Jim Haslett, three weeks ago a convenient scapegoat for another NFL season in Washington gone awry, now needs to be recognized as a primary cog in the resuscitation of, remarkably, that same season.
Because the Washington Redskins were on pace to become the first team in NFL history to give up 5,000 yards passing, Haslett became an extension of cornerback DeAngelo Hall off the field: The punching bag whose bravado and stubbornness make him that much easier to pick on, take shots at — heck, call for his job.
How many times have you heard, “Fire Jim Haslett?” You probably even heard it during the first half Sunday when the Baltimore Ravens put up 21 points. In a special season in which an otherworldly rookie quarterback is giving the franchise hope, Haslett’s defense seemed to be providing another reason not to take the Redskins seriously.
And then that unit buckled — and held — like it did against the Giants last week when it allowed just a field goal in the second half to help the Redskins to a 17-16 victory over their NFC East rivals.
Haslett’s defense gave up just one touchdown in the second half to the Ravens, who looked so good on offense early and then just turned into one discombobulated mess in the fourth quarter and overtime.
The Redskins make stops when it matters. They get turnovers that lead to points. They make adjustments late in the game, resulting in crazy, camouflaged blitzes so that quarterbacks like Eli Manning and Joe Flacco have no idea whether Rob Jackson or Lorenzo Alexander is coming to get them.
They let Robert Griffin III and Alfred Morris win games for them.
“I’ve been on teams here with the fourth-ranked defense but no one cared because we weren’t winning,” defensive lineman Kedric Golston said Monday, less than 24 hours after the most momentous, gratifying win for the Redskins in four years. “No, we haven’t been great. We’ve given up way too many yards and some big plays we had no business giving up. But we’ve found a way to hold some teams when it matters. That’s more important than numbers.”
Since a loss to Pittsburgh Oct. 28, the Redskins have given up 300 yards passing to only one quarterback, Tony Romo. Since the bye week, they’ve had just two bad halves — in the second half against Dallas on Thanksgiving Day and the first half against Baltimore. They gave up just 117 yards after halftime to New York last week.
The blame Haslett was getting earlier this season was over the top. If anyone has had alibis this year, it’s the defensive coordinator.
Through no fault of his own, his entire secondary has been a train wreck.
Two players, Tanard Jackson and Cedric Griffin, were popped for drug suspensions. Another, Brandon Meriweather, has been hurt for all but one game.
When the Redskins found out they would lose $18 million a year in free-agent funds in 2012 and 2013 because NFL owners charged salary-cap manipulation by the front office, Haslett’s defense bore the brunt of the sanctions. The remaining money last offseason went to wide receivers Pierre Garcon and Josh Morgan, the leftovers went to a defense that had been significantly upgraded the year before with Stephen Bowen, Barry Cofield and the drafting of linebacker Ryan Kerrigan.
Linebacker Brian Orakpo and lineman Adam Carriker also were lost to injury. Kerrigan is a nice, create-havoc player who had one of his best games of the season Sunday. But without Orakpo, he doesn’t have the green light off the edge of the offensive line that he used to. Truth is, the Redskins really don’t have a bull-rushing presence without Orakpo.
As a result, the defensive front doesn’t get the pressure on the quarterback it once did. And then it becomes a domino effect, with the secondary out there by its lonesome, ready to be picked apart.
On top of that, Haslett had never coached a 3-4 defense before 2010. He had it forced on him because Coach Mike Shanahan was convinced that was the future of the NFL. But he didn’t give his defensive coordinator 3-4 personnel. Haslett still had to coach it.
His most important player the past three years, London Fletcher, now leaves games and practices in a walking boot, which Hall was also wearing last week. They are a cut-and-paste, Band-Aid group — “ Battlers,” Fletcher said, “we’re all battlers right now” — that somehow has managed to stay together and help this team win amid so many holes and yards given up.
The idea that Haslett ever should have been the primary scapegoat for the Redskins’ woes earlier this season was always misguided. He and that defense deserved blame, but not the amount of criticism they received. And irrespective of the yards and points still surrendered, they now deserve praise.
“I know the way he thinks about us,” Golston said of Haslett. “He believes we’re a very special group. He thinks we should shut down teams every week and can’t believe we’re given up the yards we do. But it speaks to his character and the character of that group that we keep finding a way to get those stops we need to.”
The NFL is all about making adjustments at this point in the season. Haslett has made them. His maligned and banged-up defense has made them.
The season goes on because of the defensive coordinator and his unit’s ability to get an offense off the field — not in spite of them.
For previous columns by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.
More on the Redskins:
Graphic: Diagram of the knee
Video: Watch the RGIII injury
Photos: The hit that injured Griffin
Hamilton: Redskins’ youth movement never gets old
Boswell: Redskins show a team effort