2014 Preview: Redskins have much riding on Griffin's knee, Gruden's playbook
JUL 22, 2014 3:15p ET
2013: 3-13, last in the NFC East
Head coach: Jay Gruden, first season
Key departures: TE Fred Davis (suspended indefinitely), S Reed Doughty, MLB London Fletcher, S Tanard Jackson (suspended indefinitely), OL Will Montgomery, WR Josh Morgan, P Sav Rocca, DE Darryl Tapp, CB Josh Wilson
Key arrivals: Rookie CB Bashaud Breeland, S Ryan Clark, DL Jason Hatcher, LB Adam Hayward, WR DeSean Jackson, LB Akeem Jordan, OL Shawn Lauvao, P Robert Malone, QB Colt McCoy, OL Mike McGlynn, rookie OT Morgan Moses, rookie LB Trent Murphy, CB Tracy Porter, WR Andre Roberts, LB Darryl Sharpton
1. The right Gruden at the right time? The Mike Shanahan era in Washington never materialized the way Shanahan or the Redskins hoped. Three of Shanahan's four seasons finished with six or fewer wins and the relationship between Shanahan and his players, most notably Robert Griffin III, seemed strained.
Shanahan and his son, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, are gone. As he often does, owner Dan Snyder went all out in finding a replacement. Lovie Smith is the most accomplished of the new coaches this season, taking over in Tampa Bay. Gruden held the most buzz of the new coaches, though, particularly with brother Jon Gruden deciding not to coach. Many teams courted the younger Gruden, who chose the Redskins and the chance to work with Griffin.
But what exactly did Washington get?
Some wondered if Gruden was just a prospect for his name. In three years as the Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator, Gruden led an offense that finished 20th, 22nd, and 10th last season in total offense. Gruden helped Andy Dalton develop as Cincinnati's quarterback. Yet, there was always a feeling of failure with the Bengals, who flopped in the playoffs the past three seasons.
Gruden's offense -- which ranked 18th, 12th and sixth in points the past three seasons -- scored 33 total points in three playoff games the past three years. And while Dalton has been a steady performer, starting every game the past three seasons after being a second-round draft pick, there are questions as to whether he is a Super Bowl-caliber quarterback.
But Gruden jumped at the chance to be a head coach in Washington and he inherits a talented offense. He brings energy and has eased some of the tension around the facility, something the Redskins needed desperately after the final days with Shanahan.
Now the question is whether Gruden was the right coach to move Washington forward and reestablish Griffin as a potential star.
2. Is RGIII ready for Season 3? Make no mistake, much of Gruden's hiring was about Griffin. Shanahan and Griffin were clearly on poor terms by the end. Shanahan's insistence on having Griffin play with a weakened knee ultimately led to Griffin tearing ligaments in the knee and having to undergo major knee surgery. The instance forever changed the relationship and momentum that had been building in Washington.
Gruden is considered to be a good teacher. And despite the playoff failures, Gruden deserves some credit for Dalton's development. Getting Griffin back to the potential he showed as a rookie is the most important factor for the Redskins.
Washington, with Shanahan calling the shots, mortgaged future drafts to select Griffin No. 2 overall in 2012, right behind Andrew Luck. The Redskins gave the St. Louis Rams three first-round picks and a second-round selection for the right to draft Griffin. The final haul for St. Louis -- after maneuvering with some of Washington's picks -- included defensive tackle Michael Brockers, cornerback Janoris Jenkins, running back Isaiah Pead, guard Rokevious Watkins, linebacker Alec Ogletree, receiver Stedman Bailey, running back Zac Stacy and, finally, this year's No. 2 overall pick, tackle Greg Robinson.
It will be hard for Griffin to live up to the immense value that went the Rams' way. But if his rookie season was any indication, the Redskins won't be disappointed if Griffin can return to form.
Shanahan wasn't the only one damaged by the curious case of Griffin playing on a bad knee and the subsequent follow-up season when Griffin might have returned too early from knee reconstruction. Griffin's stock dipped and his relationship with teammates reportedly took a hit, as well.
But Griffin has star ability. He was a multi-dimensional threat as a rookie, rushing for 815 yards and seven touchdowns to go with a 102.4 quarterback rating. He completed 65.6 percent of his passes for 3,200 yards and 20 touchdowns to five interceptions.
In returning for Week 1 last year, Griffin didn't look the same. His explosiveness was gone and so was his running ability. Playing with a knee brace, he appeared tentative. Griffin is a talented passer, but he became a one-dimensional quarterback, running for just 489 yards.
Always an accurate passer with a strong arm, he slipped to a 60.1 completion percentage. Griffin's yards per attempt went from a league-best 8.1 to 7.0. He threw 16 touchdowns to 12 interceptions and his season was over after 13 games, essentially benched by Shanahan.
All the reports this summer have been positive. Griffin has tried to repair his image both nationally and with his teammates. He and Gruden have spoken highly of each other and reports have said Griffin looks more like the 2012 version than 2013. If so, Washington can rebound quickly from last year's 3-13 finish.
3. Was status-quo on defense the right call? How did the Redskins address a defense that allowed the second-most points in the league? By returning nearly every key piece, including defensive coordinator Jim Haslett. Even through a coaching change, Haslett, defensive backs coach Raheem Morris and defensive line coach Jacob Burney remained.
On the player side, the biggest change was longtime-standout Fletcher retiring. Wilson signed with the Atlanta Falcons and Doughty wasn't retained. Doughty will be replaced at safety by Clark, signed from the Pittsburgh Steelers. Wilson's replacement will be second-year cornerback David Amerson, while Porter was signed in free agency as a veteran option.
Without a first-round draft pick -- because of the Griffin trade -- the Redskins couldn't add a top prospect to the mix. They used their first selection on Murphy in the second round. But Murphy plays the same position as arguably their best two defenders, outside linebackers Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan. Murphy might have been a luxury pick the defense couldn't afford.
The most important offseason addition was Hatcher, a Pro Bowl defensive lineman for Dallas last season who had 11 sacks. Hatcher, who will start at defensive end, and Clark are the only two players that look like upgrades from last season.
Orakpo returned last season and earned a Pro Bowl selection by tallying 10 sacks. Kerrigan had 8.5 sacks and four forced fumbles. Fletcher will be replaced by Keenan Robinson, a 2012 fourth-round draft pick, or possibly one of the offseason additions, Sharpton or Jordan.
Sticking with the status-quo was a curious decision after the defense played as big of a role in the decline last season as Griffin's ineffectiveness.
Breakout player: Gruden and new offensive coordinator Sean McVay have plenty of pieces to work with and the one player who gets lost among the big names is tight end Jordan Reed. Reed might soon get the recognition of his fellow teammates, though.
A third-round draft pick out of Florida last year, Reed is another in the new breed of tight ends. He's a big target (6-foot-2) and quick, able to beat linebackers in coverage and use his size advantage over safeties and cornerbacks. Reed's breakthrough campaign looked like it might be his rookie season, but a concussion ended his season prematurely.
Reed finished second on the team with 45 catches and 499 receiving yards, despite missing the season's final seven games. He added three touchdowns. After a modest start to the season, Reed had nine catches for 134 yards and a touchdown in Week 6 and followed with eight catches for 90 yards the following week.
Head injuries are a concern for Reed. He has reportedly had four concussions between his time at Florida and last season in Washington. He's felt well during summer workouts after taking time to get over his last concussion. If he can stay on the field, he's a perfect complement in the middle of the field to Washington's speed on the outside and strong running game.
Reason for optimism: If Griffin returns to his 2012 level, Washington could feature a scary offense for opposing defenses. Adding receivers DeSean Jackson and Andre Roberts to Griffin, Pro Bowl running back Alfred Morris, Reed and last year's NFL-leader in catches, Pierre Garcon, gives the Redskins a group of playmakers to rival any in the NFC.
Washington also has Pro Bowl left tackle Trent Williams blocking Griffin's blind side. Griffin is the "X" factor but consider this: Morris was fourth in the league in rushing last season with 1,275 yards to go with seven touchdowns. Garcon had 113 catches to lead the NFL, accounting for 1,346 receiving yards and five touchdowns. Reed's per-game output equates to a full season with 80 catches, 887 yards and five touchdowns.
Now add in Jackson, one of the league's premier downfield threats. Jackson has averaged 17.2 yards per catch in his career. He has 35 touchdowns in six NFL seasons. Last year with Philadelphia, Jackson was tied for eighth in the league with 82 catches and fifth with 1,332 receiving yards.
Roberts, 26, has caught at least 43 passes in each of the past three seasons. He had 43 catches for 471 yards last year as the Arizona Cardinals' third receiver. And remember, Griffin's rookie season included a 65.6 completion percentage, league-best 8.1 yards per attempt, league-low 1.3 percent interception percentage, 27 total touchdowns and 815 yards rushing.
Reason for panic: The offense might need to win shootouts. The front-seven on defense should be better with Orakpo, Kerrigan and Hatcher leading the way. The secondary is another story in a division that features Tony Romo, Eli Manning and Nick Foles at quarterback.
Washington actually ranked 18th in terms of yards allowed last season. Of course, it was of little consolation for the second-worst scoring defense. The Redskins allowed 29 passing touchdowns, which was tied for the seventh-most in the NFL. Sixteen interceptions weren't enough to overcome overall poor play.
Opposing quarterbacks completed 65.6 percent of their passes against Washington, the sixth-best completion percentage in the league. The Redskins allowed opposing quarterbacks a 96.1 quarterback rating, the sixth-highest mark in the league.
And the only changes were switching out Doughty for Clark and Wilson for Porter, while making Amerson a starter. Hall and Meriweather are 30 years old. Clark is 34. Washington did draft Clemson cornerback Bashaud Breeland in the fourth round.
The Redskins will play six games against Romo, Manning and Foles. Romo has 24 touchdowns to 15 interceptions and an 86.2 quarterback rating against the Redskins in his career. Manning only has a 75.0 quarterback rating against Washington, but has won 13 of the 19 career games he's played against the Redskins. Foles only got to face Washington once last year, but was 17 of 26 for 298 yards in a 24-16 win.
One bright spot is that, outside of Romo, Manning and Foles, the Redskins face current projected starters Ryan Fitzpatrick (Houston), Chad Henne (Jacksonville), Russell Wilson (Seattle), Carson Palmer (Arizona), Jake Locker (Tennessee), Matt Cassel (Minnesota), Josh McCown (Tampa Bay), Colin Kaepernick (San Francisco), Andrew Luck (Indianapolis) and Sam Bradford (St. Louis) this season.