After the Washington Redskins relieved Jay Gruden of his duties Monday, they handed the interim job to Bill Callahan, the team’s offensive line coach since 2015 and assistant head coach since 2017. Callahan’s pro football roots trace back to 1998, when he was the offensive coordinator for the Oakland Raiders under Jon Gruden. He was the Raiders’ head coach in 2002 and 2003 after Gruden was traded to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers following the 2001 season; the Raiders and Callahan appeared in the Super Bowl after the 2002 season.
As one might expect from an old-school offensive line coach, Callahan has been described as a power-running advocate, a trait that has highlighted his resume since he joined the pro ranks from college. (After a variety of college jobs, he was hired by the Philadelphia Eagles in the mid-1990s; he later became head coach at Nebraska after he left the Raiders.)
And running the football, Callahan made clear Monday, will indeed be a focus for the Redskins going forward. Offensive coordinator Kevin O’Connell will call the plays, Callahan said, but this is still his football team.
“I envision us as a running team. I’d like to get our running game going,” Callahan, 63, told reporters. “If we can play two-down football, that would be huge. To do that, the consistency of the running game has to take place. We have a good stable of running backs and that will be the focus. There’s been flashes of positive runs in games. If we commit a little bit more, there is a chance to get it rolling."
That might be debatable. The Redskins have rushed the ball 88 times this season, the NFL’s third-lowest total behind the New York Jets (84) and Miami Dolphins (69), although both of those teams have played four games to Washington’s five. For the Redskins, that’s their fewest carries through five games since 1950.
However, an increasingly run-heavy offense isn’t the answer. These Redskins aren’t very good at running the ball, and in any case that philosophy is antiquated in today’s NFL. At the beginning of Callahan’s pro coaching career, NFL teams were rushing the ball 28.3 times per game. That figure has dropped to 25.6 through the first five weeks of the 2019 season. Passing attempts, meanwhile, have increased from 32.3 per game to 35.1 over that same span.
Plus, willing a team to run the football more consistently is not easy. You need a solid offensive line, strong runners and the luxury of a lead — none of which the Redskins have enjoyed this season.
With Derrius Guice injured, Washington’s primary rusher, Adrian Peterson, is having one of the worst rushing campaigns in the league. Peterson is gaining 2.7 yards per carry, with a success rate of 28 percent. (Success is determined by whether a runner gets at least 45 percent of the yards needed for a first down on first down, at least 60 percent on second down or 100 percent of the yards needed on third or fourth down.) Peterson ranks 35th of the 35 rushers who have at least 40 carries. The league average success rate this year for rushers with at least as many carries as Peterson is 44 percent, according to TruMedia.
Last season, Peterson averaged 4.2 yards, with a much healthier 39 percent success rate.
Pro Football Focus ranks Peterson 44th of 57 qualified running backs in 2019, a ranking that focuses on what the rusher did right or wrong rather than the players around him. In other words, Peterson’s personal performance is not encouraging for the present or future, no matter who the team’s coach is or how many running plays are called.
Still, it’s hard to divorce Peterson’s struggles from the offensive line, a unit under the purview of Callahan since he was hired in 2015. The Redskins rank seventh for run blocking through the first five games, according to Pro Football Focus, but that’s including three games with their best run blocker, right guard Brandon Scherff. The two-time Pro Bowl pick has missed the past two games because of a left ankle sprain, and it is unclear whether he will return to face the 0-4 Dolphins on Sunday.
In a Week 4 loss at the New York Giants, none of Washington’s offensive linemen earned a positive run-blocking grade from Pro Football Focus. In Week 5, only center Tony Bergstrom and right tackle Morgan Moses were graded positively during a blowout loss to the New England Patriots. And even those grades were positive only by the strictest interpretation of the term (a plus-0.2 rating for each player).
The biggest limiter of the Redskins’ run volume and effectiveness is the scoreboard. Washington has trailed by four or more points on two-thirds of its offensive plays (186 of its 282), a situation in which it runs the ball less than a third of the time (28 percent). That’s consistent with every NFL stop on Callahan’s résumé since 2002, his first year as a head coach and the year the league expanded to 32 teams. If Callahan wants to rush the ball more often, his team is going to have to lead more often.
|Seasons||NFL team||Bill Callahan’s role||Percent of plays trailing by four or more points||Run rate in these situations|
|2002 and 2003||Raiders||Head coach||32 percent||24 percent|
|2008 to 2011||Jets||Assistant head coach||31 percent||25 percent|
|2012 to 2014||Cowboys||Offensive coordinator||36 percent||29 percent|
|2015 and 2016||Redskins||Offensive line coach||34 percent||24 percent|
|2017 to 2019||Redskins||Assistant head coach||41 percent||31 percent|
Callahan, and by extension O’Connell, will also have to become more creative with their play-calling. Washington has called a first-down running play 59 percent of the time in the first half, earning a paltry 3.3 yards per attempt. The rest of the NFL is calling first-down running plays only 49 percent of the time in the first half, averaging 4.2 yards on those carries. So the Redskins have been running on first down in the first half more often than the rest of the NFL — and with less success.
Washington’s ability to run the ball in the second half has been diminished by a negative-40 point differential, the second-worst second-half performance in the league, behind only the Dolphins. The Redskins are running the ball 25 percent of the time in the second half, the third-lowest rate after the 1-4 Atlanta Falcons (22 percent) and winless Dolphins (24 percent).