Manusky is tasked with changing the culture of the defense, while also sticking to the fundamentals which he admitted, can be difficult:
“It’s been a little bit of growing pains. I understand what they’ve been taught before but, it might be a little bit different. So, I tell them, try to forget what they’ve been taught and try to start fresh and new; and start understanding our system.”
Manusky has a new toy to play with in first round pick, defensive tackle, Jonathan Allen. Allen was a steal for Washington in this year’s draft; he’s also an essential piece to add to a defense that desperately needs to address the lack of production in the trenches. Allen has had some doubts surrounding him in relation to the health of his arthritis stricken shoulder.
“The shoulder feels good. Every doctor said if there’s a problem, it’s after football, way after football. I have no concerns with it at all,” Allen said “I have no restrictions on anything I do. Like I said I feel good. It’s probably the best I’ve felt in the last four years. I feel good, refreshed, re-charged, ready to go,”
This serves as music to Washington’s ears. Paired with an elite talent in defensive end, Ryan Kerrigan. Newly acquired Pro Bowl linebacker, Zach Brown. An emerging star in the secondary in Su’a Cravens and many more pieces…this could be the turn of the tide Washington has been seeking from this unit for a long time.
All eyes will be on the Redskins new acquisitions and philosophies when training camp comes to Richmond. Will the front office moves fair substantial enough to propel Washington over the hump, or will they see a familiar fate which includes their season being over after week 17?
Redskins Training Camp is set to kick off Thursday, July 27th at 9:30 a.m.