In July, The Insider is reaching out to those who cover 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 NFC East game is Sept. 21 in Philadelphia. Surprisingly, that’s not a prime-time matchup, but the Week 3 game will be Washington’s first against a playoff team from last season. Sheil Kapadia, who covers the Eagles for Philadelphia Magazine’s Birds 24/7 blog, joins us to provide perspective from the other sideline.
Keith: I know the first question in an Eagles-Redskins Q&A should concern DeSean Jackson, or one of the star quarterbacks, but I want to go off script here. Earlier this week, tackle Lane Johnson was reportedly suspended for four games because of a positive PED test. If that’s indeed true, he’d miss the first Washington-Philadelphia matchup. Because Chip Kelly seemed to reimagine NFL offense last season, placing old-school importance on the offensive line and running game in a new-school spread package, how big a deal would it be to lose Johnson, a first-round pick heading into his second season?
Sheil: It’s funny. Your readers probably can’t get enough of DeSean coverage, and my readers seem to cringe every time we mention the guy’s name.
Anyway, the reported Johnson news is definitely a blow. As a rookie, he got off to a slow start, specifically in pass protection. But he showed a lot of improvement in the second half of the season, and his elite athleticism was on display in the run game all season long. A couple weeks ago, I was predicting that he would have a breakout season. And that still could be the case, but he likely won’t get on the field until October.
His replacement will most likely be veteran Allen Barbre, who played well in spot duty last season. I don’t think he’ll be as good as Johnson, but he shouldn’t kill the Eagles either. If the offensive line loses a second starter before Johnson returns, they are in serious trouble. Beyond Barbre, they have very little depth on the roster, and it’s worth noting that the Week 1 line will likely have four players 30 years or older.
Keith: That ‘four players 30 or older’ phrase has been used on Washington’s defensive line, in reference to Jason Hatcher, Barry Cofield, Stephen Bowen and Kedric Golston, so that might not be an unfair fight. Is it unfair, however, to cast one particular Eagle in the role of “replacement for DeSean Jackson?” How does Chip Kelly plan to keep the offense humming after letting an elite playmaker skip town?
Sheil: That’s the million-dollar question. I was pretty clear all offseason in my stance that releasing Jackson for nothing in return was a mistake. Riley Cooper had a nice year in 2013, but he absolutely benefited from Jackson drawing safety attention on the other side. Jeremy Maclin is returning from an ACL injury, and while he’s been a productive player, he’s never put stress on defenses the way Jackson does.
The Eagles will still be a run-first spread offense that relies on the guys up front and LeSean McCoy to do the heavy lifting. And they still have some other decent options in the passing game — Darren Sproles, second-year tight end Zach Ertz, etc. But last year, they led the league in pass plays of 20+ yards. It will be a pretty amazing feat if they can do that again without Jackson.
On that note, were there any hints in the spring about how Jay Gruden plans to use Jackson? One myth here was that Jackson was a one-trick pony who only ran go routes. Kelly used him in a variety of ways (out of the backfield, in the slot) and he had a career year. I wonder if Gruden plans on utilizing him in a similar way?
Keith: I wasn’t out there every practice like the beat reporters, but it looks to me like if Gruden can dream it up, Jackson will be running it. Handoffs and screens might supplement Jackson’s normal dose of deep routes, but they’ll also get the ball to him quick off the line and let him work. At the practice I watched, Jackson ran a quick crossing route, making the catch where the linebackers would be during a game. So I don’t think anything’s off the board for him, but that also might have been because they’re in an experimentation phase in the summer.
A more thorough answer to that question considers how all the pieces fit together. Pierre Garcon isn’t 6-4, but at 212 pounds, he plays big. He might be the best bet for screens and short or intermediate routes where breaking tackles is required. Tight end Jordan Reed is probably going to be the primary target in the middle of the field on third downs, and in the red zone. Andre Roberts, at 5-11, 195, seems to fit best in the slot. So maybe Jackson will be relegated to a role of outside receiver, deep threat or decoy at times, but if so, it might be because everything else on the Washington offense is working.
Robert Griffin III has all those playmakers to work with, a bolstered offensive line, and is another year removed from knee ligament surgery. The team now goes as he goes, which is probably similar to the situation Nick Foles was in once he took over as starter for the Eagles. He had weapons to work with, and he excelled at getting the ball in his playmakers’ hands. Given that Foles will want to replicate that success, how come we haven’t heard him complain about losing Jackson?
Sheil: Foles is a coach’s dream. Kelly never has to worry about him stirring the pot or saying the wrong thing. I asked Foles point blank whether Jackson affected coverages last year and opened things up for the other Eagles’ weapons. He admitted that was a factor. But he went on to back his coach’s decision and emphasize that the offense has other weapons who can step up.
There is also a belief among the Eagles’ offensive players that Kelly will figure it out. McCoy has referred to him as a “genius” on several occasions. That’s obviously over the top, but given how the offense performed last season, it’s easy to see how Kelly built up that good will among his players. And that includes the QB.
By all accounts, the Foles-Kelly connection is strong. I’m guessing you guys are covering the Gruden-RG3 relationship with the same importance as a presidential election?
Keith: Absolutely. I’m not sure we could go wrong if we assigned a reporter to cover just that. People would read about the coach and quarterback in this city no matter who it is, but I don’t think it’ll be quite the story it was last season. A big reason Bruce Allen chose Gruden is because of the comfort level he had with him and the other coaches retained, including Jim Haslett and Raheem Morris. But another major part of it was that Gruden was a quarterback himself and can relate to Griffin. Their careers are so intertwined now. Gruden is a first-time head coach hired to help Griffin shine again. In two seasons, Griffin has both captivated the NFL and looked like a future MVP, as well as stirred whispers that he’s a me-first coach-killer. Everything each guy accomplishes going forward will have some direct relation to the other, and it not only behooves them to get along, I don’t think they’ll have to force it. Gruden struck the right tone when hired – he’s not here to be an authoriatarian so much as he’s here to get the best out of his quarterback. (Yet that classic Hard Knocks clip is a reminder he’s no pushover).
With the skill-position talent in place now, barring injuries or some other unforeseen mishaps, there’s no reason Washington’s offense can’t be very good. Even with Jackson here, the same is true in Philadelphia, which points a spotlight toward the defense and special teams. The jury is certainly out on whether Washington has done enough to accentuate those units, but what’s your take on whether there’s more to this Eagles team than just Kelly’s offense?
Sheil: The Eagles’ identity as long as Kelly is the head coach will be the offense. There’s no doubt in my mind about that. But last year they had a record-setting offense and still needed a Week 17 win to secure a playoff berth, before exiting in the first round against the Saints.
I guess that’s a roundabout way of saying there needs to be more to this team than just Kelly’s offense, or the Eagles will have a hard time getting to the next level. The key word on defense this offseason has been continuity. The Eagles figure to return 10 of 11 starters from a unit that finished 23rd, according to Football Outsiders’ ratings. But there certainly was a lot of change last year, going from a 4-3 Wide-9 to a two-gap 3-4. I’m not sure there are two more opposite fronts in football.
The Eagles were stout against the run for the most part, but the pass defense was seriously lacking. Safety play has been an issue since Brian Dawkins left, and the Eagles’ biggest free agent acquisition was Malcolm Jenkins. The team likes his versatility, but he’ll have to prove he can provide a real upgrade. First-round pick (OLB) Marcus Smith figures to be a rotational player in Year 1.
In other words, there are plenty of question marks with this unit. To be fair, the defense played a lot better in the second half of the season, but for the Eagles to build on what they did last year, they’ll need more from that side of the ball.
Anyway, it’s nice to be talking actual football again. Training camp will be here before we know it. Talk to you around Week 3, Keith.
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