In July, The Insider is reaching out to those who cover the the 13 teams on Washington’s regular-season schedule, to peek behind the curtain and see how what they observe from up close differs from what we observe from afar.
The Redskins’ first home game is Sept. 14 against Jacksonville. Ryan O’Halloran, a former Redskins beat reporter who covers the Jaguars for the Florida Times-Union, joins us to provide perspective from the other sideline.
Keith: For those of us in NFC country, the Jaguars are one of the easier teams to lose track of, probably because they haven’t been in playoff contention of late, and because they don’t have superstars. But Coach Gus Bradley was impressive as Seattle’s defensive coordinator, and nearly ended up in the NFC East with the Eagles before they hired Chip Kelly and Jacksonville hired Bradley. Record aside, what’s your impression of the job he did last season and the building that’s taken place under him so far?
Ryan: That Bradley got four wins out of the Jaguars roster last year is a minor miracle – the Jaguars were by far the least-talented team in the NFL. The players didn’t quit on Bradley when they could have easily packed it in after the 0-8 start (each loss by at least 10 points) and the organization hopes some of that late-season momentum, combined with additions in free agency and the draft, produces a more competitive product this year.
A year-plus since he was hired, Bradley has put his stamp on the team. What has Jay Gruden accomplished so far in the wake of the Mike Shanahan Error?
Keith: Ha, I see what you did there. It’s tough, of course, to accomplish a whole lot before playing a game, but Gruden’s persona is wholly refreshing after the way last season ended under Mike Shahanan. That alone has made a difference. He’s talked about letting his assistants have freedom to run their units the way they see fit. He lined up in pretend press-man coverage against DeSean Jackson in one practice. He bought pizza for reporters the day he was hired. I don’t know if it’s overstating it to say he’s brought the fun back into the Redskins’ building, because I think he’s serious about winning, but he’s taken full advantage of the opportunity to hit reset. Coming off a 3-13 season helps change the mood too – 7-9 is a four-win improvement and a step forward, rather than a disappointment. But Gruden’s greatest accomplishment so far has been getting everyone to buy into the idea that this could quickly be a dangerous team again. His biggest accomplishment going forward would be getting the best out of Robert Griffin III. What’s Jacksonville’s plan to get the most out of Blake Bortles, and how soon do you think the rookie quarterback will make an impact?
Ryan: The Jaguars pulled the draft’s first surprise in early May when they picked Bortles third overall instead of a) trading down, b) trading up into the latter part of the first round to take Teddy Bridgewater, c) waiting until the 39th pick for Jimmy Garoppolo or d) waiting for Jameis Winston to enter the 2015 draft. It would be a stunner if Bortles plays against the Redskins in Week 2. Veteran Chad Henne is the no-doubt starter, and the only reason he won’t be the guy is because of injury. I’ve predicted Week 8 against Miami as the debut for Bortles, with a second guess being Week 12 at Indianapolis; the Jaguars have a Week 11 bye. If the Jaguars are something like 3-7 or 4-8, and Bortles doesn’t see the field to wrap up the season, there’s a problem. Whenever Bortles does play, the Jaguars will have rookie receivers Marqise Lee and Allen Robinson, both second-round picks, as two of his targets. The Jaguars used the draft to address receiver, but the Redskins of course used free agency with DeSean Jackson. Obviously, Dan The Man couldn’t help himself to steal a player from a division rival. But are there enough footballs around for Jackson, Pierre Garcon, etc., to get their touches?
Keith: In short, no. But that’s a better problem to have than the opposite, and it’ll only be a major issue if they aren’t winning. Alfred Morris had 276 of the team’s 455 carries last season, and I can’t see that changing a whole lot. Maybe RGIII will have fewer than 86 carries, but they’ve gone to great lengths to add a third back, and Roy Helu Jr. (or Lache Seastrunk, or Chris Thompson) might end up with more than 62. The Redskins completed 355 passes last season, and if you take Garcon’s 113 catches, Jackson’s 82 from Philly, Jordan Reed’s 45 in nine games (he was on pace for 80) and Andre Roberts’s 43 from Arizona, you’re almost there without another player catching a pass. Realistically, some guys’ numbers are going to take a hit, but their touchdowns or per-catch averages may rise. Morris seems like the best bet to get consistent touches, and Reed the most likely to get more than last year. Roberts won’t get what he was expecting when he signed before Jackson became available and thought he’d be the No. 2, but he’ll be the primary kick returner. If Garcon or Jackson have games where they get shut down, it likely means the defense devoted a lot of attention to one and the other got open a lot, so I think they’ll complement one another.
While we’re talking receivers, I’m a Division III fanatic (long story), and both Garcon and the Jaguars’ Cecil Shorts III hail from Mount Union, yet have carved out respectable NFL careers. Was the drafting of Lee and Robinson meant to push Shorts out of a job, a reaction to the loss of Justin Blackmon, an attempt to stock the offense with playmakers or something I haven’t suggested?
Ryan: The Mount Union dynamic will be a cool story that week. The drafting of Lee and Robinson was more about the Jaguars realizing they won’t have Blackmon at all in 2014 and might not have him in 2015. I opined during the draft that the team had closed the door on Blackmon regardless of when he is reinstated by the NFL. I still think that’s the case. Shorts is a free agent after the season and the Jaguars would like to re-sign him but at a term, and price that accounts for the fact he has been unable to finish the last two years because of injuries. What Lee and Robinson represent are more playmakers at the position (which the Jaguars desperately need) and flexibility to move all of their receivers around the line of scrimmage.
Keith: I realize I haven’t asked about the Jags’ defense yet, but for a while the most recognizable Jacksonville player has been Maurice Jones-Drew. Are they going to get by fine with him in Oakland now?
Ryan: The Jaguars will be fine without Jones-Drew. He followed up his 2011 rushing title by holding out of training camp in 2012 and then missing most of the year with a broken foot. Last year, he proved he’s not an every-day, carry-the-offense back and the Jaguars didn’t offer him a new contract before he hit the market and signed with Oakland. In Jones-Drew’s place will be Toby Gerhart, followed by, among others, Denard Robinson. Gerhart projects as a guy who will get 12-15 carries a game and did great third-down work in Minnesota as Adrian Peterson’s backup. The Jaguars should run the football better this year … if they’re able to stay in games long enough to stay balanced.
Keith: Perfect segue to the final question then. Washington’s defense wasn’t very good early last season but played better as the season went on. From what I can tell, the Jaguars were much the same. Does that momentum carry into this season? Will Bradley having a couple of his former Seattle players on the D-line make a difference? Can the defense become a strong suit while the youth on offense meshes? (I guess that’s three final questions, huh?)
Ryan: Because of the number of personnel changes (and upgrades), a sliver of the momentum could carry over in the form of younger players who got experience winning late last year and now know they can do it in the NFL. The additions of defensive tackle Red Bryant and pass rusher Chris Clemons — both of whom played for Bradley in Seattle — should be a boon to the defense. Bryant/Clemons were salary cap cuts, not performance-related cuts, by the Seahawks, so they can still stop the run (Bryant) and get to the quarterback (Clemons) better than anybody the Jaguars have had recently. The Jaguars are hoping their re-tooled defense can be their strength while the offensive line (three new starters) and receivers (Lee/Robinson) gets settled early in the year.
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