Jay Gruden is out as Washington’s head coach. Now general manager Bruce Allen and team owner Dan Snyder have the task of filling the NFL’s least enticing job opening.
Whomever succeeds interim head coach Bill Callahan will have to find a way to thrive inside a culture of mediocrity where hitting reset — even following an 0-5 start — is not an option. Washington’s priorities remain the same misguided sacrifices at the altar of winning they’ve been the past two decades; spend big in free agency, lose valued young players to either injury or the salary cap crunch that ensues, and maintain a sixth-grader’s concept of what’s going on at all times.
Any moment of calm is just the eye in a hurricane of frustration for a franchise with two 10+ win seasons this millennium. Gruden spent five-plus seasons in this storm, briefly earning a a respite by turning Kirk Cousins into a workable starter but mostly trying to harvest cranberries from a shit-bog.
The new coach who takes over in 2020 will face a similar challenge. Alex Smith may never be the same passer after a catastrophic broken leg ended his 2018, and he’ll count more than $32 million against the team’s salary cap next spring if he doesn’t retire. Trent Williams may be the best player on the offensive side of the ball, but he may never play another down in Washington thanks to a bitter contract holdout that threatens to keep him off the field in 2019 before an eventual trade next offseason.
But manure helps flowers grow, and there are a few budding seeds fighting for daylight on this winless roster. If you’re a head coaching candidate — and early odds suggest names like Mike McCarthy, Byron Leftwich, Jim Caldwell, and Ken Whisenhunt will be in the mix — why should you consider Washington? There are a few reasons.
Dwayne Haskins could be a franchise quarterback (but not this year)
Haskins has played in one game as a rookie. It went very poorly. In between flashes of understanding came a melange of bad decisions and uneven timing. He finished his debut with a net impact of -4 points thanks to a fourth-quarter pick-six. He had as many interceptions as Washington had points scored in a 24-3 loss to the Giants.
That was a brutal introduction to the NFL, but it won’t define who Haskins is as a quarterback. The former Ohio State star was one of the NCAA’s most devastating passers in 2018. His pocket presence and awareness helped flip the Buckeyes’ typically run-heavy offense into an aerial attack.
He threw for 1,501 more yards than anyone else in program history has in a single season. His 50 passing touchdowns were 15 more than any other Buckeye in one year. Haskins is responsible for six of the top seven single-game passing yard performances in Ohio State history; he only made 14 collegiate starts. If his college experience is any indication, he’s not only a capable pocket passer but also a quick study when it comes to breaking down opposing defenses.
Haskins’ lone year of meaningful NCAA game experience is a much stronger indicator of his future success than his first two-plus quarters in the NFL. The learning curve was always going to be steep for a player with limited college reps, especially behind an offensive line that allowed him to be sacked on more than 10 percent of his dropbacks that afternoon. But recent NFL trends have shown surrounding first-round quarterbacks with skill player talent and an offensive-minded coach willing to take some risks — two things severely lacking on the current Washington depth chart — can lead to a big leap in Year 2. Jared Goff and Mitchell Trubisky, who each won division titles in their sophomore seasons, are proof.
If you take the D.C. job, you could reap the credit for teaching a good quarterback how to be deadly again. Haskins’ positives outweigh his negatives, but he’s going to need the right environment to thrive as a pro. Keep him upright in the pocket and he can guide you to victory.
You’ll have some interesting young defensive talent to mold
Washington has not fielded a good defense in 2019. The club has given up at least 24 points in each game it’s played so far and at least 30 in four of five contests. It ranks 26th in sack rate, 24th in yards allowed per play, and 31st in opponent third-down conversion rate.
Things shouldn’t be this bad. Josh Norman’s play has fallen off considerably and at nearly 32 years old may never snap back to his previous All-Pro form. Jonathan Allen appeared close to a breakout after recording eight sacks in 2018, his second season in the league. Instead, he had only three QB pressures and one sack this fall. Ryan Kerrigan has 37 sacks over his last three seasons and 1.5 in 2019. An undermanned linebacking corps is underperforming across the board.
There are some stars here that a good coach and some sensical roster construction could connect to make a constellation, however. Landon Collins is an extremely expensive box safety, but he’s still a valuable hammer who can step up and stop the run or swat passes away in the middle of the field. Matt Ioannidis is a useful homegrown starter who can provide pressure from the interior of the defensive line.
2019 first-round pick Montez Sweat has six QB pressures through five games and has yet to miss a tackle, per SIS. 2018 first rounder Da’Ron Payne hasn’t been as effective as he was as a rookie, but he’s strengthened his tackling and, at only 22 years old, remains a potential building block in Washington. Fifth-round rookie Cole Holcomb is a lottery ticket at inside linebacker who could pan out.
It’s not an embarrassment of riches, but there are a handful of players a new coach would find useful. A bunch of them are still young and relatively cheap, too!
You’ll have nearly $52 million to spend in 2020
Which, given Snyder’s proclivity to spend big on either top of the market defensive free agents (Albert Haynesworth, Norman, and most recently, Collins) or wide receivers who underachieve in D.C. (Pierre Garcon, DeSean Jackson, Paul Richardson), means you can enjoy three seasons of the newly-signed ...
A.J. Green and Michael Brockers before they’re cut in a desperate move to save cap space!
The Washington head coaching job is an opportunity. You’re getting a shot with a franchise whose key decision makers live in a world of delusion, sure:
Allen disagrees with the premise that the team hasn’t been successful.— Jason Reid (@JReidESPN) October 7, 2019
And you’re not going to have much say in personnel decisions, as Gruden learned in five-plus mostly futile years.
But finding a way to succeed in Washington would turn a rising coordinator into a demigod or provide redemption for a washed-out former coach. That didn’t work out for Gruden or, before him, Mike Shanahan. Even so, those two got nine-plus seasons to figure things out despite only making the playoffs twice between them. Worse case scenario, that’s four-ish years of seven-figure salaries and the caveat that each of your failures really belonged to Allen and Snyder when you’re applying to your next assistant job.
So yeah, things probably won’t work out if you’re leaping at the opportunity to coach Washington. You’ll play in a pressure cooker of a division for a team with a rich recent tradition of getting its quarterback talent either irreparably hurt or allowing it to leave in free agency. You’ll inherit a team that hasn’t ranked in the top 10 in points scored or points allowed since 2013.
Once you shovel that mountain of garbage of the way, there will be a few gems waiting for you. The trick will be finding a way to get one of the league’s most embattled front offices to provide the tools needed to polish them into actual NFL stars.
Good luck with that.