Washington Redskins improvement transcends roster

LANDOVER, MD - DECEMBER 30: Head coach Jay Gruden of the Washington Redskins looks on prior to the game against the Philadelphia Eagles at FedExField on December 30, 2018 in Landover, Maryland. (Photo by Will Newton/Getty Images)
LANDOVER, MD - DECEMBER 30: Head coach Jay Gruden of the Washington Redskins looks on prior to the game against the Philadelphia Eagles at FedExField on December 30, 2018 in Landover, Maryland. (Photo by Will Newton/Getty Images) /

The Washington Redskins have made a ton of roster improvements, but their moves on the coaching staff have gone underrated.

The Washington Redskins gradual yet steady improvement in recent years includes an infusion of talented players and what is starting to look like an elite coaching staff.

An almost inconceivable number of injuries have derailed Washington’s last few seasons despite having vastly improved the talent on their roster. Entering the 2019 season, the Redskins once again boast a plethora of impressive players on both sides of the ball.

In addition to getting their wounded veteran stars healthy, the addition of some excellent free agents and another very strong draft has produced a roster flush with talent. This season will at least begin with very good players at the starting positions and impressive backups filling out the depth chart.

There is now speculation (hope) that not only will Trent Williams’ money be guaranteed but additional years of guaranteed money will be added to the deal keeping Trent in Washington for the remainder of his Hall of Fame career.

Some fans believe that if the injuries are kept to a minimum this team could position itself for a run at the playoffs. This optimism seems just short of miraculous considering the Alex Smith dilemma.

Alex Smith’s gruesome leg injury not only doomed their season last year but Smith’s contract was structured in such a way that it obliterated the Redskins salary cap. Considering the team will be paying a player in excess of $20,000,000 a year who is unlikely to play this year, or next, the thoughts of a playoff game should have been postponed indefinitely.

However, some savvy moves by the front office has this Redskins team just a few funny bounces away from a charge at the NFC East crown or at least a wildcard birth. That is something most fans considered unthinkable just a few short months ago.

Washington’s front office has very publicly added some extraordinary talent to their roster but also, much more quietly, has assembled a coaching staff that could turn this whole thing around much more quickly than anyone thought possible.

A discussion regarding the Redskins coaching staff has to begin with Jay Gruden. Among my circle of close knit diehard Redskin fanatics, most of whom I’ve known for more than 50 years, we treat Gruden like we would religion or politics. Don’t talk about it unless you are willing to risk ruining a half century old friendship.

Some folks simply don’t like Gruden. Their rationale escapes me. It is certainly not based on logic. Those calling for Gruden’s head have simply lost touch with reality. During the 100 years of the NFL’s existence no team had lost more players to injury than the 2017 Redskins. Of course, that record was shattered last year by the 2018 Redskins. What could Vince Lombardi, Bill Belechick, or even Joe Gibbs have done with that? Absolutely nothing.

People are entitled to dislike any coach for any reason. But, in Gruden’s case that can’t be because he can’t coach. How do we know? Was he really supposed to win the NFC East with his third string offense?

Opinions about Gruden aside, fans have to appreciate what the Redskins have in place to groom their rookie quarterback. Gruden was a professional quarterback, QB coach Matt Cavanaugh was a professional quarterback, drafted in the second round by the New England Patriots. Offensive coordinator Kevin O’Connell was also a professional quarterback drafted in the third round by the New England Patriots.

Cavanaugh was Steve Young’s quarterback coach when Young led the NFL in passer rating (97.2) and completion percentage (67.7). He also was the QB coach for the Jets from 2009-2012 during which time the Jets went to two AFC Championships. The quarterback he coached to those championships was none other than Mark Sanchez. A Herculean feat indeed.

Aside from that, Cavanaugh was an All-American, National Championship winning, Sugar Bowl MVP for Pittsburgh back in his college days. He went on to play 14 years in the NFL. I’m guessing he can probably teach Dwayne Haskins a thing or two.

One of the things Haskins, and before him possibly Case Keenum will benefit from is Washington’s O-line and their offensive line coach Bill Callahan. Callahan is a legendary offensive line coach and a former head coach. It’s always a positive, I think, to have former head coaches on the coaching staff. Callahan was only the fourth rookie head coach to go to the Super Bowl when he accomplished that feat with the Oakland Raiders.

Redskin quarterbacks also have to be pleased that the team’s wide receivers are being coached up by Ike Hilliard. Hilliard was a first team All SEC and First Team All-American WR for Florida back in the 90’s. The Florida Gators were the SEC Champions all three years that Hilliard was there. He was picked 7th overall in the 1997 NFL draft and went on to amass 546 receptions, 6397 yards, and 35 touchdowns during his NFL career. Unfortunately, many of those came against the Redskins.

Suffice to say, Washington has brought in some outstanding position coaches to help groom it’s quarterback, build its offensive line, and mold its wide receivers and that bodes well for the offense.

The defensive coaching staff is top notch as well. Defensive Line coach Jim Tomsula, another former head coach (San Francisco) and a legend in his own right has a dominate group with which to work his magic.

Defensive Coordinator Greg Manusky is the wild card. When it comes to football I’m superstitious and read a lot into intangibles. Manusky’s NFL career began with the Redskins in 1988. He would go on to play 12 years in the NFL, three for the ‘Skins, three for the Vikings, and six for the Chiefs.

But his best years came in 1989 and 1990 when he started at middle linebacker for the Redskins. Manusky joined the Redskins in 1988 and played his rookie year as part of the defending Super Bowl Championship team. The year after he left in 1990 the ‘Skins won the Super Bowl again. So Manusky played for Joe Gibbs for the three years in between Coach Gibbs second and third Super Bowl victories. In my book there is a Super Bowl ring owed this guy. I bet he feels the same way.

The defense got a little better as soon as they hired the new linebackers coach, Rob Ryan. Ryan has been coaching linebackers forever. And of course, he’s got Buddy Ryan’s blood running through his veins. Maybe we’ll see the Redskins in a 4-6 defense this year!

Ryan coached New England’s linebackers from 2000-2003 winning two Super Bowls in the process. His 2003 linebackers were part of the #1 ranked defense in the NFL. Since then he’s coached the Raiders, Browns, Cowboys, Saints, Bills, and now the Washington Redskins.

Still, my favorite coaching hire has to be Special Teams Coordinator Nate Kaczor. During Kaczor’s four years in Jacksonville his special teams coverage unit had the lowest punt return average in the NFL. During his stint with Tampa Bay his punter and punt coverage teams set Tampa Bay records for punts inside the 20 and net punting average, both top five in the NFL in 2016. With the Titans he did it again as his unit set Titans records for punts downed inside the 20. In 88 punts they allowed but one touch back. That team also led the league in special team takeaways.

Special teams is critical to the success of any football team. Good special teams, especially punt coverage, makes things easier for the defense. When a defense plays well it makes life easier on the offense. It’s a hard game. If the coaches can figure out a way to make it easier for the players that can’t help but translate to more wins.

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With this group of coaches coupled with the current roster it looks as though the Redskins could be much more competitive than anyone believed possible given the team’s recent historically bad luck. While this team may not be there yet it sure feels like things have taken a turn for the better. Winning football and a return to the glory days might be a year or two away but it seems clear that this franchise is on the right track.