The Bears have not had a good run of it in Washington in this century. In fact, the last victory in our nation’s capitol came in late December, 2001 and the Bears are just 2-8 in their last 10 overall (home and away). The Bears will look to change that trend Monday night and to help us do a little scouting on all things burgundy and gold, Andrew York of Hogs Haven was kind enough to provide detailed answers to my questions.
Windy City Gridiron: The QB situation in DC is pretty interesting. After losing Alex Smith to a broken leg last year, Washington acquired Case Keenum in a trade with the Broncos and drafted Dwayne Haskins 15th overall in this year’s draft. What’s the plan moving forward at quarterback? Will Haskins get a chance to play this season and if so, when? Will Alex Smith be brought back or dealt in the offseason? And what are your impressions of Keenum thus far?
Hogs Haven: Even more interesting if you go back further, with RG3 (Robert Griffen III) getting ruined by injury and Kirk Cousins riding franchise tags to freedom. The team has constantly been trying to figure out the most important position, but fate keeps getting in the way. As far as I can tell, the plan since the early offseason has been to let a veteran start at QB while a rookie develops on the bench. The team acquired Case Keenum from the Broncos before the draft, but it seemed he was in open competition with longtime veteran backup QB Colt McCoy in practice until Colt’s health prevented him from being a viable starter. For now, Case Keenum is the unquestioned starter.
Ever since they drafted him, Washington preached patience with Dwayne Haskins. The sense in the organization seemed to be that he was the most talented QB taken in the first round, but also the most raw, having only started 1 year in college. He still needed a lot refinement with footwork, cadence, calling protections, and going through progressions, not to mention learning a pro offense that Jay Gruden is unwilling to simplify. This was evident in practice and early preseason games. His footwork caused the occasional errant throw, problems with cadence caused false starts by the OL, calling poor protections led to unblocked rushers, and slowness going through progressions caused him to hold onto the ball too long and take hits.
However, his arm talent and playmaking ability was equally evident. His first pass in a preseason game was a flick of the wrist that sailed over 30 yards and landed right on his receiver’s hands. He got better with every preseason game, making fewer mistakes and making more frequent big plays. He also has all the intangibles we’d want in a QB, showing intelligence, charisma, poise, work ethic, and fearlessness on the field. At the rate he seemed to progress during the preseason, I wouldn’t be surprised if Haskins is ready to start mid-season, though exactly when will depend on his progress in practice, Case Keenum’s performance on the field, and the length of the team’s quickly diminishing playoff window.
The biggest complication is that Case Keenum has performed pretty well as the starting QB. He doesn’t have the strongest arm and his field awareness is only so-so, but he’s decisive with his reads, picks up the blitz, and displays overall command of the offense. In short, he’s good enough to win with a good team around him, and the passing offense has actually been one of the bright spots in games.
However, when Haskins is ready, he looks like the kind of QB who can put a bad team on his back and carry them to a win. Right now, Washington looks like a bad team. That’s why it’s tough predicting when Haskins will start, because it depends on a lot of outside factors. If the team manages to fix its problems, the defense stops collapsing in the 2nd half, the run game takes off, and Case Keenum continues to play as he has, it would be hard to justify taking him out of the lineup, so I think Haskins wouldn’t start until week 11 (vs the Jets, after our week 10 bye) at the earliest. If instead the team goes 1-4 or 0-5 after our brutal early schedule (Eagles, Cowboys, Bears, Patriots in the first 5 weeks), I think we could be looking at a week 6 start vs the Dolphins, maybe even earlier.
As for Alex Smith’s future, that’s honestly not something fans have talked much about. His injury was serious enough that playing this year is most likely out of the question. His 2020 salary is still guaranteed though, so it wouldn’t make sense to cut him if he’s able to play. Either he’ll be the NFL’s most expensive backup QB, or (more likely) the team will restructure his contract (probably eating most of his guaranteed salary) to make him tradeable and try to move him like the Broncos did with Case Keenum last year. He shouldn’t be starting again in DC barring a spectacular collapse from Haskins. There’s also the possibility that Smith isn’t medically cleared next year either, and is instead the NFL’s most expensive QB coach and mentor, as he has been this year.
WCG: Another rookie caught my eye when I went back and watched Washington’s first two games of the season and that’s Terry McLaurin, the burner out of Ohio State. McLaurin has already piled up 10 grabs for 187 yards and two scores and sure seems like the biggest offensive threat with Derrius Guice on the IR. What’s the story on this rookie and what are your expectations for him moving forward.
HH: Terry McLaurin played WR at Ohio State with Dwayne Haskins, but split receptions in a WR corps that also included Parris Campbell and KJ Hill. “Scary Terry” as he’s nicknamed is 6’0” tall and has 4.35 speed, but is also a very polished route runner with good hands and surprising physicality. Like Dwayne Haskins, he didn’t earn a starting role until 2018, and didn’t compile a lot of stats that year due to the number of mouths to feed in that offense, which probably explains why he slid to the 3rd round. He was making plays all through camp though, and it’s probably due to the team’s confidence in him that they finally parted ways with former 1st round bust Josh Doctson. It also seems like the coaches may have been trying to hide him in the preseason, as he played very little in the preseason games but was named a starter week 1.
Fans love him. He gives us the field-stretching ability we were sorely lacking last year, but is more than just a deep threat. He’s able to win with polished routes, physicality, and good hands at the catch point. Washington employs an offense that distributes the ball, so I don’t expect him to have many 10-target games, but he can do a lot of damage with just a few receptions and they have been scheming to get him the ball more than any other WR.
WCG: We’re in year six of the Jay Gruden regime. After a 4-12 campaign, Gruden has guided Washington to four straight seasons in that 7-9 to 9-7 range. After an 0-2 start and an unsettled QB situation, what does Gruden have to do to survive 2019 and be the Head Coach in 2020?
HH: Each of those seasons had quite a story behind the record too. In 2015, we went 9-7 and made the playoffs largely due to the collapse of our division (an injured Tony Romo dragged the Cowboys to the gutter, as did an imploding Chip Kelly for the Eagles). Last year, we were 6-3 and leading our division when Alex Smith went down (along with several other key players), ending up in a 7-9 season. No matter what happens, we can’t seem to escape mediocrity with Jay. There have always been excuses and reasons to think next year will be better, but after 5 years, fans are ready for a change.
Jay seems to feel the pressure too, and has displayed a bit of gallows humor at press conferences, joking that he doesn’t have to worry about being on Hard Knocks next year because either we’ll make the playoffs (and hence exempt) or he’ll be out of a job. I think there are only two conditions where Jay’s job is secure: the team makes the playoffs, or Dwayne Haskins looks so good when he finally sees the field that the FO (front office) is convinced Jay is the right person to guide his development.
As a fan, I think that’s the right call too. We’ve seen enough of Jay to know that although he does have many strengths as a head coach, he also has many flaws that seem to limit his ceiling. He reminds me a bit of Marvin Lewis, who also inherited a dumpster fire of a team and guided it to sustained mediocrity, but was never able to get it past that hump. We don’t want to end up like the Bengals, with 16 years of respectable season records, but no playoff wins to show for it.
WCG: I was struck by how little I knew about Washington’s defenders when watching the games (Jon Bostic is the MLB!). Everyone knows (or should know) mercurial corner Josh Norman, newly acquired safety Landon Collins, and stalwart linebacker Ryan Kerrigan, but is there anyone else Bears fans should be worried about? What does this unit do well?
HH: Washington runs a 3-4 defense, and 4 of the players in our front 5 are 1st round picks. That includes OLBs Ryan Kerrigan and rookie Montez Sweat, as well as DE/DT Jonathan Allen and DT/NT Daron Payne. If you had asked me two weeks ago what we do well, I would have said stopping runs up the middle and pressuring the QB with our front 5. However, the unit has looked out of sorts through the first 2 games. Part of it is due to Jonathan Allen getting injured early in week 1, but the rest is inexplicable. Jonathan Allen’s injury is day-to-day, and could be cleared in time to play the Bears. Outside of those four, DE/DT Matt Ioannidis was also very productive last year, and 5th round rookie ILB Cole Holcomb has played his way onto the starting roster and made a big impact in the first few games.
The other big story is the injuries to our secondary. Two of our starting CBs (Quinton Dunbar and Fabian Moreau) will likely be sidelined with injury on Monday, and two more DBs (Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and FS Montae Nicholson) will be playing through injury. We’ve had several breakdowns in our secondary that seem at least partially due to miscommunication and new people playing together.
WCG: What does the script look like for a Washington win in this one?
HH: Honestly, most of the team just needs to play better than it has the last 2 weeks and play up to the level of its talent for a full game. Both weeks we have come out looking fairly dominant in the first quarter, only to inexplicably fall apart after that. If we can play an entire game the way we’ve played the first quarter, I think we’ll win. On defense, DL and LBs need to maintain gap integrity, the secondary needs to be on the same page and communicate well, and the pass rushers need to actually cause pressure around the edge.
On offense, the OL needs to somehow stay stout against a fierce Bears DL and open up holes to get our run game going. The OL has performed well in pass protection so far, but terrible in run blocking. Case Keenum needs to continue to hit open receivers while avoiding risky throws (he’s been pretty lucky with some near-INTs so far). The team needs to stop committing penalties, which have been killing drives and giving opposing teams more chances to score. Also, we need to stay healthy. Injuries have been decimating the team not just the last 2 weeks, but for the last several years. Staying healthy and getting some of our injured players back for this game would be a huge deal.
Thank you to Andrew and Hogs Haven for the info!