Jim Haslett hasn’t suited up for a football game in 26 years, but at his core, he remains a grizzled linebacker.
During an eight-year playing career, he endured hundreds of collisions and experienced nearly every high and low the NFL has to offer: from rookie of the year honors and playoff appearances, to injuries and seasons with double-digit losses.
Another 20 seasons as an NFL coach have further weathered Haslett. In his tenure, he has worn many hats: head coach, defensive coordinator, defensive line coach, linebackers coach, special teams coordinator.
Haslett maintains a steely gaze and resolve in the face of adversity — even as a once-promising Washington Redskins defensive unit has gotten off to a historically bad start. The poor play has some fans and sports talk radio hosts calling for his job.
Haslett soldiers on with an even-keeled approach in meetings with his assistants and players and on the practice field, those close to him say.
“I’m always the same through the good times and the bad times,” Haslett said. “But I believe the way our guys are working, and we went through this last year, that we’ll find a way out of it. . . . I’ll stay the same through the whole thing.”
When he accepted the reclamation project that was the Redskins in 2010, Coach Mike Shanahan tabbed Haslett as his defensive coordinator because of his extensive résumé, which included stints with the Pittsburgh Steelers, whose 3-4 defenses Shanahan had admired from afar for years.
The last four years have resembled a roller coaster for Haslett. Without the proper players in place in 2010, the Redskins’ defense ranked among the worst in the NFL. The following season, the unit’s ranking jumped from 31st to 13th. But the progress didn’t continue last season — at least not initially.
Woeful performances in the first half of the season had the unit on pace to shatter the record for most yards allowed in a season. The performances improved, however, and it helped Washington go on a seven-game win streak that earned the franchise its first NFC East title in 13 years.
Three games into this season, Haslett has come under fire once again. The healthy returns of two-time Pro Bowl players Brian Orakpo and Brandon Meriweather hasn’t provided the anticipated boost.
Instead, the unit had no answer for the Philadelphia Eagles, who ran 53 plays and racked up 322 yards, 26 points and 21 first downs in the first half of the opener game. The following week at Green Bay, Aaron Rodgers and James Starks became the first Packers quarterback and running back in franchise history to throw for 400 yards and rush for 100 yards on the same day.
Last weekend, the Redskins gave up another 441 yards to the Detroit Lions. After playing better for much of the game, the unit collapsed late, allowing quarterback Matthew Stafford to direct a nine-play, 71-yard scoring drive to clinch the win.
Through three games, the Redskins’ defense has surrendered 1,464 yards. That’s more than any team has surrendered through the first three games of the season since the NFL and the American Football League merged in 1970.
Haslett has said the blame should be pinned on him for failing to better position his players for success. But his players said the problems lie with execution, not scheme.
“If one person makes one mistake [each] in a game, you’ve got 11 mistakes, and that will get you beat,” defensive end Kedric Golston said.
This season, Haslett has moved from the sideline to the coaches’ booth so he can get a better view of the field. The coach and his players said that as a result, he has been able to recognize problems and make adjustments more quickly.
Against the Eagles, Haslett used a defensive alignment featuring five defensive backs, six linebackers and no defensive linemen as he tried to put as many pass rushers on the field as possible to account for the Eagles’ speed.
He also put cornerback E.J. Bigger at safety, hoping to use his speed (a 40-yard dash time of 4.31 seconds) to keep up with Philadelphia’s track-star caliber receivers.
In the Green Bay game, Haslett went to a defensive front that often featured two linemen and four linebackers while using five defensive backs. But the Packers still managed to spread out the Redskins and pass and run seemingly at will.
Last week, Haslett went with his base alignment of three defensive linemen and four linebackers so Washington had more muscle up front and more men closer to the line of scrimmage to stop the run. Then he used three cornerbacks and only one safety (playing deep center field) to account for Detroit’s three- and four-receiver formations.
“When things aren’t working, you have to adjust and I think that’s what makes a great coach or a great defense: Teams that can react and dig your way out of a hole,” Redskins nose tackle Barry Cofield said. “I think Haz is bringing a lot of energy. He’s bringing different plans each week that he believes in, that we work hard on, and I think it’s going to take one game to snap out of it.”
The Redskins had their best showing against the run last week, limiting Detroit to 63 yards after allowing an average of 201 yards in the first two games.
Limiting big plays remains a struggle, however. In three games, Washington has surrendered 17 plays of 25 yards or more. After allowing seven against Philadelphia, the number dropped to six against Green Bay and decreased again to four against Detroit.
Small victories, Haslett said. But still not what he wants.
“It’s frustrating for him, but Haz has been in this game a long time — over 20-something years. If you’re around it long enough, you know that things like this can happen,” defensive captain London Fletcher said. “You have your little few games where you don’t play where you feel like you’re capable of playing and you have to stick with what you believe in but get guys to play better. That’s what’s happened. Whatever he calls, we have to play it, and play it a lot better than what we have the previous three ball games and everybody be on top of their games and be accountable for whatever their responsibility is.”
Fellow linebacker Nick Barnett said the players haven’t lost faith in the defensive coordinator or his schemes. “There hasn’t been a pointed finger,” Barnett said. “Not a ‘It’s the DBs’ or ‘Oh, it’s the line.’ And I haven’t heard of anybody saying, ‘Coordinator. We need a new coordinator.’ That hasn’t happened here.”
The respect stems from Haslett’s résumé and leadership style.
“If we had any old Joe Blow out there giving us different messages, you might start having some backlash,” Orakpo said. “But with Haz, we believe in him, what he brings to the table. He’s played, been in the wars, coached a long time. We believe in his defense and know what we’re capable of.”
Asked following his film review of the Detroit game if he had confidence in Haslett’s ability to get the defense back on track, Shanahan, without hesitation, said: “Yes. I thought we played much better against Detroit than we did in the first two games.”
Haslett and his players say they are confident they can build on their effort against Detroit and finally turn in a complete game against Oakland on Sunday.
Haslett’s message is, “‘Keep fighting. Keep playing with confidence and we’re going to get this thing turned around,’ ” Orakpo said. “We’re not in panic mode at all because we know we’re going to get this thing turned around. We just have to keep that same mind-set.”