Really, though, the roots of this decision lie in mid-January, when the quarterback and new coach first met. Publicly, Rivera declined to anoint Haskins the starter, and privately, he told the 23-year-old that to do so, he needed to see him improve his intangibles, such as leadership, preparation and commitment. Eight months later, Haskins was slimmer and making better decisions on the field.
The situation reminded Rivera of a decade ago, when he committed to a young quarterback in Carolina. He remembered telling Cam Newton, “I’m choosing you because I believe in you,” and added, “That’s really how I feel about Dwayne.”
“He’s lived up to his part of our conversation in January,” Rivera said. “Because of that, I’m living up to mine. He deserves the opportunity. He’s going to get my support. Hopefully we can ride it as long as I rode it with Cam.”
Though Rivera declined to name the backup — Alex Smith or, likelier, Allen — the news reflected the coaching staff’s larger goal Wednesday: Start the regular season. Two days after training camp finished, Washington began the daily, game-week routine they will live in for the next four months. Installing Haskins was an extension of that thought process.
All offseason, the quarterback built a base. He remade his body and learned a new system. He developed chemistry with receivers. He gave himself everything he needed, and as offensive coordinator Scott Turner told him at practice Wednesday, “Now the real work starts.”
In Turner’s offense, Haskins must know when to attack and when to play it safe. The scheme is a variant of “Air Coryell,” an old offensive philosophy named after former San Diego Chargers coach Don Coryell. The vertical attack spurred the development of NFL passing games in the late 1970s, and Turner’s father, Norv, ran a version of it when he coached Washington in the 1990s. Now Turner has brought it back with some modern twists.
The scheme puts a lot of responsibility on Haskins. Because it stretches the field, defenses often counter by covering up deep routes, and in Carolina, the Turners exploited this by attacking underneath. Yet this carries an inherent challenge for a quarterback: Go long or take what the defense is giving?
Initially, the complexity of this choice seemed to give the edge to Allen, a third-year quarterback who played for Rivera for two seasons in Carolina. But Haskins, Washington’s 2019 first-round pick, showed promise, and it didn’t take long for him to convince Turner he had what it took.
“He impressed me just with his natural ability to throw a football,” Turner said of Haskins. “He’s a natural passer. He’s got a quick trigger. He doesn’t need a lot of space to do it. Some of the plays that he made in tight quarters throwing the ball, that’s kind of what jumped out to me over the course of this camp.”
Rivera saw it too. He thought Haskins’s deep ball looked a bit like Newton’s. After Haskins started picking up the playbook, Rivera chose to have him work almost entirely with the first-team offense in camp to provide him as many reps as possible before the season. It’s what Rivera saw work in Carolina, where offensive coordinators Rob Chudzinski and Mike Shula quickly developed Newton into one of the NFL’s best. In his first five seasons, Newton was a league MVP and three-time Pro Bowl selection. In Washington, Rivera knows he has a different quarterback — Newton is thick, and Haskins is “young and gangly and still filling in” — and he has leaned on Turner and quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese to help him develop in his own way.
“Those two guys did a nice job bringing him along, bringing Kyle along,” Rivera said. “Again, that’s what you want to see. You want to see the development of your young guys.”
Yet the most important shift Rivera has seen in Haskins is mental. The starting quarterback is the face of the franchise, “kind of like being the head coach,” Rivera said, and he needs Haskins to be ready for that. In the same way the quarterback has improved his decision-making on the field — getting into position to deliver a good ball — he has become more poised and prepared.
“There are certain things he has to do,” Rivera said. “He has to carry himself a certain way. He has to deal with on-the-field issues the same way he deals with off-the-field issues.”
This is Haskins’s challenge moving forward, and Rivera believes he’s ready.