By Jason La Canfora
Saturday, February 28, 2009
For a good five years, Jim Washburn tried to buck Albert Haynesworth. The Tennessee Titans' defensive line coach wanted to mold the fiery defensive tackle into a prototypical lineman, harping on technique and footwork, clashing repeatedly with his most gifted pupil.
Finally, a couple of years ago, he relented. Haynesworth was a special case, as angry and recalcitrant at times as he was talented, and Washburn, 59, was ready to make an exception for him. He granted the 6-foot-6, 320-pound lineman rare privileges to rush the passer with relative abandon, eschew much traditional technique and search for ways to best maximize his unique skills.
"I realized I had to cut my losses," Washburn said by telephone from his office yesterday, hours after the Washington Redskins signed Haynesworth to the richest contract ever for a defensive player in the NFL. "I stopped trying to make him a technique player. After a while, I adapted to him and what he does and stopped trying to fight to make him a conventional tackle. He's a non-traditional player, and I think the coaches there will find that out.
"It wasn't without a lot of turmoil that we got to that point, but I decided I wasn't going to put a plow on a racehorse. I wasn't going to saddle him with that anymore. You might hear some people say I let him freelance, but I let him play and tried to do what was best to help us win games. I'm not really into paralysis by analysis."
Perhaps Redskins defensive coordinator Greg Blache, a taskmaster and a disciple of rigid technique, would be wise to accept this reality from the onset. Haynesworth, 27, is unlikely to be any less headstrong after agreeing to a seven-year deal worth a maximum of $115 million, with a record $41 million guaranteed and $32 million to be paid out over just 13 months. And after the production Washburn helped cull from this athlete -- altering the scope and alignment of his entire line to suit Haynesworth's abilities -- it would make little sense to try to force him into such confines now.
"I want to be able to attack my gap, make plays and everybody make plays off of me," said Haynesworth, who regularly beats double-teams. "I want to do almost the same thing I did in Tennessee."
Blache, whose team ranked 28th in sacks and had the third-fewest takeaways in the NFL last season, appears willing to oblige. "When you add a talent to this degree, you adjust things to fit him," he said. "We realize that we've got something that we haven't had before."
A year ago, on a smaller scale, the Redskins traded a second-round pick for defensive end Jason Taylor, a player accustomed to being allowed to sacrifice run responsibilities in a 3-4 front to attack the passer. He flopped in Blache's disciplined system, expressing frustration about his role when the season concluded. With Haynesworth -- a player accustomed to angry outbursts -- the fuse stands to be much shorter, and the stakes far higher.
Blache's tackles generally bear immense run responsibilities -- his scheme is based on simplicity and stopping the run above all else -- and primarily are utilized to absorb blockers to create room for linebackers to make plays. Haynesworth is used to firing off the line on instinct, relying on his size, strength and "God-given gifts," as Washburn put it, to surge through offensive linemen and make plays.
"If you try to rigid him down and say you have to play this stance, he'll tell them to [kiss off]," one NFL coach familiar with Haynesworth said. "The one thing Albert is really special at is rushing the passer from the inside, and he plays the run on the way to the pass. If you try to screw him down with run technique and stopping the run first, which is how they play, then that's really a disservice to his abilities."
Washburn can attest to that. The Titans knew they were getting a potential problem child when they drafted Haynesworth 15th overall in 2002 out of Tennessee. He had encountered his fair share of trouble through his school years and had "fallen out of favor" with his high school coach in his senior year, Washburn said. But his unparalleled collection of frame and potential was too compelling to pass up, and the Titans hoped Washburn could work him into shape.
"It was very painful coaching Albert for a long time," Washburn said, prefacing his phone interview with the caveat that he would not be taking time out of his day to talk if not for his affection for his former player. "But he matured after a while. I tried to dangle the carrot in front of him sometimes, and he came to see the money some guys were making, and what they were accomplishing, going to the Pro Bowl and things like that, and I think he wanted to achieve that, too."
Besides relaxing Haynesworth's technical burdens, Washburn created other avenues to help the tackle flourish. He used him as a defensive end on many passing downs, and would draw significant attention from tight ends and chips from running backs when doing so.
"One-on-one, you don't see anyone blocking him," said Redskins defensive tackle Cornelius Griffin, now slated to start alongside Haynesworth.
"His speed rushing off the edge is tremendous," one NFL personnel executive said, "and he can play right [tackle], he can play left [tackle] and he can play both end positions."
Washburn, who has developed seven top-notch linemen this decade and calls Haynesworth the brightest player he has coached, based much of his game plan on generating advantageous matchups. Washburn would identify the weakest offensive lineman and try to get Haynesworth as many snaps as possible in his face, regardless of whether it was a center, guard or tackle. In 2007, he also switched his best pass-rushing end, Pro Bowler Kyle Vanden Bosch, to the right side to play next to Haynesworth, using one or the other as a decoy and establishing one of the best tandems in the NFL.
"They ate lunch together every day, they sat together at every meeting," Washburn said. "It was a rare combination, and Kyle held Albert accountable."
In Washington, the task is quite different. The team believes that Haynesworth's presence will defy the age and limitations of their starting ends, Taylor and Andre Carter, both of whom are coming off of poor seasons. They are betting that Haynesworth's attitude, fitness and health issues -- he has averaged just 12 starts per season since becoming a full-time starter in 2003, and has never played more than 65 percent of his team's snaps -- are behind him. Instead, they are expecting him to repeat the monster, 8 1/2 -sack season he had in 2008 (one less than Haynesworth had in his first five seasons combined).
With just four picks in April's draft, the Redskins are wagering that a Haynesworth-led defense will put points on the scoreboard and dominate field position, as their 19th-ranked offense, unable to run the ball or pass protect in the second half of the season, awaits reinforcements, particularly on the line, with what little salary cap space remains.