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Rams-Football Team: 5 Qs, 5 As with Hogs Haven

Kyle Allen, Terry McLaurin, Landon Collins and going for broke in the NFC East

NFL: Washington Football Team-Training Camp Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

I am going to let you in on how it feels to be an NFL writer this season, and this is only from the experience of having to cover the team from D.C. for a week and not forever like some colleagues, but yes it actually feels weird as heck to be calling a football team “Football Team.”

How do you write a headline saying that the football team you cover is playing Football Team? How are they being differentiated from other football teams? Have you ever Googled “Football Team”? The results will nudge you into the direction of Washington but the top three hits for me are still generic football team results.

It’s not so easy to defer to the name of where they play either. Whether it is fitting or simply a cruel twist of fate, Football Team also happens to play in the one district/city/state that is also the name of a state. Which means that it is also the name of a college football team, in some respects. The Huskies are a Washington football team. The Seahawks are a Washington football team.

But in 2020, in the National Football League of various teams, there is only one Washington football team:

Washington Football Team.

To clear up some of this football team madness, I sent five Qs to Andrew Young of the SB Nation Football Team blog Hogs Haven and in kind he sent me five corresponding As for Turf Show Times. Let’s find out what sport this Football Team plays.

Q - You have spoken highly of Dwayne Haskins’ mechanics, noting that he didn’t get much playing time development at Ohio State and that it was expected he’d have a slow start if forced into action. However, the Football Team finds themselves in a pickle that Ron Rivera may have never expected a month ago: they potentially could win this division. With improved QB play, Football Team even has a chance to start 4-0 in the NFC East by Week 9 if they sweep the Giants and beat the Cowboys at home. Do you believe Haskins gives them the best opportunity to win those games, why do you believe that and do you even want them to be a 7-9 or 8-8 division winner?

(These questions were asked and answered prior to Haskins being benched for Kyle Allen, but Andrew was kind enough to include some follow-up replies after that news broke)

A - To clarify, I said Haskins’ throwing mechanics still need a lot of work (it’s the reason for so many errant passes) and his biggest improvement from last season to this season was in reading coverage and going through progressions. But regarding your question, it’s very tough to say because Haskins is the only QB on the roster we have seen in games this year (given that there hasn’t been a preseason). Reports from practice indicate backup Kyle Allen (who started a few games for Carolina last year) did not impress in camp and genuinely lost the QB competition to Haskins. Alex Smith is certainly a more polished QB than Haskins, but he hasn’t been dressing for games and his health is still a question. All that being the case, I think Haskins offers the best chance to win right now. I’d describe Haskins as more of a game manager than an engine of the offense so far, but a game manager is good enough to win games if the team around him performs well. His playstyle as a passer is actually rather similar to Alex Smith, but with more raw technique, a bigger arm, and more room to grow.

Yes I want the team to win games and win the division, but only for the right reasons. For me, the right reasons would be that Haskins is developing as a passer and the team as a whole (which has a lot of young starters) is gelling and becoming a genuinely good football team that will be able to make a run next year. I do not want us to win the division if it’s only because the rest of the division stinks and we haven’t actually determined if Haskins is the guy. That would only set us back in determining what this team is going to be going forward. No matter what, the most important thing to do this year is get clarity on whether or not Haskins is the guy. I’m optimistic that he is, but the jury is still out.

Addendum - I wrote the above before news broke that Haskins has been demoted to the 3rd QB on the depth chart, with Kyle Allen promoted to starter and Alex Smith the presumed backup for this game. I’ll go into this a bit more later on, but clearly this indicates Rivera does not believe Haskins gives us the best chance to win right now. It also seems to indicate that Alex Smith is healthy enough to play, even as a backup. I’ll trust the coach’s judgment on this, but we’ll see on Sunday.

Q - You noted that Rivera has been favoring keeping his players healthy over winning games and that some fans are upset with that mentality to play for the long term. Washington has lost their last three games, all by two touchdowns, turned the ball over eight times in that span and is ranked 32nd in third down offense. Do you get a sense from Rivera after those losses that he’s pissed off or does it feel like “If we win, great. If we don’t, there’s always Trevor Lawrence”?

A - I think it’s a bit of both. I think Rivera started the season with the clear intention of this being a rebuilding year, which meant leaving $25M in unspent cap, trading away several expensive vets or allowing them to walk in FA, playing young players over veterans unless there was a clear talent difference, and letting the clock run out in games we were losing to shorten the game and minimize risk of injury. However, I think he didn’t foresee the complete collapse of the NFC East and only realized around week 3 that even though we only had 1 win and didn’t look very good right now, the division was still very much in play. He has started to talk more about the competing goals of building long term vs winning right now in media interviews and has said he’s going to have to decide soon where the focus needs to be.

This most recent game against the Ravens showed a bit of both. On the one hand, Rivera finally started calling timeouts to stop the clock at the end of each half and give us more chances to score. On the other hand, he went for it on a ridiculous 4th and goal from the 13 where a field goal would have made more sense. His rationale was that he wanted to “test” Haskins in that situation, clearly valuing the test over easy points (we ended up without any points on the play). I think he’s conflicted right now and might not know himself unless one of two things happens: one of the other NFC East teams starts to get their act together and look good, or Haskins craters and we go into tank mode for a high pick to replace him. I personally would prefer that he stick with the original plan of establishing the culture this year and peaking next year.

Addendum - And now news has just broken that Haskins will be benched in favor of Kyle Allen. Ron Rivera explicitly mentioned a desire to win now in a weak division as justification for the switch, as well as mentioning that Haskins was making too many of the same mistakes over and over again, so Ron didn’t think he was progressing and would benefit from time on the bench. After playing the Rams, we will be entering a stretch of divisional matchups with an increased urgency to win, so that probably factors into the timing as well.

Q - You’ve been able to mention Terry McLaurin in all your Q and As this season, and for understandable reasons. I’m sick of hearing anyone ever again talk about how smart they are about draft prospects when A.J. Brown, DK Metcalf, Darious Slayton, Diontae Johnson and McLaurin don’t go in the top 50, and that includes every GM that passed. Yeah maybe there are a lot of good wide receivers right now, but clearly McLaurin was a miss. It’s been awhile since Washington had a homegrown wide receiver talent of this level, how are Ron Rivera and Scott Turner using him differently than the last regime and what receiver or type of receiver would you compare him to?

A - “F1” McLaurin has been the only consistent bright spot on the offense since last year. Last year the coaching staff started out using him as more of a deep threat WR to stretch the field and force teams to commit more resources deep, which lightened the box to open up the running game (which the team leaned on for most of the year). However, as Haskins developed and they started opening the passing game up more, they started using McLaurin on more of the intermediate crossing and slant routes that Haskins prefers. This year has picked up where that one left off, with McLaurin focusing even more on the intermediate field to make him a better target for Haskins. Basically, he is getting used as a true WR1 instead of a talented role player. This also fits in with McLaurin’s development, as he’s been incredible at getting yards after catch (he has the most YAC of any WR so far this year).

It’s tough coming up with a good comparison for him. He has 4.35 speed, quick feet (in terms of accelerating and cutting), is a great route runner, has great hands, is a willing blocker, and has an incredible work ethic. At the same time, he’s a bit undersized for a WR1 and doesn’t physically dominate defenders the way a player like Julio Jones or Calvin Johnson could. Based on those traits, I’d compare him to someone like Antonio Brown (though they are complete opposites in terms of personality). It’s not a perfect comparison because McLaurin is bigger and has more deep speed than Brown, while Brown probably has more short area quickness than McLaurin, but it’s the best I can come up with. FWIW, Hall of Fame WR James Lofton recently compared McLaurin to a mix of Jerry Rice and John Taylor, though I won’t go so far as to compare him to the best WR of all time.

Q - You’ve mentioned that Matthew Ionnadis is the second best player on defense after Chase Young and that he will now miss the rest of the season. If Chase Young were to also be ruled out of this game, who would you say are Washington’s new three best players on defense and do you have any insight into how those players might match up against the Rams offense?

A - I think the best player remaining (3rd best if everyone were healthy) would be CB Kendall Fuller. He was injured and unable to play weeks 1 & 2, but has played very well weeks 3 & 4, being targeted a total of 5 times, allowing 1 completion, but getting 2 interceptions (more INTs than completions). If you care about PFF grades, he’s had the 3rd highest coverage grade in the NFL since returning to the field. He’s a homegrown player who was drafted by Washington in 2016, traded to the Chiefs as part of the Alex Smith trade (and was part of their Super Bowl team), but then returned to us this offseason as a Free Agent. He generally plays zone coverage on the weak side of the field, so I think he’d used to lock down that boundary, but not necessarily to shadow any individual WR.

The next best players are probably DTs Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne. They are part of the “Alabama wall” of 1st round DTs the team has selected in back-to-back drafts. They are very effective at shutting down runs up the gut and good at getting interior pressure on the QB, though they are not nearly as productive at pass rushing as Ioannidis was.

An honorable mention should probably go to DE Montez Sweat (a 1st round pick last year). He’s a super athlete, but still somewhat raw in his technique as a pass rusher. He has been very effective against lesser OTs, but can get taken out of games against the better OTs he’s matched up with.

Q - Finally let me try and delve into some new territory. Landon Collins signed a sizable free agent contract in 2019 and is making over $17 million against the cap this season. Brandon Scherff is on the franchise tag at $15 million and is now on injured reserve. Alex Smith is the highest paid player on the team with a cap hit of $23 million. And Kendall Fuller signed Washington’s biggest free agent deal this year, four years and $40 million. This appears to be where most of the money is going so how do you feel about these players both today and for their 2021 prospects?

A - We feel pretty good about Kendall Fuller. He’s played well so far and is a homegrown player who was just starting to break out when he got traded to the Chiefs. Fans were pretty happy to get him back, and although 4 years/$40M is not cheap, it’s also not a league-leading CB salary either, so I feel good about his long-term prospects. The other players not so much.

Landon Collins is getting paid like one of the top safeties in the league, but his on-field performance has only been that of a slightly above average starter, more effective at stopping the run than in coverage. When he had his All Pro year in 2016 with the Giants he had reportedly dropped weight, which allowed him to have the speed of a true center fielder. I think he’s playing too heavy now. It’s all muscle, not fat, but he looks and plays more like a linebacker than a safety and doesn’t have the quickness and speed to match up in man coverage against athletic TEs. He’s also been missing a lot of tackles. Since he plays mostly in the box, I expect your athletic TEs and RBs to get a favorable matchup with him in the passing game. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Landon cut next year if he doesn’t pick up his performance, even though it will leave a lot of dead money. He’s just too expensive for what he gives us.

Brandon Scherff is playing on the Franchise Tag. Taken at #5 overall in the 2015 draft, he quickly developed into one of the top RGs in the league. However, he hasn’t looked the same since tearing his pectoral in 2018, particularly being more inconsistent in pass protection (though still good as a run blocker). He also hasn’t been able to stay healthy since then and is currently on short-term IR with an MCL sprain. He wants to be paid like one of the top OL in the league, but he hasn’t played like one the last few years and I think the team will/should let him go in FA unless they can get him to a reasonable deal.

Alex Smith’s money is guaranteed for this year and that’s the primary reason he’s still on the team. Right now, he’s effectively acting as the NFL’s most expensive QB coach by helping to develop Dwayne Haskins. He hasn’t been dressing for games though and I haven’t heard any serious talk about him playing from the coaching staff. He has supposedly passed the physical and is cleared to play, but we all know what happened to his leg. Our OL is not great at pass protection right now and I don’t think Ron would want it on his conscience to be the one who put Alex Smith behind our OL to get killed on the field. I expect he will get cut after this season and the team will wish him well.

The Collins, Scherff, and Smith contracts are all (in various ways) legacies of the previous regime and are cripplingly expensive, as you pointed out. However, they can all be cut or allowed to walk in FA after this season without too much remaining cap impact, which will really free up the team. I think this is one of several reasons Ron saw this as a rebuilding year with so many bad contracts on the team’s books.

Bonus Question - Are you happy with the change from Haskins to Allen?

Bonus A - Happy in the sense that I still think the coaches know what they’re doing, so if they think this will help the team, I’m willing to go along with it and see how it plays out. Unhappy in the sense that it reflects poorly on Haskins’ progress and increases the chances we are shopping for a new QB next year (though previous QBs like Kirk Cousins have bounced back from being benched to reclaim the starting role). Reading between the lines of what has been said, it sounds like Haskins wasn’t responding well to criticism and the coaches thought he was starting to regress as a passer, favoring quick checkdowns without fully going through progressions, calling poor protections, and showing poor situational awareness (taking sacks he shouldn’t, not throwing past the sticks on 3rd/4th down, etc). It’s also possible these problems were starting to lose the locker room with players who thought they were doing enough to win.

Washington fans will learn a lot this Sunday. We’ve had a lot of complaints about the supporting cast on offense that Haskins has had to work with, but it could be that many of those problems really derived from the QB. If the OL looks better because Allen does a better job calling protections and evading sacks, if the WRs catch more deep passes because Allen sees them and isn’t afraid to throw into tighter windows, and if the playcalling looks more diverse and creative because Allen is better able to run the offense, then we’ll at least have more clarity that Haskins probably wasn’t the guy.