The play before, McLaurin cut back on his route, and Haskins ended up throwing deep down the left sideline to no one. On the field, Haskins shot out his left arm toward McLaurin, apparently telling the receiver he should’ve kept going. They were less arguing, more deciphering what went wrong. This was the chance to apply what they had spent so much time discussing.
“We kind of tag-team [figuring out plays],” McLaurin said. “It really helps.”
For the Redskins’ rookies, comprehending and executing the playbook is crucial. It’s the baseline expectation, and coaches have drilled into all players that there are fewer days, and fewer practice reps, remaining until Washington kicks off the regular season at Philadelphia on Sept. 8. Talent means nothing if it’s flying in the wrong direction, missing blocks or derailing the vision of Coach Jay Gruden in some other way.
How players best digest information can often be traced back to how they learned in school. Some scribble in notebooks, such as offensive tackle Donald Penn and McLaurin, who calls himself "a really active learner.” Others prefer video on an iPad, such as offensive lineman Ereck Flowers and rookie wide receiver Kelvin Harmon. A few applied learners, such as wide receiver Steven Sims and guard Wes Martin, can’t execute until they’ve walked through the play on the practice field. It’s stressful.
“You’re coming in, you don’t know the system, and you got to play,” Sims explained. “You’re going to get tired, and everything else plays an effect. … You got to pick [the playbook] up right now just so you can compete.”
Often, players and coaches describe Gruden’s offense as complicated. The concepts hue close to a West Coast, pro-style scheme, but what first-year players find tricky is not the plays themselves. It’s the volume of them.
Skill players from spread offenses in college only needed to memorize a numbered route tree. Now, their team runs several formations, and some plays can be called out of multiple formations. Sometimes, parts of a play, such as the receivers’ routes or the linemen’s blocking assignments, automatically change depending on the defense’s coverage or movement before the snap. The Redskins call those preplanned adjustments “conversions.”
For example, if the play calls for a certain receiver to run a hitch, but he faces press coverage, the route might convert to something else.
Coaches expect players to be versed in the three components of each play — concept, formation, protection — and calls come into the huddle sounding like a football equation. Craig Reynolds, an undrafted rookie running back out of Kutztown, impersonated a quarterback in the huddle, spitting out a play-call: “This this that this this!”
“It’s the defense’s fault the offense is complex,” grinned wide receiver Jehu Chesson, who learned the offense last year with flash cards. “They have to disguise [coverages] and come up with all these exotic blitzes and stunts to try and get to the quarterback. If they stayed vanilla, though, we’d be vanilla, too.”
To illustrate the complexity, consider one simple play from one position. Now, you’re the No. 2 wide receiver, and the coach just called a bubble screen.
You’re not the first read, so your job is to block. Normally, you’d probably hit the cornerback covering the wide receiver, but on this play, your blocking assignment is what the Redskins call “MDM,” or “Most Dangerous Man.” This means, at the snap, you must evaluate the cornerback and identify the backside defender who, if the defense is in zone coverage, might already be sprinting to the flat. You need to determine which of those two defenders has a better chance to blow up the play, and block him — but not too soon. Some teams throw bubble passes laterally, but the Redskins throw them forward, which means no receiver can block a defender until the catch is made.
“There’s a lot more blocking assignments [for wide receivers in the NFL],” said Harmon, who ran the spread at N.C. State. “It’s a lot more concepts.”
The offense has tripped up even one of the team’s most experienced players. Last season, Penn played for Gruden’s brother, Jon, in Oakland and, when the Redskins signed Penn last week, Jay joked it would take him “30 minutes” to pick up the system. Jay’s offense is “very similar” to Jon’s, Penn said, and he pointed out that both schemes still contain elements they had back in the 2000s, when they were all with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Penn called himself “old school” and “a big note-taker.” He has three or four pages marked up with new verbiage. In his 13th season, Penn understands almost all of the ideas; the trouble is what to call them.
“I’m picking up the lingo pretty fast; I’m surprised,” Penn said Sunday. “There was a cadence I messed up on twice [today], but I got it down.”
Players who don’t get many plays during practice compensate with what they call “mental reps.” Offensive lineman Jerald Foster and Sims, both undrafted free agents, stand next to teammates on the sideline and listen. When the call goes into the huddle, they test each other on what should happen next.
First-year players laughed at the concept of “off days” during camp. “Maybe they are for the old guys,” Martin said. Younger players spend hours reviewing their video and playbook, where every wrinkle seems to have another wrinkle.
Every player who was asked how well he thought he was doing with the playbook hedged. A typical response: Pretty good, but there’s always room to improve. That’s why the process of learning the offense reminded Chesson of something he heard while at Michigan.
The Wolverines’ coach, Jim Harbaugh, had a confidant around the building, a former Marine named Jim Minick, whom everyone called “The Colonel.” Once, to prove a point, Harbaugh asked Minick how long it took to train a battalion. Chesson remembered The Colonel’s response: “If you have two days, it takes two days. If you have two years, it takes two years.”
“That’s the kind of thing with offenses,” Chesson said. “You’ll actually never get it, right? Every time you learn something, there’s [another layer].”
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