On the other sideline: A Texans-Redskins Q&A

July 1, 2014

Houston’s rookie outside linebacker and No. 1 overall draft pick Jadeveon Clowney. (Pat Sullivan/Associated Press)

For those of us who follow the NFL, the vast majority of our time is spent on one team, while taking a passing interest in the other 31. Moving into July, it’s time to confront the reality that almost every morsel of relevant information about that preferred team may have already been digested, and all that’s left is to eagerly anticipate training camp. Before long, however, there’ll be an intense interest in the teams across the field, so when better than now to learn about them?

In July, The Insider is reaching out to those who cover the the 13 teams on Washington’s regular-season schedule, to peek behind the curtain and see how what they observe from up close differs from what we observe from afar.

The Redskins start the season Sept. 7 with a game in Houston. Steph Stradley of the Houston Chronicle’s Ultimate Texans blog joins us to provide perspective from the other sideline, via a brief Q&A.

Keith: There’s an attitude among some Redskins fans that last year’s 3-13 team was not a bad one so much as a talented group that let a promising season go uncharacteristically awry. A new coach and an active offseason wipe the slate clean. Consequently, when this year’s schedule came out, 87% of 3,525 users who voted in a poll we ran saw the Texans game as a Week 1 win, and 94% saw the Jaguars as a win in Week 2. That seems presumptous for a team that lost 13 games, but with a new coach and the Redskins and Raiders as their first two opponents, fans of last year’s 2-14 Texans could take a similar view. Have you detected any sense that the Redskins are an ideal team to open up against, or a team Houston fans feel the Texans should beat?

Steph: Your first two sentences could be exactly the same for the Texans if you changed the names, and switched the record to 2-14. Both Houston and Washington are undergoing the de-Shanahaning of their offenses. The process of doing that makes both teams hard to judge going into the season.

I hate stereotyping fan attitudes in general. Some Texans fans are optimistic about the start of the schedule, some not so much. And I ultimately think, trying to peg Ws and Ls in a closely matched NFL, particularly at this time of year is coin-flip nonsensical.

Both teams played bad football on both sides of the ball in 2013, and their special teams were unwatchable. To think that you could peg one team or another as an easy matchup ignores the week to week in the NFL.

That said, I think for NFL teams undergoing major transformations of their schemes, away starts can be a challenge. What can work in the Texans favor are the good pieces on the defensive side of the ball that may help keep games sane on the road.

The Texans do have some talented players and were close in a lot of games last year despite significant QB problems. In general, every single break the Texans needed to go their way last year, broke badly. They suffered key injuries, including the head coach having a ministroke during a game. A few crucial positions, including quarterback, were a problem.

And the old Ed Reed free agent experiment to help provide leadership was a ridiculously ill-conceived failure. Sounds harsh, but that might be the most polite thing said in this part of the world given all that happened with him.

With the exception of two assistant coaches, the entire Texans staff and much of the front office has been turned over. The thought is that they will be able to get more out of the roster, and that the players need new voices and ideas in the building.

Even so, the quarterback spot for the Texans will likely be a significant issue for them again. If it isn’t, new head coach Bill O’Brien may be a candidate for coach of the year.

Houston fans don’t have a lot immediate hope in their quarterback situation. Robert Griffin III gives D.C. fans hope and expectations to spare. How is the remaking of RGIII going, along with the reshaping of the offense?

Keith: Griffin, to almost anyone who’s seen him practice or talked to him this offseason, looks sharp and is in a good state of mind. But this time last year, there weren’t many folks tempering expectations either, and in hindsight, that would have been wise. The difference this time around, besides more modest expectations, is that he’s working with Jay Gruden, who was hired largely to be a Griffin whisperer. The Shanahans’ fortunes were just as much tied to Griffin’s performance as Gruden’s is, and they tried to make it work, but Gruden’s style seems like it will mesh better with Griffin and the entire offense. Gruden is about his football – knows it inside out – but has an approachable everyman way about him that makes people feel at ease rather than on edge.

Between that, and much lighter expectations for this year, the offense can play loose and make the most of its considerable skill-position talent. Gruden seems like he’ll make use of that talent in whatever way possible – whether that means DeSean Jackson running reverses, tight end Jordan Reed lined up like a wide receiver or a speedy back spelling Alfred Morris on passing downs. Outside of the zone runs that Morris has been so successful with the past two years, the offense might not look all that familiar.

Still, the team goes as Griffin goes, and while some want him to repeat his rookie season, a real sign of growth would be for him to polish his pocket presence without stifling the escapability that makes him so dangerous. There’s a point where a player is overcoached, where he’s thinking so much about what he’s been told not to do that it slows him down and takes away what he’s great at. Griffin has to find that line, and while he certainly was reckless carrying the ball in 2012 and cautious doing so with his repaired knee in 2013, the ideal spot for him is probably somewhere in between. But it’s a lot easier to watch from afar and judge what he should do when than it is to learn how to make those decisions in the moment.

One thing Griffin won’t have to do is look over his shoulder. Those in and around the team admit that Griffin was rushed back last season, and Kirk Cousins should have played. This year, there will be no question about which quarterback should be playing. In Houston, I can’t tell from afar if that’s the case. What’s the Texans’ plan at quarterback, both for Week 1 and long term?

Steph: Early in OTAs, the Texans outwardly stated the fiction that there was an open competition at quarterback. Likely a fiction because there was one guy with a lot of starting experience and then a bunch of other guys. They also acknowledged that at some point, they were going to have to choose one guy to prepare for the season with more first team reps. Prior to the break, they said that free agent signing Ryan Fitzpatrick would be the starter.

They released T.J. Yates, so the remaining quarterbacks on the roster should Fitzpatrick perform poorly or get injured are third-year player Case Keenum, and rookie Tom Savage. Bill O’Brien has not ruled out bringing another quarterback in if he thinks it improves the team, which is what he would likely say about any position on the field.

By my eyes, I have a hard time seeing Fitzpatrick or Keenum being anything other than a stopgap. I think Keenum fit better in the previous offense, and neither have ideal skill sets for the New England-style offense that O’Brien wants to run.

Savage is an intriguing project. Unorthodox and limited college experience, but has a cannon arm, great size. When you see all three quarterbacks throw, you can definitely see a difference with the way the ball comes out of his hand, particularly in less-than-ideal weather conditions. If O’Brien’s reputation as a quarterback developer pans out, that is some nice clay to work with.

O’Brien skipped choosing more celebrated quarterback prospects, while basically declaring that all the QBs in this draft class had strengths and weaknesses and that there weren’t just a few that stood out. This allowed him to fill other key needs on the team, but this will also put the spotlight on the players he chose vs. the quarterbacks he didn’t.

I don’t see them in a rush to put Savage out on the field, though it wouldn’t surprise if by the end of camp he ended up being second on the depth chart. I think the short-term plan is to try to have a game-manager quarterback with a dominant defense and improved special teams.

The Texans refuse to say that they are rebuilding, but it is hard not to say that given the limited options at quarterback, and most of the best players being relatively inexperienced.

Needing defensive improvements while working on new offensive schemes is common in the NFL. What is the plan for improvement for the Redskins’ defense?

Keith: It’s rare that such a bad defense – it allowed 29.9 points per game – keeps the same architect, but the plan is basically to uncuff Jim Haslett. Gruden, having worked with Haslett before, is comfortable with him, and that means he’ll have carte blanche to cut the defensive line loose and let them penetrate rather than clog gaps. He’ll be able to dial up blitzes as he pleases, and more or less work without interference from the head coach. Gruden has said he prefers to delegate to his assistants, and that wasn’t the case necessarily under Mike Shanahan.

Still, no good scheme works without players. Washington made an effort to give Haslett the tools to succeed, but not much. Defensive lineman Jason Hatcher had 11 sacks for the Cowboys last season, but nothing close to that in any other year of his career. He only makes sense if they let him get upfield. On the back end, longtime Steelers safety Ryan Clark was the big addition, and even in offseason practices, you could hear him barking out orders and predicting where passes would go. He should help fill the leadership gap created by London Fletcher’s retirement. Otherwise, it’s the same key players – Brian Orakpo, Ryan Kerrigan, DeAngelo Hall, Barry Cofield – in a tweaked scheme. They were 18th in yards allowed last season, so improved offense and special teams might help close the gap between their points allowed (31st) and yards. But expecting this defense to take a major leap is likely foolish.

Both in Washington and Houston, the new coaches and quarterbacks are perhaps the focal points since the end of last season. But if I were a Washington fan thinking only about this matchup in Week 1, I’d be worried about Jadeveon Clowney and J.J. Watt converging on Griffin. Do you have a sense as to whether Clowney will make an impact right away, or is Washington a bit lucky to be seeing him in his NFL debut?

Steph: Arguably, a combo of J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney would seem to suit previous coordinator Wade Phillips’s defense better than Romeo Crennel’s version of the 3-4. There’s a football geek argument on whether Crennel will just run his gap-clogging version of the 3-4 that won’t best take advantage of these players’ strengths versus the viewpoint that Crennel will provide a much more creative scheme than Phillips to suit them both.

I think where all the football geeks agree is that if a coordinator can’t take advantage of these players’ talents, he is in the wrong job. You can’t double team everyone.

Clowney is learning a new position at outside linebacker, but I wouldn’t expect him to be dropping into coverage a ton. The pass rush, with the exception of Watt, was disappointing last year, and the expected return of Brian Cushing at middle linebacker will certainly be helpful to the defense. The Texans were very thin at linebacker last year, and it is tough running a 3-4 without quality linebackers. For the entire Texans front seven, the hope is that new scheme and coaching will get better results from some of the developing players that underachieved in 2013. As a group, they don’t have a lot of experience.

I think a lot of Clowney’s potential is going to be how many pass-rushing situations he is in. The Texans of 2013 with their struggling offense got behind in a lot of games, which limits pass-rushing opportunities. Watt’s performance given that limitation was remarkable, but most first-pick rookie defensive players don’t come into the league as dominant and mature as Watt is.

Clowney is recovering from sports hernia surgery for an injury that he felt last season, but apparently was not diagnosed. It can be a difficult injury to detect, and players play with them all the time with intermittent pain. They wanted him to take care of it now so it wouldn’t be a concern in-season. He apparently had soreness during the combine, and didn’t seem to slow him down any. No certain timetable for his return, but the thought is for the start of camp. Even before the hernia repair, he looked like quarterback nightmare fuel during OTAs.

Through the limited OTAs and minicamp, the Texans defense looked ahead of the offense, which is common for most teams early and may work to Clowney’s benefit when the Texans play Washington. No pads makes true defensive evaluations tough, however.

So, is Washington finally going to fix their special teams, and if so, how?

Keith: If you loosen the definition of “fix” to “not be historically bad,” it shouldn’t be that hard. Gruden snagged Ben Kotwica off the Jets’ staff to lead the group, and New York was middle of the road on special teams last season, which would be an improvement.

Other than a new coach, there are two major differences. First, they went out and acquired players who have a history of being special-teams contributors, like inside linebackers Adam Hayward, Daryl Sharpton and Akeem Jordan. Also, by not having a first-round pick the past two years, anyone drafted with any hope of sticking needs to make an impression on special teams. But they also take it seriously – at one recent practice, they ran a gunner punt coverage drill in between offensive drills, and stuck another “open-field tackling” session (technically, they weren’t actually tackling) in between the defense’s transition to go against the offense. In other words, special teams aren’t a phase thrown off to the side and only practiced on the fringes. They work on them right in the middle of practice, with the whole roster watching. That would seem to help everyone take them seriously, which is part of the battle.

Last question for you. What’s the story with Andre Johnson? Is it just a case of an elite talent not wanting to spend the waning years of his prime playing with subpar quarterbacks, or something else?

Steph: Good question. This is what has been said publicly by Andre Johnson or his uncle (who usually makes the news only when Johnson is not happy): 1. Johnson is not sure about the direction of the team or whether he wants to go through a rebuilding again; 2. He does not want a trade; 3. That Johnson and Bill O’Brien “have a great relationship.”

O’Brien has noted that they text back and forth, but has declined to discuss their communications. Johnson and his uncle haven’t specified what the end game is. His uncle told the Houston Chronicle, “it’s just a wait-and-see deal” and “We’ll evaluate it in a month or so and see what’s going on.”

Speculating? Sounds like a problem with the front office and a desire for more guaranteed money. Johnson is the only grown adult left of a lot of good players for the Texans who were traded or cut for money reasons. One of the Texans’ problems of the last couple of years is one that is common in the NFL: a failure to develop good replacements for solid players. He’s seen what has happened before with teammates who were good players, and may not be happy babysitting a bunch of guys for a rebuild he may not benefit from.

Though there’s been a lot of trade talk, the way his contract is and the dead money involved and his age, his situation is not ideal for trade.

Sounds like he will be back, but when in camp? With a new offense, and new quarterback, it would be helpful if he came back soon. Andre Johnson would make the transition to 2014 easier for everyone involved. As it is, the challenges on offense are significant enough.

Texans news & stats | Visit Ultimate Texans | Follow @StephStradley on Twitter

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Mike Jones · July 1, 2014