Parking was no longer in short supply in the lot in front of Redskins Park. On the field out back, tempers flared as the temperature rose.
With the preseason behind them, Washington’s pared-down roster of 53 players got to work Monday with the upbeat tempo and isolated brawling that delighted Coach Jay Gruden, signaling that a regular season game is finally at stake.
After the two-hour practice, Gruden discussed the philosophy that drove his decision-making in paring the roster from 75 in advance of Sunday’s regular season opener at Houston. In a word, it was merit.
“I don’t care where you’re drafted,” said Gruden, who culled three of Washington’s eight 2014 draft picks. “You want to play the best guys.”
In the four-way battle at running back, Gruden kept the only undrafted free agent of the bunch, Southern California’s Silas Redd, citing his consistency and all-around ability as a runner, blocker and receiver. The move caught many prognosticators by surprise, as did Gruden’s decision to cut second-year player Chris Thompson, a 2013 fifth-round draft pick from Florida State. The coach also let go Evan Royster, a sixth-round pick in 2011, and Baylor’s Lache Seastrunk, a sixth-round pick this spring.
“Hats off to [running back] Silas Redd coming in as an undrafted free agent and taking advantage of his reps and winning the job right now,” Gruden said.
“You have to make sure you understand as a player, you have to earn your spot every day. Not just every game, but every day out here. You have to prove that you’re a Washington Redskin and you’re worthy of keeping that job.”
The decision at place kicker is a case in point.
Gruden and Redskins General Manager Bruce Allen spent a seventh-round pick on Zach Hocker specifically to challenge incumbent Kai Forbath, whose kickoffs put Washington’s defense in a tough position more than once last season.
Forbath outdueled Hocker by a razor-thin margin during training camp and the four preseason games, so Gruden cut the rookie despite the investment of a draft pick.
“We did the best that we could to make it fair for both of them,” Gruden said. “Quite frankly, Kai did a nice job. His percentage was higher in all of the kicks out here. In training camp, his percentage was a little bit higher. . . . And kickoffs were close enough that there wasn’t a drastic difference. So, hats off to Kai. He took the challenge, and I think he is a better kicker because of it.”
Tight end Ted Bolser was the other 2014 draft pick cut over the weekend. Like Thompson, he was brought back for the practice squad.
Gruden said the Redskins have high hopes for Thompson, 25, who boasts the elusiveness and pass-catching ability that would offer a nice change-up from the muscular running of Alfred Morris, but remain concerned about his durability.
“We want Chris to come back and try to stay healthy for some time,” Gruden said. “He could be activated sooner than later if he can prove that he can stay healthy for some time and go from there.”
Asked about the decision to cut Seastrunk, who turned a short catch into an 80-yard touchdown reception in the preseason finale at Tampa Bay, Gruden acknowledged the Baylor rookie’s big-play abilities but said the Redskins opted “to go in a different direction.”
“It’s not over for Lache,” Gruden added. “I’m sure somebody will get a look at him, and it could be us later on.”
Joining the Redskins who survived the weekend’s cuts in practice Monday was strong safety Duke Ihenacho, whom Washington claimed off waivers after he was cut by Denver. With the bulk of practice closed to reporters, it was impossible to characterize how much meaningful work he did and with what unit. Gruden said it was too early to say whether Ihenacho, a third-year player who’s expected to contribute on special teams as well, would fill in for the suspended Brandon Meriweather on Sunday at Houston.
The bigger questions about Washington’s opening-day readiness, however, revolve around third-year quarterback Robert Griffin III, who was unable to engineer a touchdown drive during the preseason.
On too many occasions Griffin was slow to release the ball or took off running before spotting an open receiver. The result wasn’t good. He was sacked four times in his 20 pass attempts, completing 13 of those throws. He finished with no touchdowns, two interceptions and a 46.0 passer rating that ranked 54th among the 58 NFC quarterbacks who took preseason snaps.
Griffin has said the preseason was a learning experience for him and the first-team offense. On Monday, he was a study in confidence.
“The biggest thing everyone is saying is we didn’t score a touchdown in the preseason, but as long as we score touchdowns in the regular season, that doesn’t matter,” Griffin said. “We had two solid games, and then we had a bad one and that’s what everybody remembers, and that’s fine. We’ll get that taste out of their mouths when we play Houston.”