What was supposed to be a building year for new Washington coach Ron Rivera and Haskins, his second-year quarterback, has turned into a playoff fight in the wretched NFC East. Even at 1-3, the team is a half-game out of first place a quarter of the way through the season. If Washington could have beaten Cleveland, it actually would be leading the division. The opportunity to compete for a playoff spot, Rivera said Wednesday, was a big part of his decision to demote Haskins to third string and start Kyle Allen at quarterback Sunday against the Los Angeles Rams.
Rivera’s benching of Haskins, the once-presumed quarterback of the future, after just four games was a surprise, given the seeming commitment the coach had made to playing Haskins the whole season. But inside the team’s practice facility, momentum for the move had been growing, a person with knowledge of the situation said, in part because Haskins had fallen into poor study and practice habits. The person said Haskins’s lack of preparation was hurting him in games, leading to overthrown passes and missed opportunities to hit open receivers.
The concerns represented a departure from the effort Haskins had shown in winning the starting job during training camp, for which he had drawn praise from Rivera. Something seemed to happen to Haskins after he won the job, the person familiar with the situation said, and his work habits deteriorated. Another person who has seen Haskins at practice this season noticed Haskins being sloppy during pregame warmups, while Allen worked diligently in those same drills even though he was unlikely to play in the game.
Players seemed to notice as well. The Washington Post reported Wednesday that one Washington player had pushed Haskins to work harder, pointing out that Alex Smith — who hasn’t been active on game days but was promoted to the backup job as part of this week’s quarterback switch — had been arriving at the facility earlier than Haskins and preparing better.
In some ways, Haskins has never gotten a fair shot with Washington. Former coach Jay Gruden did not want the team to draft him, creating a challenging start to the quarterback’s career, and Haskins’s 11 NFL starts have come under two coaching staffs with different offenses, behind a patched-together offensive line and surrounded by limited talent at the skill positions. Past coaches always have praised his ability to quickly understand offenses and concepts and have often said he simply needs time to adjust to playing against NFL defenses.
Perhaps Rivera wouldn’t have benched Haskins if the NFC East hadn’t turned out to be so bad. But with the division open, Rivera said he felt he had to make the change to Allen, who had experience in offensive coordinator Scott Turner’s system with the Carolina Panthers.
“This is not as much an indictment on Dwayne as much as it is an indictment on the situation and circumstances that we are in,” Rivera told reporters Wednesday. “He did not have the benefit of [offseason workouts] and minicamp. He didn’t have the benefit of four preseason games to work through things. Because of that, he’s behind in his development in this system. Again, it’s an unfortunate situation.”
One phrase often used to describe concerns over Haskins’s play is his “situational awareness” — the way a player responds to factors such as the score, down and distance and location on the field. Rivera seemed to be irritated with Haskins after Sunday’s loss to the Baltimore Ravens, when Haskins failed to throw the ball away on first and goal from the 15, instead taking an 18-yard sack that pushed Washington back to the 33-yard line.
After Haskins worked the offense to the 13, Rivera decided against kicking a field goal, saying after the game that he wanted to see how Haskins handled a fourth-down play on which Washington had to score a touchdown or lose the ball on downs. Rather than throw into the end zone, Haskins threw a short pass to a receiver who was quickly tackled at the 8-yard line.
“You have to throw that pass into the end zone,” the person who has watched Washington practice this year said. “What’s the worst that can happen? The ball is intercepted? That’s fine. They get the ball on the 20, and it’s, what, a seven-yard difference? The thing is you have to run around, buy some time and try to make a play in the end zone.”
Both Rivera and Turner acknowledged Wednesday that Haskins hadn’t shown the growth they were looking for through four games.
“There’s been some mistakes that showed up that were kind of repeat-type mistakes,” Turner told reporters Wednesday. “I think that’s what really started getting Coach thinking that way. Frankly, when he brought it up, I agreed.”
Though Rivera tried to deny it in his Wednesday news conference, the benching could mean the end for Haskins’s starting chances with Washington. Rivera has to find the franchise’s next quarterback soon, and it’s probably not Allen, who had mixed success with Carolina, or Smith, who is 36 and coming back from a horrific leg injury that most assumed was career-ending.
By dropping Haskins behind both Allen and Smith, Rivera has ended what was supposed to be a season-long experiment after just four games. Perhaps Haskins will respond the way he did during the offseason and training camp and earn back his starting job. If not, it’s fair to wonder whether he has lost his best chance to be an NFL quarterback.
Read more about the Washington Football Team: