If you could tell from this mess whether the 22-year-old Haskins will be a franchise quarterback for the Redskins someday, congratulations; we should send you to clairvoyant school to hone your gift. But right now, his future is utterly unforeseeable. He is a long-shanked, strong-armed young man, certainly, but there are a lot of those around, including Josh Allen of the Bills, who now has a 6-2 record. Frankly, no matter who is under center, the Redskins can’t seem to score a touchdown, much less get a win. Perhaps the best thing you could say about Haskins’s performance was that he wasn’t a difference-maker one way or the other, neither good nor disastrous. That was something like progress, given his truncated, interception-and-sack-prone previous performances in which he looked utterly unready.
“Even though we lost, I felt like it was a good step as far as me taking control of the offense,” he said afterward.
In assessing Haskins, it’s important to start with a central fact: He still needs all kinds of work, both on and off the field. He is a head-scratching, mumbling kid who, when asked whether he felt confident out there, answered, “Umm-hmmm.” He is still learning the absolute basics of playing quarterback at the pro level, starting with body language and tone, and the Redskins were just delighted that he managed to get “in and out of the huddle without delays,” as interim coach Bill Callahan said. The rest of this season, now that they’re 1-8, should probably be devoted to bringing along their first-round draft choice rather than turning back to concussed veteran Case Keenum. Isn’t it better to call this what it is — a remedial season — and teach Haskins some craft?
But Callahan is curiously reluctant to name Haskins the starter, just as Jay Gruden was before him, and that raises some questions. It would seem to be the natural move, with a bye week coming up followed by a meeting with the beatable New York Jets, yet Callahan was still unwilling to commit or to say that the rookie gives them the best chance to win a game. “We just have a long way to go yet and, well, we got a few weeks, so nothing has been decided or determined,” he said.
Would more repetitions help Haskins? Certainly. A week of practicing with the starters made an obvious difference in him. But so did a nicely tailored playbook that relied on screens and handoffs to the hard-charging Adrian Peterson. Haskins’s performance — 15-for-22 passing for 144 yards — was commendable for its efficiency and its lack of turnovers and for his poise on the road, in front of a hostile crowd and against a defense that came into the game ranked third in the NFL in yards allowed and giving up just 17.4 points per game. But it was also conspicuous in the fact that Haskins made no significant throws downfield and took four sacks.
It all makes you wonder what exactly is going on. Perhaps there is a habit or an attitude that is making coaches hesitate to simply reward Haskins with the car keys. Haskins is clearly eager to play more and believes a lack of repetitions as a starter has held him back. “I was seeing the field better and better as the game went on, and there were things I saw before it happened, and that’s part of playing quarterback and getting reps,” he said. “In my short career and the amount of reps I’ve had through my career, I just want to play natural and play instinctive, and I felt that going into this game, the more and more snaps that I got, and hopefully I keep going in the bye week and the rest of the season.”
But NFL quarterback is not a natural, “instinctive” position. It’s the most highly learned, mechanics-based and analytic position on the field, one that requires a thorough knowledge not just of your own playbook, which Haskins has yet to master, but of opposing defenses and concepts, all of which have to be synthesized on film along with physical repetitions and timing with teammates to make anything look “natural.”
It seems as if his coaches want Haskins to understand this — understand that the position has to be hard-earned with tedious preparation week in and week out at the things that don’t come naturally — no matter your role or status. Haskins was asked how this week was different for him as the designated starter, and his answer was perhaps telling. “Very detail-oriented, more laser-focused, more intense for me and something I took pride in and made important,” he said.
The good NFL coaches expect that all the time. It’s the mere baseline for every man in the league. This is just a guess, but Haskins’s coaches may want to see how he behaves and works in the coming week, without any entitlements. It’s possible that’s the best thing they can teach him right now.