“Oh, man, Haz, he’s doing a phenomenal job, man,” outside linebacker Brian Orakpo said. “He’s just pushing those right buttons.”
A better mix of players has helped. Barry Cofield. Stephen Bowen. Ryan Kerrigan. Those newcomers have made Haslett’s job easier and more enjoyable. They’ve improved his situation. And with Haslett in a good place, the Redskins are better off, too.
Washington’s continued development on defense is essential to Coach Mike Shanahan’s overall plan. Haslett has a big job. Finally, his attention is all on it.
With the Redskins preparing to face the rival Dallas Cowboys on Monday night, Haslett is confident all the team’s defensive players want to play. He has no concerns about the effort they’ll give. On the NFL’s 11th-ranked defense, everyone is together.
That wasn’t always the case during Haslett’s first season at Redskins Park. During the offseason, Albert Haynesworth moved on to the New England Patriots and management invested heavily on defense.
It was a win-win combination for the entire organization, but Haslett benefited most because “we weeded out guys who didn’t want to be here and brought in guys who did,” strong safety LaRon Landry said. “If you’re [Haslett], how could you not” be happy?
Haslett is quick to downplay the “Haynesworth factor.” He says nothing last season diverted his attention from the bigger picture. Haslett has been doing this far too long to let one problem distract him, he emphasized shortly before practice Thursday.
No doubt, Haslett knows how to compartmentalize. He has overcome obstacles as a player, assistant coach and head coach throughout a successful career. Haynesworth’s season-long squabble with Shanahan, however, was an uncommon hurdle. Even for someone with Haslett’s seen-it-all experience, that was a new one.
Haslett was stuck in the middle from the start. Shanahan wanted him to get something from Haynesworth, who made it known he disliked his working conditions and wasn’t particularly interested in giving a lot under the circumstances.
Beginning in training camp, the Redskins gave Haynesworth extra attention, and Haslett had hands-on involvement. Obviously, Haslett still performed his other duties. Each game, the Redskins had defensive game plans regardless of what was happening with Haynesworth.
Every second Haslett spent trying to get Haynesworth up to speed, though, was time he could have directed elsewhere. Each message he relayed from Shanahan to Haynesworth was a wasted motion.
There were better ways in which Haslett could have applied himself, and he acknowledged the Redskins “spent more time trying to get [Haynesworth] ready. That’s true. That’s obvious. But I would do that for anybody.”
He had to do it only for Haynesworth. Also, there were many other areas in which Haslett could have stayed busy.
Washington’s defense finished 31st out of 32 teams and ranked last for much of the season. The Redskins had their worst defensive performance since 1954.
No matter how hard Haslett worked, there weren’t enough hours in the day to overcome the Haynesworth situation and Washington’s lack of talent for the 3-4 scheme Shanahan instructed Haslett to install. Essentially handcuffed with mostly wrong parts, Haslett did what he could.
It just wasn’t enough. Predictably, on sports-talk radio and Internet message boards, fans raised questions about the team’s defensive leadership. When something is done worse than it has been in 56 years, nothing is out of bounds.
But Haslett wasn’t the problem, “and no one here had any questions about that,” inside linebacker and defensive captain London Fletcher said. “When you have a shift in philosophy, a shift in scheme, there’s going to be a period of adjustment, and we weren’t able to make the personnel changes that were necessary to be successful.
“Now, this year, you bring in Barry [Cofield] to play the nose. He’s an excellent nose tackle. We get Bowen. He’s an excellent 3-4 end. You draft Kerrigan. He’s a big outside linebacker who fits the scheme. You look at all the personnel changes, and you expect to be better. For [Haslett], there’s more he can do.”
In play-calling, the talent bump is apparent.
“Haz, he’s a little bit more comfortable with his play-calling, knowing that he can call on guys and knowing that they’re gonna makes plays,” top cornerback DeAngelo Hall said. “At one point in the [Arizona] Cardinals game, you could just tell he was in a rhythm calling plays. We were getting pressure whether we [blitzed] or didn’t. You can see the confidence he has in players executing.”
That’s definitely true.
“It’s a lot easier,” Haslett said, “when you’ve got better players.”
Haslett has the proper tools. He’s putting them to good use. The fun now comes in building something to last.