“I felt like it was on my shoulders to get the offense going,” Haskins said. “I felt like it was on my shoulders to let these guys know that they have something to believe in and we’re going to make these plays in order for us to win, and we did. It felt great to know those guys went out there and went to war for me.”
Moments after the incompletion, Washington’s defense secured its first of three takeaways, and Haskins trotted back on the field. He threw a few strikes to his top receivers, found tight end Logan Thomas in the back of the end zone for the team’s first score and then rallied his teammates with a halftime speech while their head coach, in the beginning stages of cancer treatment, received an IV.
Washington scored four more times in the second half to secure the victory, but it was those few seconds when he had to respond to his offense in peril that told the most about Haskins.
“The way he responded after the first quarter, taking what they gave, making plays when he had to really show his resilience and just the fact that he is starting to feel more and more comfortable as our starting quarterback,” Coach Ron Rivera said, “I was very proud of him.”
The bounce-back is what many coaches believe is the ultimate test of a young player, especially a quarterback. How does he respond when the plan is falling apart, his teammates are frustrated and everything that worked in practice is suddenly failing? How does he handle being the face of a multibillion-dollar franchise? How does he bring others along with him?
“I’ve been just trying to master that same edge that a Tom Brady or Drew Brees has; when he steps into a building, you know he’s there,” Haskins said during training camp.
After only one season as a college starter and a rookie year fraught with trials, Haskins’s biggest challenge is still on the table. His first fair shot at proving he can be the Guy also might be his only shot in Washington as Rivera rebuilds the franchise inside and out.
After a promising offseason and a victorious Week 1, Haskins’s push to prove himself has only just begun.
‘I challenged him daily’
Shortly after he was hired to fix all that’s wrong with Washington’s NFL team, Rivera sat down with Haskins to spell out his task ahead. He wouldn’t be named the starter outright; he would have to earn it.
It wasn’t a new challenge for Haskins, who had been put to task before.
“I challenged him daily, not just about a throw but just about running the team,” said Urban Meyer, Haskins’s coach at Ohio State. “Quarterback is the most unique position in all of sports. Whether you throw the ball well or not is part of it, but the other part of it is, can you push the other players that are counting on you?”
What was different this offseason from his rookie year, however, was the chance to prove it with a clean slate. Many of the difficulties of his debut season could be pinned on factors outside his control, such as Jay Gruden being fired after an 0-5 start, which was preceded by widespread discussion that the coach hadn’t been in favor of drafting Haskins with the No. 15 pick.
“He was going to naturally need some time to kind of grow into his role and really have coaches and a football team that was willing to invest in his development and put their full weight behind him, which is something he didn’t always have in Washington, obviously, with all the BS that was going on there last year,” said ESPN analyst Louis Riddick, a former Washington director of pro personnel. “I don’t think people really understand the effect that can have on a young player.”
Some of it was Haskins’s own doing. He drew the mockery of pundits and the ire of team legend Joe Theismann when he took selfies with fans during the last play of his first victory, against the Detroit Lions. And he was urged by veteran teammates to devote more time to learning the playbook.
During a loss to the New York Jets, Haskins was caught on camera pleading with his offensive linemen to tell him what he had to do better. Tackle Morgan Moses later claimed Haskins’s intentions were misconstrued; he wasn’t placing blame for the six sacks he took that game but rather seeking the advice of his teammates. No matter, a disconnect between the quarterback and his line appeared obvious.
“When Rivera called me and challenged me and said some things that I needed to hear, that’s just something I needed, the extra motivation for this offseason, to push myself,” Haskins said recently, “to be that for him and for myself and for my teammates.”
Haskins wrote out a list of goals for the offseason and said he met each of them. He lost weight and organized throwing sessions with his receivers at nearby schools while much of the country was shut down because of the novel coronavirus pandemic. He crisscrossed the country to seek the advice of fellow quarterbacks Cam Newton and Deshaun Watson, and he continued to work with his quarterback coaches, Bryson Spinner and Quincy Avery. And for much of his eight months away from the team’s facility, Haskins had a personal videographer in tow to document his journey.
“I was paying attention to it,” Rivera said. “When I watched some of his tweets, some of the things were about leadership and some of the tweets about working out. Some of his tweets were about working with his guys and doing the things that you’re supposed to do as a leader. I thought that was good information for me to have.”
Even better information was what Haskins later showed in training camp, talking to teammates after mistakes to find a way to correct them. But the best information seemed to come from Meyer earlier in the year.
‘I’m done playing around’
Rivera has reached out to Meyer twice since he took the job in Washington — something the previous regime in Washington never did, Meyer said, even though Meyer believes “there were some things that they needed to know” about the young quarterback.
Haskins had a year of stardom at Ohio State. He showed off a cannon arm and rare field vision, but Meyer saw deficiencies that couldn’t simply be corrected on a practice field with more reps.
“Dwayne was the most prepared high school quarterback we’ve ever recruited,” Meyer said. “Just his accuracy, his fundamentals of throwing the ball — I’ve never seen anything like it. His knowledge of the game is 10 out of 10. He really understands the game of football. The only minuses were his leadership, a little bit of toughness and maybe his weight training was very average at best.”
While Haskins had the traits to be a great pro, he didn’t have the experience or the natural leadership ability.
“Dwayne is super smart,” said Avery, whose regimen includes the use of a chess coach to improve the mind-set of his players. “I don’t remember anybody coming out of college with as good of an understanding of defenses and those things as him, and I’ve been around a lot of really, really good quarterbacks. … But that, I think, sometimes is almost problematic, being as smart as he is, because things come so easily. He really has to work to do all of the little stuff.”
In the middle of Haskins’s record-setting season at Ohio State, Meyer urged his quarterback to watch a clip of Kobe Bryant practicing with some of his former Los Angeles Lakers teammates. Meyer believed Bryant’s approach might rub off on Haskins and that, instead of sulking after a bad play, he would make a point to engage with and encourage his teammates. Or that in practice, he would be more of a vocal leader and push his teammates to be better.
“I saw really instantaneous change on the practice field,” Meyer said.
Haskins later met Bryant while training at Mamba Sports Academy in California ahead of the NFL combine. His house now features wall-length murals of Bryant, Muhammad Ali and Brady.
When asked whether he believes Haskins has changed his ways for good, Meyer said he talked to Haskins recently and came away convinced.
“He’s a grown-ass man,” Meyer said. “I talked to him for a while, and I’ve seen videos of training; his body’s changed, and he even told me, he says, ‘I’m done playing around.’ ”
But the biggest challenge in a “what have you done for me lately” league, as Rivera likes to put it, is proving he’s here to stay.
“Success for me is helping this team win more games than last year,” Haskins said. “Success for me is helping this team have a better overall demeanor on the field. Success for me is finding ways to lead and be a presence. That’s something that I’m just looking forward to doing and being quite successful at it because I know that I can do it and my guys can do it.
“I’m looking forward to leading these men.”