Redskins mailbag: Who deserves the blame for the 1-4 start?

October 15, 2013

Keith Burns’s special teams units largely were to blame for Washington’s latest loss. (John McDonnell, The Washington Post)

The Washington Redskins returned to their losing ways this week, falling 31-16 to the Dallas Cowboys despite playing well enough in some areas of the game to win. But that’s the problem. A team can rarely get away with playing well in just some areas, and not all areas, and still win the game.

In this week’s mailbag, we begin to play the blame game as most of your questions centered on which coaches, and some players, should be held responsible for the 1-4 start.

Thanks as always for taking part. Continue to e-mail your questions to mike.jones@washpost.com with the subject line of “Mailbag question.” If possible, try to keep the questions concise, though. I know it’s hard to control passion sometimes, but I can get to more questions if they’re shorter.

Here we go.

 Judging by Sunday night’s game in which the team out-performed the Dallas Cowboys in every aspect of the game except special teams, what does a team tell Keith Burns?  Without those two busted plays (and a bonehead decision to impede the path of the referee during a game), the story line for the game could and would have been quite different, and in the Redskins favor. Do you fire him?  Why did we let our last special teams coach leave in the first place, just to have him sign with another team to the same position? 

– Olufemi Adepoju

Poor special teams play definitely played a huge factor in the Redskins losing that game to the Cowboys. But, Mike Shanahan is sticking with Keith Burns. Those two have history. Burns basically served as Shanahan’s Lorenzo Alexander for years in Denver, and then after Burns retired as a player, it was Shanahan who gave him his coaching start, hiring him as an assistant special teams coach. Burns remained in that capacity in Denver from 2007-12. This offseason, when Danny Smith departed for Pittsburgh – which had strong appeal because that’s where he grew up and his father and other family members still live there – Shanahan turned to Burns, bringing the former T.C. Williams standout back to his old stomping grounds to serve as Washington’s special teams coordinator. Burns has not gotten off to a strong start. Shanahan even acknowledges that. Poor returns, a blocked punt, poor coverage both on punts and kickoffs, and missed field goals have all served as the lowlights in the first five games of the season. But Shanahan said he will exercise patience. He said, “I think Keith Burns is a very excellent football coach. Very capable.” Shanahan did say he will be spending more time working with Burns to try to help the young coach figure out the cure to his unit’s mighty struggles.

It’s clear to me and every other Redskins fan that Orakpo is getting held numerous times per game. His quest to get to the QB is a tough one as he tries to rip, swim and bull through the OTs and is successful at times. Other times they put him in a choke hold (see Alex Barron). I wouldn’t use the word “flop,” but do you feel that Orakpo needs to sell the hold a little better at times and hit the deck? 

– Boone Hosey

Hate to say it, but Brian Orakpo hasn’t encountered any struggles that any other pass-rusher has and does experienced on a regular basis. They all get held. What he needs is to do a better job of developing counter moves so opponents can’t develop a feel for how to stop him. He needs to be more explosive, more imposing. Jim Haslett on Sunday used Orakpo on a variety of stunts in an attempt to create more opportunities for him. But none of it worked. Orakpo didn’t record a tackle, a sack or even a hit on the quarterback against the Cowboys. The Redskins need more out of him.

 With Bryan Kehl out, will the Redskins promote Will Compton from the practice squad or try to replace him with a low-cost free agent? I think Compton’s preseason was impressive and it would be good to see how he performs on special teams and perhaps on defense.

– Joe Howell

The Redskins are expected to sign former St. Louis Rams inside linebacker Josh Hull. Hull is a fourth-year player out of Penn State. He spent the first three seasons of his career with the St. Louis Rams, playing primarily on special teams. He was one of 18 players to work out for the Redskins just before the bye.

After Sunday night’s game, I think it’s clear that Kyle Shanahan is in over his head. The play-calling and time management were horrible. (Mike defended it?) My question is, at what point do we get rid of Kyle? Will it take getting rid of Mike and his staff? Will it take us going 1-8? Am I the only one who thinks Kyle is doing a terrible job and should be fired?

 – Korey Whiting

Sorry, but I do not see any way Mike Shanahan fires his son. Additionally, I don’t think Kyle should be fired. I didn’t have a problem with his play-calling on Sunday night. It was as balanced as we have seen all year. His offense had 33 rushing plays and 39 pass plays. He had his players in position to make plays, but in crucial situations, Robert Griffin III and his teammates did not execute. At times, there were miscommunications between Griffin and his receivers, other times, there were protection breakdowns. Other times still, receivers dropped passes. The time management issues were as much on Mike Shanahan as they were Kyle Shanahan. Griffin deserves some of the blame in that situation as well. He needs to be mindful of the situation and have a better sense of urgency. Kyle Shanahan has proven that his schemes and play calls work. This is a matter of execution. Players said the most frustration and bewilderment stemmed from the fact they feel well-prepared in practices, and still aren’t able to play up to standards on game days. Right now, they’re stopping themselves.

 I was just wondering about our defense’s trouble against the run. While a lot of it can be attributed to three-receiver sets being used, and our secondary not being as strong as we would like, we still had to cope with this last year. Could some of this be us not having the presence of Adam Carriker up on the line?  What are your thoughts on how his injury really hurt us in our run defense?

– Diego Brunner

Carriker played in last year’s season opener and then got hurt early in the second game of the season and never returned. Struggles against the run can’t be blamed on his absence. The absence of Jarvis Jenkins for the first four weeks had something to do with the struggles against the run. But in the past three weeks, the Redskins have done better in this department. Haslett made adjustments in his schemes to provide more bodies up front, and those moves have paid off. Washington got off to a sluggish start at the beginning of the Dallas game, but they made adjustments in the run defense and wound up limiting the Cowboys to just 48 rushing yards on 19 carries.

 Do you think there’s a chance that the Redskins might go back to a 4-3 defense, perhaps a Tampa-2 under Raheem Morris? Jim Haslett just doesn’t seem to be doing the job, and the idea of Kerrigan and Orakpo rushing the QB with their ears pinned back definitely sounds very appealing for Redskins fans and very scary for opposing QBs.

 – Asif Akhtar

I’m not sure which games you’ve been watching the last couple weeks, but Haslett has had his defense playing at a high level. They did a good job of limiting a high-powered Detroit Lions offense and gave their team a chance to win that game, but Washington’s struggles on offense persisted. Then in Week 4, they thumped the Oakland Raiders’ offense pretty good, sacking the quarterback seven times and limiting Oakland to just seven points. On Sunday night, they limited a potent Cowboys offense to just 213 total yards. Poor special teams play and an offensive turnover caused the Cowboys to receive the ball deep in Redskins territory – once at the 15-yard line, and then again at the 3. You’d like for your defense to hold the Cowboys to field goals in those situations, but that’s still a pretty tall task. Whether they’re in the 3-4 or 4-3, Ryan Kerrigan and Orakpo are going after the quarterback on most plays. If the defense was still playing like it did in Weeks 1 and 2, I could see questions about the philosophy and Haslett’s coaching ability, but he has made adjustments and is finding ways to mask deficiencies.

 Why is it that in the last few years there has been such a large disparity between our preseason results and regular season results? I understand that preseason doesn’t mean a lot and you should never get too excited, but there has been such a large difference between our preseason record and our regular-season record. Whenever I watch us in preseason, I never see the mistakes that seem to cost us in the regular season. Is this just because our team doesn’t perform so well when there’s more pressure on, or that our backups are better than most?    

 – Alex Easton

Well, for starters, teams don’t game plan for one another in the preseason. Teams are more focused on learning and becoming more comfortable in their own schemes. They do a little planning in the third preseason game, but that’s about it. Another aspect is, there are a lot of backups and guys who will not be in the league playing significant minutes in the preseason. So, it doesn’t paint the true picture of what a team will look like. Once the regular season starts, coaching staffs break down every single play of their upcoming opponents and find the weaknesses and how they should attack and exploit them. The Redskins’ offense didn’t have much of a dress rehearsal because Griffin didn’t play at all, and a number of other starters played little to no snaps.

 According to what the announcers said, the Cowboys D-line had been decimated and was made of very average players, especially after DeMarcus Ware left. But this average group of players blasted the Redskins O-line off the field and consequently RGIII spent most of the evening running for his life? Now, I don’t think that the O-line is composed of subpar players, but it really did not look like they were prepared for the Cowboys, and that raises the question of what the coaching staff is doing. Especially with a week off, I would have expected the team to be ready for the game, and they clearly were not. What do you think?

– Tom Pesacreta

The offensive line had done better in the last two games, but did have its share of struggles Sunday night against the Cowboys, surrendering three sacks and five more hits on the quarterback. The poor protection played a part in Griffin fumbling twice. Redskins players will admit that having two weeks to prepare, they definitely should have played better. But they say the blame rests on their shoulders and not those of their coaches, because the Cowboys didn’t do anything that was unexpected. They just simply didn’t execute. Now, is that a sign that the message isn’t getting through from Shanahan and his assistants? I don’t know. Or, were they not put in the position to succeed? There definitely are times when the players – because of game circumstances – find themselves in less-than-ideal situations and have no choice but to suck it up and do the best they can despite limitations. This line is at its best when they get to run block and set up the offense for the play-action attack. But when the unit struggles and they find themselves in drop-back passing situations, the interior linemen admittedly struggle.

Isn’t about time to begin the search for a new coaching staff? The team is failing on defense, special teams and offense. If we start now, maybe we can convince a really good coach to come on board before the draft. Is there an effort (letters to Dan or public advertising) underway to let the ownership know we need to make a change ASAP?

– Denny Powell

There’s plenty of questioning Shanahan and his staff going on, but I haven’t seen any all-out campaigns petitioning for his job just yet. I’m not sure they would sway Daniel Snyder anyway – at least not at this point. The thing is, Snyder very much wants this to work with Shanahan. This is the guy that he turned the keys over to, admitting that he didn’t have the answers. He has given Shanahan more power than anyone besides Joe Gibbs. He knows Shanahan inherited a mess, and that it would take some time. Now, it looked like the turnaround had taken place after last season when Washington went 7-0 to close out the regular season and won the division. What happened now? Is Griffin’s recovery and deficiencies on defense (because of age and salary cap limitations) to blame? Are those factors enough to cause Snyder to give Shanahan the benefit of the doubt? As of right now, I believe Shanahan still is safe. It’s a bad start, but it’s only five games in. The next 11 weeks are extremely important to his future, however. Shanahan will be entering the final year of his contract, and no coach wants to be in a “lame duck” situation. The Redskins have to come out of this thing looking respectable. I don’t know how Snyder can give Shanahan an extension if the team finishes with a 3-13 or 4-12 record. But if they finish strong down the stretch, hovering around .500, is that enough? Possibly, taking everything into account. It’s still too early to call. Snyder is watching, but he’s not yet ready to pull the plug on this thing only five weeks in.

More on the Redskins and NFL:

D.C. Sports Bog: Virginia chief questions Obama’s view on name | More Bog

Redskins still defending their clock use | Wrong call made on fumble recovery

Redskins dejected at 1-4, but not yet demoralized | Griffin says ‘no quit’

Shanahan defends Burns, says Alexander isn’t coming to save special teams

Special teams emphasis this week | Kehl and Sundberg out for the year

Follow: @MikeJonesWaPo | @MarkMaske | @Insider | Insider on Facebook

Mike Jones covers the Washington Redskins for The Washington Post. When not writing about a Redskins development of some kind – which is rare – he can be found screaming and cheering at one of his kids’ softball, baseball, soccer or basketball games.
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Mark Maske · October 15, 2013