The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How Dwayne Haskins’s tenure with Washington unraveled in less than two years

In his 20 months with Washington, Dwayne Haskins struggled to fit in. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

In the weeks before the 2019 NFL draft, a division arose in the Washington front office over whom to take with the 15th pick. Owner Daniel Snyder wanted Ohio State quarterback Dwayne Haskins, while most of the team’s coaches and executives did not, multiple people with knowledge of the deliberations say.

The movement against Haskins was so strong that Bruce Allen, then the team’s president, tried to convince Snyder to change his mind, only to be overruled. Just months earlier, quarterback Alex Smith had suffered what was presumed to be a career-ending leg injury. Snyder, many of those involved say, wanted to take Smith’s replacement in the first round and had become intrigued by Haskins, who played at Bullis School in Potomac, Md., imagining a star with the natural draw of having a background in the Washington area.

Snyder’s fascination with Haskins pushed against the concerns of then-coach Jay Gruden and others in the front office who worried that the quarterback, with just 14 starts in college, would be too much of a project. Ultimately, Snyder won. And while the selection won draft night acclaim — a triumphant homecoming — it put Haskins in the awkward position of being the future few in the team’s headquarters wanted.

“You don’t want to be the pet of the owner, especially this owner,” said one person familiar with the dynamics of how Haskins was chosen.

On Monday, Haskins’s Washington career ended when Coach Ron Rivera released him a day after he played poorly in a 20-13 loss to the Carolina Panthers. Washington would have clinched the NFC East championship with a win. Rivera informed Snyder of the move, then put out a statement that said, in part: “I believe it benefits both parties that we go our separate ways.”

“My time with the WFT has unfortunately come to an end,” Haskins tweeted following the team’s announcement. “I thank the team & fans for the opportunity to play for the team I grew up rooting for. I take full responsibility for not meeting the standards of a NFL QB & will become a better man & player because of this experience.”

The move was abrupt, but so was Haskins’s 20-month tenure with the team. The numbers: 16 games (13 starts), 2,804 passing yards, 12 touchdowns, 14 interceptions, a 3-10 record as a starter.

His defenders say he was never properly served with Washington, stuck first with a coaching staff that wanted Duke’s Daniel Jones instead, then a new staff that had no ties to his drafting and therefore no natural connection to him. They point out that he had to play behind patched-together offensive lines and was left without enough skill players to show the kind of promise that might have led Rivera to invest in him.

Washington releases Dwayne Haskins, ending first-round pick’s brief tenure with team

Mostly, though, his Washington tenure was filled with odd incidents, such as missing the final snap of his first NFL victory because he was taking selfies with fans, or the photos that emerged last week of him partying maskless hours after a loss, a violation of league coronavirus protocols. There were loads of complaints by frustrated coaches on two staffs who were stunned by his constant late arrivals to meetings, failure to master the playbook and refusal to prepare for games as diligently as NFL quarterbacks must. Several around the organization questioned his ability to lead and repeatedly said poor throws in practice would carry over into games.

“Sometimes you have to go through hard knocks,” Rivera said Monday, a few hours before cutting Haskins. “Sometimes you have to hit rock bottom before you can dig your way back out of it. Sometimes a change helps. With Dwayne, it’s what have you learned? What are you going to take from these experiences that are going to help you grow and get better?”

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Too often it seemed the coaches on two staffs were repeatedly saying some form of “We want to see improvement” when talking about Haskins.

No player perplexed the coaches more. All raved about Haskins’s arm strength, were dazzled by his ability to make quick, hard throws as well as long, soaring spirals deep downfield. But they didn’t understand why he never seemed prepared. After banishing Haskins to a side field during last year’s training camp, Gruden threw him into an early-season game at the New York Giants to show Snyder how far Haskins was from being a capable quarterback, a person with knowledge of the situation said. Haskins was intercepted three times that day.

What annoyed members of both Gruden’s and Rivera’s staffs, people familiar with their thinking say, is that Haskins was not rude or indifferent. They never described a player who was arrogant, despite such suggestions outside team headquarters. Instead, they seemed confused as to why he wouldn’t do the things most quarterbacks do instinctively — arrive early to the team facility, sit for hours in meetings and study opponents deep into the night. He had a sharp mind and grasped plays quickly but had trouble applying them in games. Some of the coaches blamed this on a lack of preparation.

“There’s very few people that can throw the ball like that,” Washington quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese said last month, weeks after Haskins lost his starting job for poor performance and preparation. “He’s in a select group that way. But there’s more to quarterback than that, and we’re working on that right now.”

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Some of Haskins’s supporters have been confused at times, too. Speaking on the condition of anonymity so as to not break his trust, three of them paint a picture of a player who has never had great self-awareness and has had trouble adjusting to the NFL. All say Haskins is sincere in his vows to be a good NFL quarterback and wants badly to be seen as dependable and responsible.

One said Haskins is perhaps too talented for his own good, able to rely for so long on his arm that he never learned to struggle the way most quarterbacks do until he got to the NFL, which left him trying to create work habits that others form in college.

“I’m not sure he understands the grind of being an NFL quarterback,” one said.

These friends say Haskins seems unsure how to act around a team, failing to notice that things such as photo-bombing the winning quarterback, as he did to Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson after a loss to the Ravens this season, would irk his coaches.

Haskins told coaches that, as the only Black man in the quarterback meeting room, he felt uncomfortable not because of anything anyone said but because the coaches wanted him to be more like Smith and Kyle Allen when he didn’t feel anything like either player. A person close to Rivera said Haskins never brought these concerns to the coach.

In recent weeks, friends and advisers pushed Haskins to get past his uncertainties. They told him he was ruining an excellent chance to be an NFL quarterback, that he had too much talent to be lost on the bottom of the roster. It seemed he heard them. Several people said he started showing up to the practice facility earlier, studied longer and spent more time in the quarterback room rather than going off to lift weights, as he had done in the past.

But when the opportunity to get back on the field arrived after injuries to Smith and Allen, his play was uneven. He still didn’t look ready — and then came the photos from the party, after which Rivera fined him $40,000 and removed him as a team captain following serious phone calls between the two.

“I just appreciate how receptive Coach Rivera was in that situation and being a role model in my life and helping me move forward and giving me a second chance without any questions as to why,” Haskins said at the time. “And I know my team needs me and I just need to go up to the plate and I can’t be selfish, and I need to stop getting in my own way. I’m putting things in motion as far as a plan to make myself a better teammate and make myself more accountable and fix the issues that led me to this situation.”

A week later, he was gone. His final act with the Washington Football Team included three turnovers in three quarters of a loss to Carolina.