The first two games of the Jay Gruden era for the Washington Redskins looked like they made for a quick start, with games against Houston and then Jacksonville at home, who combined for a 6-26 record last season. But suddenly, nothing looks easy for the Redskins as they try to rebound from a 3-13 season. This is not about whether they go 0-2 and can still make the postseason; it’s about re-establishing themselves and playing well.
Conversely, the Jacksonville Jaguars continue to look like a team ready to take that so-called next step only to stumble. A 17-0 lead in Philadelphia had them on their way; a 34-17 loss reminded them they’re not there. So they, too, view this as a game in which they can establish themselves.
Jaguars reporter Michael DiRocco and Redskins reporter John Keim break down this week's matchup.
Keim: Obviously the Jaguars did something right for a while in Philadelphia before collapsing. What’s different about this team –- and what still must change?
DiRocco: From what we saw in the first half of the Jaguars' game against Philadelphia, the biggest change is that the defense is better. The Jaguars sacked Eagles quarterback Nick Foles five times and forced three turnovers, including an interception in the end zone by cornerback Alan Ball. The team upgraded the front with the additions of ends Chris Clemons and Red Bryant and tackle Ziggy Hood, and that allows for a much deeper rotation and fresher bodies. For the most part, the Jaguars' defense played well. The Eagles’ two biggest offensive plays were the result of communication issues that occurred when the Jaguars' two best defensive players (middle linebacker Paul Posluszny and safety Johnathan Cyprien) were off the field because of injuries. Those plays happened in the second half, which is an example of one of the two biggest issues the team must fix in order to become better: consistency. The Jaguars played well on offense and defense in the first half but not in the second, and that is the mark of a young team that isn't very good. (The Jaguars have the league’s second-youngest roster.) The other issue is a lack of a running game. The offensive line continues to be a work in progress and the Jags had new starters at left guard, center, right guard and right tackle. It was the first time that group had played together in a game. Still, that’s no excuse. The interior of the line, specifically center Jacques McClendon, has to get better quickly.
John, it seems to be open season on RG III. CBS’ Brandon Tierney called him a mental midget, Fox’s Terry Bradshaw said that he’s not ready to play pocket football and Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller said that he’s not well liked in the locker room. Why is Griffin so polarizing and do you think he’s the right QB for this team?
Keim: I’ve been in the locker room with him for three years, and to say that he’s that disliked is just not accurate. That said, I have yet to see anyone who’s universally beloved in my 20 years covering the Redskins -- even Darrell Green had his detractors -- so, yes, there have been some grumbles and some who haven’t liked Griffin. Also, to say he’s a mental midget is beyond ridiculous. Say what you want about his game, but he’s a smart person. It’s hard for me to say why others view him a certain way or why he’s polarizing to others so I can only guess. So my guess would be that it stems from being all over the place before he had really accomplished anything in the NFL (Russell Wilson was all over the place this past offseason; he has a ring). Then Griffin was viewed a certain way because of the issues with his coaches; that never looks good, regardless of who’s at fault. And then add to it the fact he’s struggling and people wonder where his game is headed. Or that some viewed him as a gimmick two years ago. I don’t know. I’m sure there are other reasons. Winning and playing well changes minds and perception. That’s what he must do. Is he the right QB? Well, he needs to be and I think this season will reveal that answer. For one year he absolutely was; last year he struggled. This year he’s transitioning more to the pocket -- and it will take time. I’ve used the words "growing pains" several times because that’s what he’ll endure. It’s tough to make that transition, and I still think they need to use his legs a little more. But I’m not sure they trust him to always protect himself.
DiRocco: The Jaguars have been consistent in saying that they’re not going to put Bortles on the field until they believe he’s ready and that the ideal situation would be that Henne plays well enough so Bortles can sit the bench the entire season and take over as the starter in 2015. But based on the way Bortles performed in the preseason, I’d be surprised if he doesn’t get on the field at some point this season, most likely in December after the Jaguars have been eliminated from playoff contention. As for what Henne gives the offense, it’s nothing spectacular. He knows the offense pretty well, doesn’t make huge mistakes and put the team in bad situations and is well-liked and respected in the locker room. He’s a game manager, which is all the Jaguars want him to be right now, although Gus Bradley said they’re encouraging him to take more chances down the field. Though the Jaguars have won just four of their past 17 games, Henne hasn’t been the reason for any of the losses. He’s not killing the team with turnovers or bad decisions, and he did help rally the Jaguars to a victory on the road at Cleveland last season.
How has the culture changed under Jay Gruden from the Mike Shanahan era? What’s the biggest impact he has made in his short time there?
Keim: Funny thing is, Mike Shanahan changed the culture from what he inherited from the Jim Zorn/Vinny Cerrato era. Four years later, the culture needed changing again. The difference now is that coaches feel they can do their jobs without a lot of interference -- for better or worse. The energy on the coaching staff is much different, partly because of who Gruden hired. You could see a difference in practices. I think that’s the change and it’s also the biggest difference. Shanahan liked to meddle; Gruden does not. Gruden has a good rapport with players. Of course, he’s coached only one game. Let’s see how great the rapport is if they keep losing. That’s the key. But, for now, the atmosphere has been a positive one for the Redskins and I credit Gruden and the guys he hired.
I read and heard good things about the Jaguars' offseason, then I would see predictions of 3-13 records. So where are they headed -- and how long is this going to take?
DiRocco: I think the first half of last Sunday’s game against Philadelphia is an indication of the kind of progress the franchise has made. They put pressure on the quarterback without having to blitz, forced turnovers and hit some big plays on offense. It all fell apart in the second half, but the bottom line is that what they did in the first half was something we didn't see from the team in the 2013 season, which was the first for general manager David Caldwell and coach Gus Bradley. The Jaguars should be much more competitive this season, thanks mainly to the upgrade along the defensive front, and that should keep them in more games into the fourth quarter. A lucky bounce or a play here and there and they might be able to steal a victory or two. That being said, this is the second-youngest roster in the league and there are still holes at certain spots (offensive line and linebacker are the most glaring), so getting to .500 this season isn’t realistic. I’ve predicted a 6-10 record and I’ll stick by that. Next season, with Bortles taking over, the Jaguars should compete for a playoff spot.
The biggest issue surrounding the Redskins for a while is the nickname. How has that affected anything, if at all, in the locker room? Have the players been somewhat outside the controversy?
Keim: Zero impact. Players are far more worried about their own jobs and who they play in a given week than they are about the name. I asked one veteran player if they ever discuss it among themselves. The answer: no. It comes up when they’re asked about it, but it’s not as if it’s asked all the time. The daily reporters aren’t, and can’t be, fixated on this issue. There are too many other on-field issues to discuss or storylines that pertain more to the inner workings of the team that have a much greater impact on their performance. Not every player is in favor of the name, but they realize it’s an issue far above their pay grade. And for the local media, there are only so many times you can ask this question to players who won’t, or don’t want to, discuss the matter.