You can’t point to one specific thing when assigning blame for the Washington Football Team’s utter insignificance over the last 20 years. A number of coinciding factors led the team to perennial bottom-feeder status. However, over the latter portion of Jay Gruden’s tenure, coaching became a sticking point for criticisms, and Washington’s coaches in 2020 will be tasked with changing that.
Washington’s new coaches need to replace some previous bad habits in 2020
In each sector of the coaching staff, there were specific criticisms levied, and Gruden, who functioned as both head coach and offensive play-caller for most of his time in Washington, shouldered the brunt of those qualms.
Gruden’s offense undoubtedly produced consistently, especially in the passing game, but there was a major flaw to his methods; his game scripts were too conservative and predictable early on, and often, he would be forced to rack up extra passing yards while playing catch-up.
Gruden too often worked against himself as offensive coordinator, and Washington’s defensive coaching staff battled a similar habit. Greg Manusky frequently gave his players unnatural roles and showed a lack of game awareness with his choices. Examples included playing natural defensive ends in coverage or lining defensive backs up in soft coverage on short downs.
Simply put, the coaching has long been unsatisfactory in Washington. Yes, the owner deserves a good bit of the blame for the team’s struggles, and he played a hand in letting bad coaching fester. But the previous staff is gone, and a new one, championed by offensive coordinator Scott Turner, defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio, and head coach Ron Rivera, hopes to bring promise.
If they are to do so, however, they’ll have to follow these keys.
For Scott Turner, versatility and imbalance are essential
Kirk Cousins’ stellar production in Washington masked some glaring inefficiencies bred by the coaching staff, and once he left, and the offensive line started to fade, those inefficiencies became more apparent.
Jay Gruden’s passing concepts yielded impressive results when applied correctly, but the former Washington coach clung to an instinctual desire to “establish the run”. Washington’s desire to have an equitable run-pass balance, as opposed to creating imbalances for the defense, led to the team playing from behind far too often. They could only make up so many of those deficits, and never became more than a middling team.
Gruden never took authority with his offensive play calling, but Turner has a chance to succeed where Gruden failed. Turner doesn’t have a star-studded offensive cast, but he has a lot of unproven players with upside, and he can help lead them to their maximum projections by heading an offense that prioritizes a flexible balance, rather than a mathematical balance.
Turner has several players — Terry McLaurin, Antonio Gibson, Steven Sims, J.D. McKissic, Logan Thomas — who have the athletic traits and experience to fulfill multiple roles on offense and move all around the field pre-snap. This is true balance, not simply running and passing equitably, but being able to do a number of things on any given snap.
With pre-snap motions, unique alignments, personnel groupings, and interactive route designs, Turner can forge a productive modern offense and maximize the balance of talent that he has, keeping defenses guessing in the process. That’s something Gruden, a moderately respected offensive mind in his own right, was never quite able to do.
For Jack Del Rio, simplicity and sensibility can go a long way
Just keep it simple. That’s a motto that’s transcended professions for years, and it’s one that Jack Del Rio can use to make sure his tenure as defensive coordinator goes smoothly.
The Washington Football Team recently switched from a 3-4 defensive alignment to a 4-3 scheme. In Washington’s employment of the 3-4 scheme, there was some concern that players weren’t being employed to their strengths, and that the defensive coaching staff was at times making decisions that didn’t mesh with circumstances on the field.
With the 4-3 scheme, things will be more clear-cut as to what players’ roles are. Washington will now have four defensive linemen rushing the quarterback on every down, creating organic pressure to rely on. Those linemen will consist of a combination of Chase Young, Montez Sweat, Matt Ioannidis, Jonathan Allen, and Daron Payne. Del Rio has a lot of star talent to draw from for his defensive front.
Del Rio has worked with talented defensive lines before, and he knows how to get the most out of those players. With that organic pressure being generated on what should be a consistent basis, Del Rio can turn his attention to the back two levels. That will allow him to be creative in how he employs linebackers and defensive backs, to capitalize off of the pressure upfront.
For Ron Rivera, culture is key
The Washington Football Team’s culture has been a subject of great controversy in recent weeks, but the culture was soiled long before July. For much of the twenty-first century, Washington has been a haven for mediocrity, and by extension, mediocre preparation, mediocre cohesion, and mediocre results.
Ron Rivera was brought in to change that, first and foremost. Rivera’s defensive acumen will be of great value, but Rivera’s primary key to success is to overhaul the locker room culture in Washington, a culture that has undercut precedents set by the league’s best for too long.
Rivera has turned around a team like Washington before; he did it in 2011 with the Carolina Panthers, taking a bottom-dweller to the Super Bowl in half a decade. Rivera has spoken at length about his desire to do the same in D.C. But it’s far easier said than done to revamp an organizational culture.
For Rivera, the foot has to be on the gas at all times, and operating norms established by the previous coaching staff must be ironed out of the team’s fabric. If Rivera can spearhead a cultural overhaul that emphasizes the need for constant focus, effort, and accountability, and put the complacent practices of the old Washington team in the past, then Washington’s 2020 coaches can change a team that was once beyond saving.