Jim Haslett, Danny Smith not to blame for Redskins’ defense, special teams problems


Washington Redskins special teams coach Danny Smith, above, and defensive coordinator Jim Haslett have some Redskins fans unhappy. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
Jason Reid
Columnist September 22, 2012

The NFL season is only two games old, and yet Redskins fans are already shouting mad.

Defensive coordinator Jim Haslett was blasted on the Internet after the team’s defense was shredded in last weekend’s loss to the St. Louis Rams. Special teams coordinator Danny Smith has gotten an earful because the Redskins had punts blocked in each of their first two games. Fan anger reached a boiling point on Twitter after it was revealed Wednesday that Haslett and Smith, whose units haven’t exactly inspired confidence the past few seasons, received contract extensions during the offseason.

Jason Reid is a sports columnist with the Washington Post. He joined the Post’s Redskins team in 2007 after 15 years covering many beats at the Los Angeles Times. View Archive

Everyone needs to just relax. Haslett and Smith have had better weeks, and the Redskins clearly are struggling in the areas that they oversee, but the well-respected coaches aren’t to blame for what has gone wrong. While coaching plays a role in the outcome of games, the best NFL teams usually have the most talent, execute game plans better and have enough depth on the roster to overcome the inevitable injuries.

When players drop the ball, it’s natural for fans to question the coaches who, after all, are the ones charged with turning a group of football players into a football team. Regardless of how well coaches prepare players, though, mistakes will occur. Perfection is actually unattainable, especially when human beings collide into one another for the entertainment of others.

Does that mean coaches bear no responsibility? Of course not. But there’s a big difference in players being woefully ill-prepared and simply stubbing their toes at the worst possible moments.

With Haslett and Smith, it’s not a matter of players lacking understanding about what needs to be done, “it just comes down to us, the players, executing,” said inside linebacker London Fletcher, the Redskins’ defensive leader. “Our coaches do a great job of putting us in the right positions. . . . Most of the time, it just comes down to who executes the best. I know it sounds simple. But that’s it.”

There’s a football-field-long list of reasons why some teams execute better than others. Who’s on the field is definitely a big part of it, and so is luck. With 14 games still remaining, the Redskins have already experienced a season’s worth of misfortune on defense.

Pro Bowl outside linebacker Brian Orakpo and starting left defensive end Adam Carriker suffered season-ending injuries early in the 31-28 loss to the Rams. Overcoming the loss of one top-line defensive player for the season would be challenging. Two? That’s about as daunting a task as expecting a plodding defensive lineman to chase down Robert Griffin III in the open field. It’s probably not happening.

The defense did play well in the season-opening victory over the New Orleans Saints. But fans have largely been frustrated with Haslett’s group since Coach Mike Shanahan hired Haslett before the 2010 season to change the team’s defensive philosophy.

Lacking the correct personnel to play Haslett’s 3-4 scheme in his first season, the Redskins had their worst defensive performance since 1954. For Redskins fans, those bad memories have lingered. The defense improved across-the-board last season, but another positive bump seems less likely to occur this season with Orakpo and Carriker out.

Although Smith is dealing with smaller issues on special teams, they’re still causing blocked-punt-sized problems. He’s trying to get the punt protection straightened out after the Saints and Rams each made big plays against his unit. How does an NFL team have two blocked punts in its first two games? Two words: mental blunders.

On punt coverage, the line blocks an area instead of having man-to-man assignments such as on offensive plays from scrimmage. In the season opener, linebacker Chris Wilson, a special teams veteran, simply blocked the wrong area. Against the Rams, starting inside linebacker Perry Riley was a tad too eager to get downfield in coverage. Riley made a nifty move to get past the Rams player he should have blocked, without actually stopping to block him.

“It’s nice to think that good coaching eliminates all mistakes, but guys aren’t robots,” special teams standout Lorenzo Alexander said. “Stuff happens.”

Last season, the Redskins had a league-high five field goal attempts blocked. Smith tweaked the line’s blocking technique and the problem was corrected.

“Good coaching is also finding solutions to problems,” Alexander said. “That’s what Danny does. . . . Danny knows what he’s doing. Most of it is just on us doing our jobs as players.”

The most successful coaches have the best players. Period. Historically in sports, that’s just the way it works.

For previous columns by Jason Reid, visit washingtonpost.com/reid

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