RICHMOND, Va. — Not since rookie Robert Griffin III graced FedEx Field with his dizzying footwork and array of athleticism have the Washington Redskins had a young quarterback they believed in and could build around.
For the first time in what feels like ages, the organization has a young arm it has the opportunity to mold from Day 1, a quarterback complete with the potential of a starter who can stand out for the next decade. The Dwayne Haskins era may begin with significantly less fanfare than Griffin’s captivating arrival courtesy of the No. 2 overall pick in 2012, but members of the Redskins organization are optimistic about everything Haskins can become.
His growth is paramount. And this upcoming season — whether he starts or sits and watches — will be critical to his development.
The disappointment that followed Griffin’s brief tenure, the acrimony of the failed Kirk Cousins relationship and the short-lived stability of Alex Smith’s veteran presence have now been replaced by a promising new figure: a 6-foot-4 former Ohio State quarterback.
But will Redskins coach Jay Gruden — the man charged with laying the foundation for the rookie’s success — still be here when Haskins develops into the starter the organization envisioned?
Time is not on Gruden’s side. Even he doesn’t deny it.
The coach admits he craves a challenge, but the road ahead could be littered with unexpected turmoil, failed expectations and, ultimately, his dismissal.
Including a playoff loss, Gruden is 35-45-1 (a .438 winning percentage) and hasn’t had a winning season since Washington finished 8-7-1 in 2016.
In Year 6, he’s coaching for his job. And even he can’t deny it.
“You know what? When you sign a contract, it comes with the hot seat no matter what,” Gruden said of his tenuous tenure during an interview with Yahoo Sports after a recent training camp practice. “There have been coaches who have been fired after one year, coaches fired after two, three, four, five, six, 10. It doesn’t matter.
“This is a tough job. In a demanding market. A demanding owner. A demanding franchise. And that’s just what I signed up for. So I know the results are the most important thing. Winning playoff games. Super Bowls is what this team expects.”
Gruden then flashed a smile as the summer sun beat down on him.
“And we’ve got to get to it quickly. Or else.”
Despite rampant injuries in recent years and a lack of consistency at its most important position — quarterback — Gruden knows what’s at stake. And he believes there’s only one way to judge him in 2019.
“Wins and losses. Period,” Gruden matter of factly said. “That’s the only thing that matters, whether you’re playing a rookie, a seventh-year guy, a 10th-year guy at quarterback or you’re playing [two-time Pro Bowler Brandon] Scherff or you’re playing [undrafted Zac] Kerin at guard. We have to win.”
That’s easier said than done, however. Key questions about the Redskins’ offense will need to be answered over the next few weeks, including whether or not Haskins is ready for prime time and which left tackle will ultimately protect his starter’s blindside — Pro Bowler Trent Williams, who is currently M.I.A. due to rumored issues with his contract and the team’s medical staff, or worst-case scenario, Ereck Flowers, the underwhelming former New York Giant they signed in free agency.
But when the dust settles on Washington’s quarterback competition and Williams’ well-publicized holdout, the Redskins will embark on a difficult five-game stretch to start the season. Not to mention, the rival Dallas Cowboys (the defending NFC East champions) are the team to beat in the division and the Philadelphia Eagles (the Super Bowl champions in 2018) are expected to be improved this season.
The outside expectations are particularly low for Gruden’s team, but within the organization, the understanding is clear. There is no margin for error for the 52-year-old coach.
But grading Gruden in 2019 might not be as simple as looking at the win-loss record.
He has survived organizational dysfunction, the RG3-Cousins debacle, a slew of makeshift offensive lines and constant turnover and a recycled slew of journeyman quarterbacks that have cycled in and out of Redskins Park. He compartmentalized the dismissal of former general manager Scot McCloughan, the strange Su’a Cravens saga, the injury to rookie running back Derrius Guice in his first preseason game last year, and the shock of Smith’s potentially career-ending injury.
“You never know [what’s going to happen]. That’s just our job,” Gruden said, as players walked by toward the building. “The hopes of training camp are: You hope to come out with a core group of starters that you can depend on, that are going to make the plays for you. Your highest-paid guys gotta be your best players and you hope some rookies, some guys develop into that role and get better and better, and then you develop depth out here. This is where you find the depth of your football team in case something like that happens.
“But when it happens during a season — as many times as it does for us,” he added, detailing the rash of injuries that repeatedly plague the organization, “and we’re pulling guys off the street that weren’t here in training camp and we’re teaching the snap count in Week 12 to a new offensive guard or another new offensive guard or a new quarterback … yeah, it does become difficult. But that’s part of the job and something that we have to adjust to, and you adjust your game plan accordingly.
“There were times we did a pretty good job of that, and times we probably didn’t.”
Fans are sick of losing, sick of not making the playoffs, and sick of excuses.
And so is he.
Four years after his one and only playoff appearance with the Redskins, and a year after he was preparing to build a contender with Smith at quarterback, Gruden has what could very well be a real franchise quarterback at his disposal. But how much time will he ultimately be given to groom Haskins?
More importantly, there’s no way to know how a future head-coaching change might affect Haskins’ progress.
The next few weeks and months will provide answers to the many questions looming over this team and its coach. But, as always, Gruden continues to take the uncertainty in stride.
“I love the challenge, man,” he said, smiling again. “I love this job and I don’t ever take it for granted. I’m going to give it my best no matter the situation is. That won’t change. That’s all I can do. That’s all these guys can do. We’re going to give it our best, lay it on the line on Sunday afternoons and what happens happens.”
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