But Haskins is a rookie who started just 14 games at Ohio State. Washington’s coaches have deemed him not ready to play, all but voicing a preference for him to sit a full season so he can learn the intricacies of the game’s most important position. Yet this is an age in which first-round quarterbacks often start right away. This makes him the center of an increasingly contentious public debate about whether he should be playing and what is best for his future.
Complicating matters is the lingering question, dating back to draft day, of whether Redskins Coach Jay Gruden viewed Haskins as the right choice for the team. Before Haskins was selected, ESPN reported that Washington’s coaching staff preferred a more experienced college player — such as Duke’s Daniel Jones, who was selected sixth by the New York Giants — only to be overruled by owner Daniel Snyder.
A person with knowledge of Gruden’s thinking confirmed that the head coach did not want Haskins. And while Haskins has publicly downplayed any suggestion that he wasn’t Gruden’s choice, a person close to the rookie quarterback said that Haskins has sensed that to be the case.
Still, they move forward — with Gruden and his staff teaching Haskins everything they know and Haskins coming to each quarterback meeting prepared, asking all the right questions — treading carefully through a season that has thudded to an 0-4 start.
“I’ve got to do what’s best for him,” Gruden said last week, although unspoken was the fact that Gruden, whose job is at risk during his sixth season as the team’s head coach, also has a pressing need to win games to save his job — something that doesn’t fit neatly with developing a rookie quarterback who hasn’t shown he’s ready to play.
Those two dynamics came crashing together Sunday when Haskins was thrust into his first game, replacing starter Case Keenum against the Giants. Gruden thought the move might bring a “spark” to his faltering team, with Keenum nursing a sore foot and missing key throws. Instead, Haskins looked lost and was intercepted three times in a 24-3 loss.
This week, Haskins, Keenum and Colt McCoy were part of a three-man competition to start against the New England Patriots and one of Haskins’s childhood heroes, Tom Brady. It’s the kind of midseason quarterback battle NFL teams rarely have, and though McCoy was finally chosen to be the starter Friday, Haskins is not certain to be designated the No. 2 and might not even dress.
Depending on whom you ask, none of these results will be desirable. A public debate rages on radio and television: Should Haskins be playing now?
“No matter what we do with him, we’re going to be wrong,” Gruden said Wednesday, seemingly acknowledging the criticism he has taken in recent days, “so it really doesn’t matter.”
Gruden never seemed to want a big project at quarterback this year. He had kept his job at the end of last season partly because of the way he kept the team together despite a series of calamities, including quarterback Alex Smith’s career-threatening broken leg and McCoy’s broken leg two games later. At the time Smith went down, the Redskins were 6-3 and led the NFC East.
It wasn’t a leap for Gruden to think, this spring, that a suitable veteran replacement for Smith could take Washington to the playoffs — something that would be much harder to do with a rookie who started only one season in college. He probably was never more publicly candid about this than a month before the draft, when during a breakfast at the league’s annual meeting, he said: “Anytime you start a quarterback, you are expected to win. There is no developmental process here. This is not Triple-A baseball. We’re [not] trying to develop a pitcher here. We’re trying to win a game right now.”
Despite the fact that Haskins wasn’t Gruden’s first choice, the Redskins’ coaches were excited about their rookie quarterback. They acknowledged that he was significantly behind veterans McCoy and Keenum in training camp, often working with the third and fourth teams, but expressed optimism that he would eventually come along.
“He’s got a really bright future,” offensive coordinator Kevin O’Connell said not long before the start of the season.
Still, the coaches were quick to say that they were essentially teaching Haskins how to play quarterback in the NFL, a process made even more challenging because of Haskins’s inexperience. Had McCoy not suffered a setback to his leg injury, he probably would have been the team’s starter and Keenum its backup, making Gruden’s decision on Haskins simple: He would be the team’s third quarterback. Instead, McCoy was out for the next eight weeks, making Keenum the starter and forcing Haskins into backup duty.
“When it comes to executing in [an NFL] game, there is so much for a quarterback to learn,” says former Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann, who was around during training camp and speaks to the team’s coaches. “Knowing to keep an eye on the 25-second [play] clock. Knowing down and distance. Knowing what’s going on on the other side of the field with the opposing team’s defense. … There’s a lot of things you have to think about more than just throwing the football. … Someone who’s done it for several years in college is going to have more experience at that.”
The problem is that to get more experience, you have to play — and this is where the public debate about Haskins gets most intense.
Some, such as former Redskins safety and current ESPN analyst Matt Bowen, think Haskins should play this season.
“I’ve always said, ‘It’s hard to learn from someone else’s game film,’ ” Bowen said, while acknowledging Gruden’s dilemma that might require him to start McCoy or Keenum for the next few weeks. “The film [Haskins] needs to watch is where he does self-scrutiny.”
But others, such as fellow ESPN analyst and former Redskins front-office executive Louis Riddick, are irate that Gruden put Haskins into the game against New York without giving him time to properly prepare in practices.
“Do you think Dwayne Haskins feels totally supported in this process?” Riddick said Monday night. “These are the kinds of things I talk about all the time: setting people up for success. That young man right now is being set up for failure. Dan Snyder needs to recognize that.”
Snyder stormed out of New Jersey’s MetLife Stadium following the Redskins’ loss to the Giants and has not given a public indication about how Haskins is being used, though one person with knowledge of the situation said after the draft that Snyder was willing to let the coaches be patient with Haskins, realizing that he needed time to grow.
Haskins himself has said little about the situation he is in. When asked whether he felt properly prepared to play against the Giants, he diplomatically replied: “You just got to make the most of every opportunity. … This is my first year in the NFL, and I have plenty more to go, and it’s just one steppingstone.”
He ducked questions about the current situation, which most acknowledge is less than ideal for everyone, especially a young quarterback trying to learn the NFL.
“You don’t want musical chairs at quarterback,” Bowen said, adding that a quarterback can’t be allowed “to lose confidence” being yanked between playing and sitting.
Gruden doesn’t seem to want the current situation, either, but appears stuck with it because of a combination of Keenum’s foot soreness, McCoy’s slow recovery and Haskins’s inexperience. He says “stability” would probably help, yet there is little stability on a team that was missing five offensive starters last week and has 10 players on injured reserve.
“It’s not the end of the world if [Haskins] doesn’t play another snap [or] if he starts every game and doesn’t do very well,” Gruden said. “It’s a good experience for him.”
For now, though, the Redskins’ future strolls their locker room almost caught in some alternate dimension, stuck between being the team’s most important player and an afterthought to be used at some undetermined time. The room is not exactly his, so he doesn’t march with the entitlement of a franchise quarterback. He stops to joke with players, feeling comfortable enough to do things such as walk up to right tackle Morgan Moses, whose locker is next to his, and knead Moses’s shoulders with his hands and elbows. Haskins appears to be well liked by most of the players, with some, such as star running back Adrian Peterson, constantly offering advice.
Someday the team will be his. For now, though, he stays mostly quiet until that day and time comes.