NFL Nation: Mike Shanahan


ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- In a career filled with signature plays, of double-take athleticism combined with preparation and instincts, the one that may stand alone, because of the context, wasn’t one of Champ Bailey’s 52 career interceptions.

It wasn’t one of the times he baited a quarterback down the hash in an effort to get somebody, anybody, to throw the ball his way, only to flash a little more make-up speed to snare the ball as his own.

It wasn’t one of the innumerable battles with the best the league had to offer at wide receiver.

[+] EnlargeChamp Bailey
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesChamp Bailey's preparation skills and aggressiveness helped him become one of the NFL's elite cornerbacks.
It was a tackle. Because while the world of shutdown corners is one often played out in the open spaces where unshakable confidence and 4.3 speed are requirements for survival, Bailey, who retired on Tuesday, at his best was more than that.

Yes, in his prime he was on the short list in coverage with flexibility, speed, an eye for details and the willingness to study. He had no island or T-shirts or signature strut into the end zone.

Broncos Ring of Fame wide receiver Rod Smith once said, “Champ doesn’t say anything because he doesn’t have to. He knows you know you already didn’t get the ball."

But what separated Bailey from most who have played the position at its highest level, was that to go with all of those skills in coverage, Bailey would roll up his sleeves and get dirty in the run game. Former Broncos head coach Mike Shanahan, having made the trade to bring Bailey to Denver for what became a 10-year run, called Bailey the “best tackling cornerback I’ve ever seen and one of the best players in coverage I’ve ever seen. Just a no-doubt Hall of Famer."

So, the tackle, on a sweltering September day -- 89 degrees at kickoff with 64 percent worth of energy-sapping humidity -- in Miami. It was the 2005 season opener, a game the Broncos would eventually lose, before winning enough games to go on to the AFC Championship Game four months later.

And on the first play of the second half, in a game in which Bailey already had seven tackles, an interception and a forced fumble, on a first-and-10 for the Dolphins from the Miami 35-yard line, running back Ronnie Brown, then a 223-pound rookie, rumbled around the right end into what was on other days also a dirt infield for the Marlins with no other Broncos defenders within range to stop him.

Bailey charged the line of scrimmage, stopping Brown in the dirt for a 5-yard gain with no yardage after contact as Bailey dislocated his shoulder doing it. It’s not that Bailey, a top-shelf cornerback, made the play. It’s that he was willing to make the play.

Bailey, who wore a brace on his shoulder for years after that tackle and many more just like it, always seemed to be at the center of discussions between what football people said and what those with analytics in hand had to offer. The football people saw an all-time player with instincts, athleticism and a quarterback’s recall for situations and personnel.

And at times those who have opened the window to analytics in the game saw a player who got beat deep and was challenged more in coverage than was often presented in the mainstream.

In the end perhaps everybody has a point. From my perspective I often fall back on the words of a man who essentially had the patience and willingness to unwrap the game in many ways for me -- longtime scout C.O. Brocato -- who has always said to trust your eyes.

I’ve seen lots of cornerbacks play, lots of cornerbacks folks have stuck the "shutdown" label to, both with and without numbers or game video in hand to make the case. I don’t profess to have THE list and respectfully acknowledge opinions of others that were gleaned from hard work.

But the two most complete cornerbacks I have seen are Rod Woodson and Champ Bailey. And I’m pretty sure that’s how it’s going to stay for quite some time.

Jay Gruden energizes Redskins

June, 19, 2014
Jun 19
Jay Gruden AP Photo/Nick WassIn a short time, Jay Gruden has brought a more relaxed atmosphere to the Washington Redskins.
The energy is different, as it always is when there’s a new coach. New drills, new voices, a new vibe, new storylines that don’t involve backroom drama. The Washington Redskins needed it, badly, after a 3-13 season punctuated by anonymous swipes at star players and a few at the coaches. Reputations were altered; the direction of the franchise changed.

Life is calmer now for the Redskins. (Well, if you don’t count the storm over their nickname.) That’s the result of hiring Jay Gruden, whose candor, insight and friendliness provides the franchise a breath of fresh air. But also an unknown: Though opinion around the NFL was split on his hiring, Gruden has passed the first test of his tenure by laying a solid foundation. And the Redskins head into training camp next month energized.

It’s about a new trust, felt by players and coaches. Gruden has made it clear from the get-go: This is about the players. There’s a different level of ownership by the players and even some of the coaches. Maybe it helps that Gruden took a different path to reach this point, starring in the Arena League for many years, but he coaches without much of an ego, or at least not one that overwhelms him. He didn’t come to Washington with a system, he came with beliefs in what he wanted to run and fused them with what worked well here in the past. Not all coaches operate that way.

Any change after such a disastrous season feels like a good one. Any new voice feels like the right one, especially when the new guy is a lot different than the old one. Mike Shanahan loved having total control; Gruden favors delegating authority. Shanahan did not jump into drills to provide a look for the offense (others would); Gruden will do just that. Not that one way is the right way. And, of course, one of them won Super Bowls and the other hasn’t won an NFL game yet. That’s why, for now, all we know is that the offseason has been a mostly good one for the Redskins.

The feel-good offseason started with quarterback Robert Griffin III’s work. He got the necessary work in that he could not get last season because of his knee. He worked hard on his mechanics and will continue to do so; he looked much more relaxed around Gruden than under Shanahan. He’s not wearing a brace; he can be more himself. He’s as confident as he’s been in a while.

However, Griffin also is still learning to be a pocket passer. That doesn’t just mean throwing a pass from the pocket, but also knowing when to run and where and how quickly to go from your first option to your second or third. It doesn’t mean he can’t or won’t do it, but it does mean there’s an ongoing transition that will take time. Nor does it mean he won’t make plays in the process. If he’s more himself, why wouldn’t he? There are things he does well as a passer; the trick for Gruden is incorporating those while he improves in other areas. Knock the Shanahans all you want, they coaxed a terrific season from a rookie quarterback two years ago.

DeSean Jackson’s arrival might not be the same feel-good story because there’s some risk involved, but it certainly can be cause for optimism. The guy is a playmaker; the Redskins needed a playmaker.

But Jackson is an emotional player, and the Redskins need to successfully harness that and know how to deal with him. The good news for Washington is that Griffin made it a point to learn what motivates Jackson and bond with him. That helps now; it needs to pay off during the season.

The defense can feel good, too. It added pass-rushers in Jason Hatcher and, the Redskins hope, Trent Murphy. They have a vocal leader at safety in Ryan Clark. They’ve added two outstanding linebacker coaches in Kirk Olivadotti (inside) and Brian Baker (outside), the latter of whom has focused heavily on pass rush techniques. They’ve talked a great game about a more aggressive pass rush.

But as the Redskins exit the spring, Hatcher is coming off knee surgery, joining two other key players along the defensive line in that regard. The defense might have five starters 30 years or older and there are questions about what certain players have left.

Then there’s Gruden. Players have talked about the new energy in practices, stemming from him and his new hires. Coaches like him because they have more freedom -- to hire, to implement ideas, to coach. It matters. It’s too early to say he changed the culture; Shanahan was said to have done the same thing. But Gruden has changed the mood. There’s a different level of passion, stemming from his energy and the coaches. It rubs off on players. Because of that, it (should) enable him to command the room, a pre-hire criticism. That is, as long as you bring in the right players who won’t abuse that trust. It’s a fine line.

Is he organized enough? That was a knock before he was hired. Then again, his offensive coordinator, Sean McVay, is ultra-organized. Can Gruden command the room? How will he handle it if the defense struggles and he feels they should tweak or change their coverages or philosophy? Or how will he handle in-game adjustments, clock management? Player discipline?

We’ve learned a lot about Gruden, but there’s so much more to learn -- questions that can’t be answered until the season begins. Until then, the Redskins can feel optimistic. They’ve been at this point before. The next step has always been the hardest.
The Denver Broncos honored their history this week and tied up a few loose ends along the way.

The team selected three more people for its Ring of Fame, and did it with a needed nod to the past. Too often, whether it’s the Pro Football Hall of Fame, a team’s list of all-time greats or simply somebody’s all-everything team in cyberspace, too much attention is paid to the highlight generation, not enough to when the trail was carved in the first place.

So, it was good to see the Broncos add Gene Mingo, Rick Upchurch and Dan Reeves to its list of all-timers.

[+] EnlargeDan Reeves
AP Photo/Ron HeflinFormer coach Dan Reeves says late comebacks are his favorite memories from his Denver days.
For some, the Broncos’ history starts with Hall of Famer John Elway or even Mike Shanahan’s long tenure with the team that included Super Bowl wins in each of the final two seasons of Elway’s playing career. So, many of the “omissions" folks want to talk about in the Ring of Fame, or even the Hall of Fame, are often just a discussion of the post-90s Broncos.

So, to see Mingo honored, an original Bronco who played in the team's first five seasons, shows some respect for what came before the Broncos were the Broncos for many people.

Upchurch spent nine years with the Broncos, his last season was Elway’s rookie year in 1983, but was good enough to make the league’s all-decade team for the 70s as a kick returner. All-decade players are rare, all-decade players not in their team’s Ring of Fame are rarer still.

And Reeves’ selection shows time has perhaps healed some old wounds, at least enough to honor what was done in his tenure. Owner Pat Bowlen fired Reeves in 1992 after 12 seasons with the team and there are plenty of stories still swirling in the city about the level of friction that did or didn't exist between Reeves, Shanahan and Elway in those years.

Reeves is the first coach in the team's Ring of Fame. He won five division titles and made three Super Bowl appearances in a four-year span. As a player, assistant or head coach Reeves has participated in more Super Bowls -- nine -- than any other player or coach in league history.

"It’ll probably be a tremendous emotion, I know that," Reeves said of the Week 2 ceremony in the coming season. “So many great memories. My family basically grew up, my three children, they only had to move one time from the time they got into school and the time they went to college. That wouldn’t happen with many football coaches."

When asked about his most memorable games as Broncos head coach, Reeves was quick to invoke the team’s top football executive -- Elway.

"We talk so much about the Super Bowls and all, but you know we played probably one of the more exciting championship games in Cleveland," Reeves said. “Every year you get to see that because that was noted as “The Drive” and the next year was “The Fumble,” but those were two great championship games. Probably one of the championship games we lost up in Buffalo was one we very easily could have won, but that was a great year for us, too. It’s something where when you win that many games, there were so many phenomenal comebacks that we had. One that sticks out was when John was a rookie and we played Baltimore, the Colts you know, and it was such a big deal about John not going to play for the Colts and they came in there and had a big lead in the fourth quarter and we came from behind and I think that’s when we all realized that as long as we had John Elway, we could have a chance in the fourth quarter if we just even kept it close. When you look back at all the many comebacks that we had in the fourth quarter, it gave me a lot of grey hairs, but it was exciting."

When the names go up on the stadium fašade in September, it will be a deserved honor for all three whose time had come. And those who don't remember their history are often doomed to not enjoying all of the good parts, too.
Jason Hatcher didn’t provide details; he didn’t want to come across as ripping his former team. But in going from Dallas to Washington, Hatcher went from a coach who had one way of running things to a coach who has a different style.

Hatcher played eight seasons in Dallas (Jason Garrett was his head coach for three-and-a-half seasons) and has only been around Jay Gruden for a couple of weeks -- and on the field with him for only three days during a minicamp that ended Thursday.

But that was enough time for him to formulate an initial opinion on the differences between the coaches and teams during an interview with 105.3 The Fan in Dallas.

“They really take care of the veteran guys,” said the Redskins defensive end. “They give us more say-so over the team. This is our team. The head coach don’t want to be policing the team. This is our team, so when we set the foundation for this football team, the way it’s supposed to go, that’s the way it’s supposed to go, through the players and not the coaches. It’s a players’ team, so whatever we say goes, pretty much, if it’s going in the right direction.”

What this means exactly, I’m not sure. Could be more about the players taking responsibility for what goes on, both in the locker room and on the field. If that’s the case, that’s a good thing especially if you have the right leaders.

Gruden does not come across as someone who wants to control all aspects of the team, which is why, for example, he’s giving defensive coordinator Jim Haslett more freedom than his predecessor did. Which way works better? We’ll find out this fall and over the next few seasons. But every coach needs to let it be known they’re in charge, otherwise the ship will go astray at some point. Gruden knows this well, I'm sure. But when Hue Jackson took over for Gruden in Cincinnati, he vowed to be more of the disciplinarian he felt the team needed -- and to coach certain players harder on offense than they'd been coached in the past. And no coach can take a completely hands-off approach. You need to trust the players, you need to give them freedom but you also need to be in charge. Joe Gibbs did not hover over his players, but, especially during his first tenure, they were afraid of what might happen if they did not produce.

Still, it’ll be something to ask about when we finally get a chance to be around the players during workouts later this month. Mike Shanahan had a reputation for taking care of his players, too, mostly through how they practiced and the time off they received. And, this spring, the Redskins already had one week off (after starting workouts two weeks earlier than all but six other teams because they have a first-year coach).

Ultimately it will be the players who decide fates around here. Too often in the past, they haven’t gotten it done.

RG III strengthening knee, bonds

April, 26, 2014
Apr 26
This is the sort of offseason Robert Griffin III wanted, and it’s one that has resulted in him noticing a difference. Both in his physical ability and also in his bonding with teammates.

He sees a difference in himself. He sees a difference growing with teammates, too. It started with being able to strengthen his surgically-repaired right knee. It continued into training with teammates in Arizona (and now at Redskins Park).

[+] EnlargeRobert Griffin III
Patrick McDermott/Getty ImagesA smiling Robert Griffin III has been a familiar sight during Redskins offseason workouts.
“That building a trust, building a bond, those memories you create help you on game day,” he said. “People underestimate that bond. I didn’t have as much bonding time last year. I didn’t have the offseason I had to do all the things I’m going to be doing this year. But that’s not an excuse for what happened last year. I’m grateful I got the chance to go through the offseason this year. Building those bonds and trust with teammates, that matters on game day.”

And that’s why Griffin doesn’t look back and begrudgingly thank former coach Mike Shanahan for, in his words, shutting him down with three games left. Griffin is glad to be healthy in the offseason, but to him that’s beside the point.

"What I'm doing now, being able to go through the offseason with the guys and be around them and compete with them, get better, throwing, conditioning and in the meetings," Griffin said, "all that means a lot to me, but it means more to be out with my guys on game day. So, yeah, it was difficult, but you have to play the hand you're dealt. Coach made a decision and you abide by that."

Numerous people at Redskins Park have commented on how happy Griffin seems these days, as if he's been let loose to be the sort of player and leader he envisioned when he came to Washington. The ability to condition with his teammates and having a coach he's not sparring with has increased that happiness. Plus, he's also become one of their top recruiters. He met with receiver DeSean Jackson in Los Angeles after the Eagles released him. He phoned receiver Andre Roberts before free agency, in addition to numerous other players. It's a role he relishes. Griffin also said he'll have more input in the game plan and at the line of scrimmage, where audibles in the past were discouraged. Not now.

But what feels great is this: running sprints with his teammates. It's about bonding. It's about feeling good and running without a knee brace and feeling like himself again -- in more ways than one.

"That's probably the biggest difference," Griffin said. "Being able to run and strengthen the knee as opposed to trying to get it back to where it was. That's the fun part, being able to run the half-gassers, the 300-yard shuttles. All that stuff with my teammates. That's what makes it fun again."
One person after another has let it be known how happy Robert Griffin III has appeared this offseason. It’s why I wrote a column on it a couple weeks ago.

But Griffin hasn’t spoken much this offseason, other than the occasional text messages to include in stories. His tweets Monday night, however, were telling. There is not much need to rehash what happened in 2013, but one word was used more than any other over the past year: trust. Griffin did not trust coach Mike Shanahan. Doesn’t matter how the coaches perceived it, it was reality for Griffin.

There is little doubt Griffin has been energized by the offseason, because of the coaching changes and, more recently, the acquisition of receiver DeSean Jackson. Griffin is working out the way he likes; he’s taking charge of working with others and he had a highly active role in recruiting free agents -- probably more so than most outsiders realize.

Then came this: Griffin retweeted a Pro Football Talk tweet about a Jay Gruden comment regarding his quarterback and the new logo. (Thanks to the Washington Post's Dan Steinberg, who always has his eyes out for such things). And in retweeting the link, Griffin added this: “Coach supports his players, new year.”


Then, after retweeting another PFT link to comments Trent Williams made to the local media regarding Jackson, Griffin added: “Players have each other's back, New Year”. Now, it did not seem like that last part was a big issue last season, especially given the 3-13 record.


But it’s difficult not to interpret Griffin’s first tweet regarding the coaches as a decisive nod to what he endured over the past year. This offseason is going so much different for Griffin than in 2013. For the Redskins, it’s a welcomed start.
The first day provided everyone a chance to see the change up close. Jay Gruden was hired to replace Mike Shanahan in January; many players did not have to be at Redskins Park until Monday. So they knew the changes, but Monday gave them a chance to feel them.

According to nose tackle Barry Cofield the attendance for the first day of voluntary workouts was “nearly perfect.” One player not there: receiver DeSean Jackson. But a team source said Jackson had told them before signing that he had a previously planned vacation and would be in town next week.

But that hardly detracted from the vibe at Redskins Park Monday, both Cofield and left tackle Trent Williams said. Gruden addressed the players before they began workouts.

Players can only participate in strength and conditioning exercises for the first two weeks; position coaches can't work with them on the field during this time.

“You can see the intensity and excitement in him and that carried over to everybody as we went to work out,” Cofield said. “There’s a ton of excitement and energy within the program.”

That’s what Williams said he felt, too.

“I was really impressed with how down to earth [Gruden] is and how approachable he is,” Williams said. “He obviously has a great football mind. He made the guys feel comfortable. There’s a new aura in the building, a lot comes with the coaching change and the new free-agent pickups. I’m really excited to see how this season turns out.”

Williams, though, said he wasn’t saying the Redskins needed a change from Shanahan, who was fired after a 3-13 season in his fourth year as coach. But the offshoot of any change is a new, or different, energy.

“The change brought a new attitude,” Williams said. “It gives everybody a fresh start, so in that sense that lifts a lot of people’s spirits because you get to start off on a clean slate. Nobody has an upper leg on anybody and Coach Gruden is a very people person. He’s just a fun guy to be around.”

Cofield played for older coaches in New York (Tom Coughlin) and Washington (Shanahan). Gruden, at 47, will be the youngest head coach he’s played for.

“It’s a different vibe,” Cofield said. “[Coughlin and Shanahan] had a different mindset and mentality and both were great coaches in their own way, guys I loved playing for. Coach Gruden brings something different, a different energy. The whole staff, they seem more comfortable, maybe a little more free. Obviously it’s early. The way we finished up with Coach Shanahan it was disappointing, it was a whole different atmosphere. So bringing in a new regime, a lot of assistant coaches and coordinators feel they have a new lease on life and a new chance to prove themselves.”

But Williams said that no one can ignore, or forget, what happened last season -- even if it happened under a different regime. Going from 10-6 to 3-13 led to a difficult year, particularly in the final month of the season.

Williams, an offensive captain the past two years, said players must keep last year in their minds.

“You got to know what falling down feels like,” Williams said. “You have to know what losing feels like to want to win and a season like that, you can’t forget that. It has to be a driving force to want to do better things. It has to be that motivation to say, ‘Look, we’re too talented to go 3-13 again.’ That was us. There’s nothing we can do about it now. We had the talent to perform with anybody and we didn’t come together like we were supposed to and we didn’t win games like we were supposed to. That needs to be in our back pocket at all times and be a driving force.”

Ten thoughts (plus 2) on Jay Gruden

March, 27, 2014
Mar 27
ORLANDO, Fla. -- Some leftover impressions after Jay Gruden's breakfast meeting with the press Wednesday:

1. I've said a few times that he's a breath of fresh air. Here's why: You don't get the feeling he's putting himself above anyone, even though his position puts him at quite a high level. He's personable, he's respectful. Shortly after he was hired, I spoke with him on the phone for a few minutes. After I was done asking him questions, he actually asked one of me. What does that mean? Probably not a whole lot, but I was not used to it. This only suggests that Gruden will be good to deal with from a professional standpoint. That doesn't mean he'll get a free pass.

[+] EnlargeJay Gruden
Rob Foldy/USA TODAY SportsCoach Jay Gruden has set himself apart in interviews from his predecessors in Washington.
2. Jim Zorn was personable as well. But from the minute he took over, you knew he was in over his head. He also was a bit goofy with his stories and that did not play well with players and coaches who often wondered where the heck his tales were going.

3. There's zero of that with Gruden. He's at least been an offensive coordinator so being elevated to this job was no surprise, whether people think he should have been or not. Nobody outside of the Redskins felt Zorn should have been a head coach. Some thought Gruden should be one, others did not.

4. One reason Gruden did not want to come to the NFL long ago was because he wanted to enjoy his family, coaching their youth sports and just being a dad. I completely can relate to that sentiment. But I also think it makes him less likely to believe he's smarter than everyone else. Some coaches from the past did not share that outlook.

5. Gruden spoke for an hour at Wednesday's breakfast and said quite a bit that provided insight. Former coach Mike Shanahan often spoke that long, but usually said little -- for obvious reasons, of course.

6. Gruden has a sense of humor. The topic was Robert Griffin III's running and taking too many hits. Gruden, too, hurt his knee when he played quarterback. It was not from running, however. “I hurt my knee because the right tackle missed a block,” he said. You know, that may have sounded funnier when he was talking. Now I wonder if he's not still annoyed. Whatever. It was funny at breakfast.

7. It was very different to see other teams' coaches garner much more attention than the guy leading the Redskins. Chip Kelly, for example, had reporters sitting at the table and then another ring standing behind them, with cameras all around. Gruden had a couple of national guys stop by, ask about Griffin and then leave.

8. Look at the coaches hired by the Redskins under Dan Snyder (outside of Zorn): Marty Schottenheimer, Steve Spurrier, Joe Gibbs and Mike Shanahan. All brought a certain level of attention. Gruden's last name does, but despite him being a good quote there will be less attention. Unless they win: Hey, another Gruden who wins! Or unless things go south in a hurry: Hey, another Redskins coach in trouble! Griffin's presence will always bring a high level of attention, however.

9. One question that was asked often during the coaching search about any candidate: Can Gruden command the room? Can he sell his vision and plan? That was typically tops on the list of importance when I'd talk to various NFL people about coaching candidates. Don't know if Gruden can do that or not yet in Washington because he hasn't had the chance. But I'll be curious to hear how that goes. It's a key.

10. So, too, is Griffin's improvement and a defense that must -- must -- show some teeth for a change. They still need a safety. (Yes, Ryan Clark remains in the mix.) They need to prove that the talk in March will result in a better pass rush in September. And they need to cut down on big plays allowed. Do that and Gruden's task is much easier. Otherwise, all the personable traits won't matter a bit.

11. I also wonder how he'll handle the bigger media market and how dysfunctional things can get with this organization. There's no way to know until it happens, of course. But coming from being a coordinator in small-market Cincinnati to being in charge in Washington represents quite a leap.

12. What does all this means for wins and losses? Well, that depends on other factors -- do you believe Bruce Allen can build a winner is one of the big questions, of course. The organization has failed to produce a consistent winner and until it does, there will be massive questions about that ability.

Jay Gruden a good fit with RG III

March, 26, 2014
Mar 26
Robert Griffin IIIPatrick Smith/Getty ImagesQuarterback Robert Griffin III is smiling again under new Washington coach Jay Gruden.
ORLANDO, Fla. -- They notice a difference. Robert Griffin III is happier, something just about everyone who has seen him at Redskins Park has picked up on. It could be because he’s not spending his time in Florida rehabbing his knee, as he was doing a year ago. Or that he knows the knee brace likely is a thing of the past.

Or it’s the fresh start that he -- and everyone else, for that matter -- is getting. When the Redskins changed coaches, they also changed the outlook for Griffin. Regardless of who was to blame for the failed relationship between him and former coach Mike Shanahan, the bottom line is it didn’t work. Enter Jay Gruden. Enter an excited young quarterback.

One Redskins employee described Griffin as “18 times happier.” Others echo that sentiment. Whether a happy Griffin translates into a productive one will be answered in about six months. But there is little doubt the offseason has unfolded in a positive way for Griffin.

“Jay sees football through the eyes of the quarterback,” Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said of his former offensive coordinator. “It gives him the opportunity for the quarterback to grow through him. That’s really helpful. The offense and everything has to be quarterback-friendly, and that’s important.”

It’s not just Gruden’s arrival. It’s Sean McVay being elevated to offensive coordinator. Like Gruden, McVay offers a more measured demeanor. It’s also the hiring of Doug Williams as a personnel executive. Williams will not coach Griffin, but will act as a sounding board, as someone who played the position at a high level in the NFL and understands scrutiny. The two already have spoken.

“This kid came in here as a rookie and single-handedly raised the play of everybody on that football team,” Williams said recently on SiriusXM NFL Radio. “At the end of the day, you can’t put it all on his shoulders. You’ve got to have some people around him. And I think that’s the course we’re in now. This guy, man, he comes to the office, always smiling, always upbeat, and you can tell his leadership character and the things that he’s got going for him that are gonna take him a long way.”

[+] EnlargeJay Gruden
AP Photo/Joe RobbinsJay Gruden on developing the offense around Robert Griffin III: "I think it's gotta be a two-way street. It's gotta be something we're both interactive with."
Even Gruden sees how eager Griffin is to get going. But it’s about more than just having a new coach; Griffin also wants to make up for a subpar season and to regain his rookie mojo. But Gruden wants to make sure Griffin, who is often at Redskins Park (though they can’t yet discuss football together), doesn’t burn out.

“He just needs to relax right now. Enjoy the offseason,” Gruden said. “When it’s time, it’s time. We’ll get plenty of time with him to work with his fundamentals, and just don’t stress out over it right now. He’s so anxious and wants to do so well all the time. He’s such a perfectionist that he needs to settle down right now, enjoy the offseason, enjoy the players he’s working out with right now, and have some fun.”

Griffin had to mature; it’s also important to note that he’s still only 24. And, yes, maybe he needs to be treated differently than, say, backup Kirk Cousins. Is that right or wrong? Well, coaching is about knowing how to reach every player, especially one who plays the most important position and who can define the franchise for the next decade.

Shanahan had his way of doing things, and it earned him two Super Bowl titles. As a rookie, Griffin flourished under him: 20 touchdowns, 5 interceptions, 815 yards rushing and 3,200 yards throwing. But, fair or not, Griffin never trusted him, never fully bought what he was being sold. Doesn’t matter who’s at fault, but the reality is that it makes it tougher to grow, both as a player and as a team.

Gruden has never quite relinquished a quarterback’s mindset. Heck, he says he’s still bitter about never getting a shot in the NFL. But maintaining that mindset helps him relate well to those who play the position. In Cincinnati, Gruden and Andy Dalton shared a strong bond. If that develops here, perhaps he’ll coax even more out of Griffin.

“There’s the physical tools to the game and then there’s the mental aspects, where you have to have confidence in everything you do,” Gruden said. “The quarterback needs to know that the coach has the quarterback’s best interests [at] heart. He has to understand that I want nothing more than for him to succeed. Obviously, he’s got my future in his hands. And it kind of works both ways. It would be foolish for me to think I have all the power: ‘You do exactly what I want. I don’t care if you like it or not.’ I think it’s gotta be a two-way street. It’s gotta be something we’re both interactive with.”

If there’s a disagreement, Gruden stressed that he has the final call. It’s hard to imagine anyone thinking otherwise. Gruden must be in control, and that concept must be accepted by Griffin. But if they develop a strong relationship, they can weather any storms. Last season, a storm turned into a tornado.

Griffin, now working out with teammates in Arizona, must smile at Gruden's words. It’s a new day for him: a full offseason and a coach known for building strong ties. All that’s left is to produce next season. If that happens, Griffin will give the entire organization reason to smile. Again.
When Mike Shanahan was hired by the Denver Broncos in 1995, he inherited a future Hall of Famer at quarterback in John Elway. Shanahan proceeded to help turn the Canton-bound Elway into a champion by constructing an offense that asked Elway to do less, not more.

By building around Elway, the Broncos only had to break the hero-needed glass when there was a football emergency.

So it shouldn't be a shock that Elway, now the Broncos' chief football executive, will look to use the same template to build around his own Canton-bound quarterback in Peyton Manning as the Broncos recover from the bruises left behind by a 35-point Super Bowl loss. In many ways the 2013 season was an almost weekly coronation of the passing and scoring numbers the Broncos put up, but it's already clear just a few weeks into this offseason that 2014 will have a little different flavor.

[+] EnlargeJohn Elway
AP Photo/Tom DiPaceJohn Elway didn't find Super Bowl success until Mike Shanahan surrounded him with players that allowed him to do less.
The hope is that a little less of Manning could mean one win more, at least if the Broncos get what they want out of all this.

“We're still going to have the same personality we had offensive and defensively ... our personality is not going to change because of Seattle and they won the Super Bowl,'' Elway said. “Our personality is going to be the same and we're going to get better. We're going to continue to do what we do, but obviously we've got to get better in the running game, take some pressure off (Manning).''

That's because Elway remembers history and would be more than happy to repeat it.

Elway was everything to the Broncos for much of his career. Miracle comebacks, remember-when plays, annual slices of athletic history people still call up off the mental hard-drive when the games are topics of conversation.

But until Shanahan arrived, until the Broncos stumbled onto a running back they had selected in the sixth round of the draft named Terrell Davis, until they were all stirred together in an offensive playbook that was perfect in its time and place with pass-catchers Rod Smith, Shannon Sharpe and Ed McCaffrey, Elway was not in an offense that could consistently remove some of the responsibilities from his shoulders very often.

At no time before Shanahan's arrival did Elway play in an offense that rushed for 2,100 yards in a season. In the four seasons Shanahan was Elway's head coach the Broncos topped 2,300 yards rushing three times and won Super Bowls in two of those seasons.

Now, times have changed, offenses have changed, the rules book has certainly changed as the game has taken flight. But helping your Hall of Fame quarterback is as important as ever.

Teams that find a way to put enough defense and enough of a run game around the uber-passers are the ones who will still succeed the most. Teams that find a way to have their one-of-a-kind quarterback do what he does and yet still find a way to keep him from having to do everything, will enjoy victories.

The one-trick ponies don't win the races nearly as often in January and February.

The Broncos were a never-before-seen affair on offense this past season. A 606-point colossus that saw Manning toss a record 55 touchdown passes. OK, they've been there, they've done that.

Now it's time to get down to the business adding more to the mix. Adding more, so the Broncos can consistently stop opponents on third down, can consistently get to other quarterbacks and consistently pound the ball at somebody else's defense to keep them from sending all they have at Manning. Elway threw at least 25 touchdown passes in five of his 16 seasons with the Broncos. Four of those seasons came after Shanahan's arrival -- Elway's last four seasons in the league -- and those four came when the Broncos had a top-five run game.

A better run game meant a more well-rounded Elway, a more well-rounded Elway on a more well-rounded team resulted in two titles. And as the guy who gets the last word before the ball is snapped, Manning will have to buy in just as Elway once did.

It is why, even as linebacker D'Qwell Jackson is the first prominent free agents set for a visit to Dove Valley, the coming decisions will reflect Elway's continued desire to have Manning finish his career with the Broncos as Elway finished his.

That Manning's best chance for a title is in the idea of him doing less to get it.

Expert's take: Robert Griffin III

February, 19, 2014
Feb 19
The Washington Redskins don't need to get a quarterback this offseason. They do have questions at the position after Robert Griffin III's second season. After one terrific season followed by a tough one -- yes, brought on in part by other factors -- Griffin has shown promise but also rough edges that need smoothing when it comes to his development as a passer. He'll also now get his first full offseason to work on his game. So Wednesday's question for our experts is about Griffin.

[+] EnlargeRobert Griffin III
AP Photo/Nick WassRedskins QB Robert Griffin III has a hefty challenge ahead of him for the 2014 season.
What are your expectations for RG III -- and what do you think for him going forward?

Louis Riddick: It's lukewarm. Obviously a player's success and failure has a lot to do with other factors that you can't necessarily scout and that means the relationships between players and coaches and players and players, off-field distractions, how he lives his life and how dialed in he is. Those are things you can't evaluate from afar. Number one, his relationship with Jay Gruden, his health, his relationship with teammates, what his level of commitment to being an all-around great quarterback. Those are all things that determine it. From what I've seen and know and what I've heard, I think it could really go either way with him. He could turn out to be the guy everyone thought he would be coming out of Baylor and what he showed glimpses of his rookie year. I also would not be surprised to see him become a guy who never fully realizes or meets the expectations of being the second overall pick in the draft and is looked back on in disgust. Was it his relationship with Mike Shanahan or the knee injury or the fact that he was never going to be the prototype pocket passer. Was he always going to be reliant on the zone read and be a one, two progression thrower and he just missed. It could go either way. That has yet to be determined for me.

Matt Williamson: Just watching him on tape I'll bet he was never healthy all year. He has to get healthy first and foremost. He rushed back way too soon, but that wasn't the only problem. His lower body mechanics were bad and I don't know if it was because of the injury or not. I think you need to build him from the ground up with the new staff. I imagine they will. I think the league caught up to the read option, too. It was the first offseason that every defensive coordinator was putting time into stopping the read option. That's such a key component. That's a big blow. Everything was read option or play-action. They ran so much play-action [in 2012] they weren't able to do that nearly effectively [last season]. Game scripts were part of the reason, too; the defense was so bad. A Shanahan offense is based off that zone run game but when you're down 21-0 in the second quarter no one cares about your run game.
I'm still confident he's going to be a star. But that was a rough year. He didn't put any good tape for most of the season. I think he's so unbelievably gifted, we saw him make a lot of great plays -- not just as a runner. He's a good deep passer. He has a big arm. Jay Gruden has to be salivating. I'm not an Andy Dalton fan at all and he got a lot out of Dalton. People looked at it the wrong way by asking why hire a guy whose quarterback falls apart in the postseason. I'm saying, ‘We hired a guy who had a quarterback with below-average skills and he got them to the postseason.' There wasn't a lot of clay to mold in Cincinnati.

Experts' take: Jim Haslett's return

February, 18, 2014
Feb 18
The Redskins face numerous questions this offseason. Too many to mention, perhaps. But there are a number that can be addressed and answered -- with the help of people who know the game much better than me. So all week I'll pose a different question to two experts -- former NFL executive, player and scout Louis Riddick (now an ESPN NFL Insider) and former NFL and college scout Matt Williamson (now ESPN's NFL scout). Tuesday's question is one the Redskins already answered because it involves defensive coordinator Jim Haslett. But this topic remains a lightning rod for fans, so ...

There's been a lot of talk about Jim Haslett coming back and how the lack of interference from Mike Shanahan can help. How much do you think it can help that Haslett is more on his own -- and what did you think about the Redskins retaining him?

[+] EnlargeJim Haslett
AP Photo/Paul SpinelliThe Redskins decided to retain defensive coordinator Jim Haslett even though Washington was tied for 30th in points allowed in 2013.
Matt Williamson: That's a good question. I don't think Haslett needs help. I'm not sure keeping him was the right move either. I'm not necessarily a fan of his, but I also don't think he's in over his head. He's been doing it long enough that he understands his job so it could be a good thing [without Mike Shanahan around]. Shanahan obviously was offensive-minded, but I'm sure he knows defense. But maybe he wasn't helping.

At the time, I did not understand [keeping Haslett]. But he does have ties to Jay Gruden so knowing that, it makes sense. But at the time I was wondering what Haslett has done to make the defense any better than it should be. They were really lacking in personnel so it's tough to kill a coordinator when you don't have the horses. But I don't think he got more out of anybody in particular.

Louis Riddick: Depending upon what the level of interference was and depending on how knowledgeable Shanahan is about teaching and scheming and calling defensive football given that his background is offense. It's hard to know how much it will affect it in a positive way. I will say this, knowing Jim like I do and having played for him back in the early '90s when I played for him in the World League, I know he knows defense and I know what he believes in philosophically. I know he likes to pressure and I know he understands good coverage guys and wants safeties with good range and has a good feel for down and distance tendencies. He's not a guy overwhelmed by the moment on game day. He's a very good teacher and motivator. So I would think if the interference was a negative then, yes, this could be a positive. … Sometimes the communication issues you have between a coordinator and head coach can cause things to go off the rails because people are grasping at straws. Everyone thinks they have an answer when the best answer is to let the people who you hired do their jobs. But the calls weren't the problem for Washington, the players were the problem.

Only because there was so much chatter around the fact that the defense has underperformed since he's been there and there seemed to be a desire to make a clean sweep and start over, I was surprised they were keeping him. But knowing him like I do and believing in how he approaches a game philosophically I think it's good that they did keep him. He's more than capable and deserving of leading that defense. I'm not with the public opinion that he needed to go based on where they finished statistically because there's more to it than that. If he can do it the way he wants and teach the way he wants and call it the way he wants on game day, I think you'll see a tremendous improvement in that defense from a statistical perspective, provided they address areas that need to be addressed.

In case you missed it:

Monday's question: What would you do with Brian Orakpo?

RG III offseason key to Redskins rise

February, 10, 2014
Feb 10
He took off down the field against the Minnesota Vikings and the team's broadcaster used one word to describe the moment: electrifying. That's what Robert Griffin III provided for the Washington Redskins' offense as a rookie, those 76-yard sprints for touchdowns. He extended plays, fooled defenders with fakes and turned the Redskins into a dynamic offense.

Last season, he did not. Last season the focus wasn't on his electrifying play. Rather, it was on his surgically-repaired right knee. It was on his relationship with Mike Shanahan and Kyle Shanahan. It was on catchy slogans. It was on whether he should be playing.

And it all started around this time a year ago, when Griffin was recovering from knee surgery.

[+] EnlargeGriffin III
Howard Smith/USA TODAY SportsWith a fully healed knee, Robert Griffin III can now focus on improving his game this offseason.
But do you hear the sound around Griffin these days? It's all quiet -- and that's a good thing. Griffin is back to worrying about football and football only.

It's not as if those worries prevented him from becoming better last offseason. But they contributed to the mess the team became in 2013. Griffin was a weekly topic in the media throughout the season, not just for his play, either.

But his knee led to his sluggish start because he was unable to adequately prepare for the season.

"I thought we would have seen a great jump from Year 1 to Year 2 if he wasn't rehabbing the whole time," said former Redskins quarterbacks coach Matt LaFleur. "You can't work on your craft when you're rehabbing."

Griffin already has started to attack the offseason, throwing passes to some of his receivers away from Redskins Park. He and some of his receivers, tight ends and running backs will meet in Arizona in March to work out together, some bonding time that never really developed last offseason.

Griffin also will work out again with Terry Shea, the former NFL quarterbacks coach who trained him (and others) before the NFL draft. There's a desire to improve his footwork and to speed up his release, to work on areas that will help him in an NFL pocket.

By the way, what he's doing isn't because of 2013, it's what he also did before his rookie season: he worked with Shea; he got together with his receivers before training camp. It's just that he couldn't do any of this last offseason.

He also has a new staff to work with in Washington, with whom thus far there is nothing but good vibes.

It's a fresh start that someone only two years into his career probably needed.

Another bonus for him: Most likely, he'll also be without the knee brace that protected his knee, but didn't help his mobility.

"Everybody will see a big jump in his game and he'll look more like he did in Year 1 than in Year 2," LaFleur said.

There's no guarantee, of course, that Griffin will have that sort of jump. He has a lot to prove. And every player must own up to his mistakes. But it's a better bet it will happen after an offseason of work than one spent strengthening a knee. Griffin needs to study defenses and how they played him, then go onto the field and translate what he's learned. He couldn't do that in 2013.

Now he can focus on seeing how defenses play him and anticipate coverages. At times this past season it took too long for that to happen and plays ended with him sacked or in trouble.

"He'll be able to recognize and play the position faster," said LaFleur, now the quarterbacks coach at Notre Dame.

Griffin needed an offseason like this. Two years ago it was a heady whirlwind before the draft, going from Heisman Trophy winner to working out to savior in Washington in but a few months. Last season it was about rehabbing and documentaries and hidden meanings in quotes. There wasn't much time to take a breath. Now he's the player who some wonder what he'll eventually become, providing extra motivation to a guy who is always motivated.

When Griffin was The Guy as a rookie, he provided hope for Redskins fans as well as teammates. Defensive players used that word, knowing they were still in games even if they messed up. A broken offensive play -- or covered receivers -- could still result in heroics.

"When you've got a quarterback capable of taking it the distance at any point in time, it definitely strikes fear in the defense because you can't defend that," LaFleur said. "They might have you perfectly defended across the board but if a guy can take off and outrun the defense, there's nothing you can do."

With an inconsistent Griffin in 2013, other parts of the team needed to help him, but failed.

Griffin needs to get more of his 2012 game, but while improving in other areas so he can be a longtime starter. He's a smart player who has never had his work ethic questioned. Combined with talent, those attributes give him a chance to get back there. He'll also have to buy into what Jay Gruden is selling offensively.

The Redskins, done with their salary-cap penalties, will spend in the offseason. They'll add more young guys in the draft. All of that is important. But more than anything they need to see Griffin's game elevated. That will provide hope for not only this season, but for many to come.

NFLN survey/popular coach: Redskins

January, 28, 2014
Jan 28
It’s easy to see why Pete Carroll was the runaway choice by players as the coach they’d like to play for the most with 22.5 percent of the 320 votes. He’s vibrant; the players seem to have fun so the season isn’t as much of a grind. He’s also winning.

Trust me on this: If the Seahawks weren’t winning, Carroll would not be so high on this list. Of course, they might be winning in part because of how he coaches. But it’s clear that, for now, Carroll has found a way to win in a game that too often features coaches who feel you must be serious all the time. It’s too tough to survive that way; just ask former Tampa Bay coach Greg Schiano.

I’ve always liked Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin, who is No. 2 on the list. I’m surprised Rex Ryan is so high on the list (fourth) considering that the Jets haven’t done a whole lot lately; he also earned one more vote than Bill Belichick. Just shows you that winning isn’t everything. But if I want to win? It's tough to go against Belichick. He clearly won't win every year, but the Patriots are always in contention.

But it also seems like the coaches who perhaps fared better than anticipated did so because they give the players room to breathe. You can’t be a successful NFL head coach and not know how to work or just be buddy-buddy all the time. However, you can make it a good environment and when you do that, talent knows it can shine. Andy Reid (sixth) is another I like; though he comes across as dry in interviews, his humor occasionally pokes through and his players have always seemed to respect and like playing for him.

Redskins angle: Redskins players were all over the place on this one with seven different coaches named, though no one said Carroll. Three coaches received two votes: Jeff Fisher, Tony Dungy and Mike Tomlin. Of course, Dungy is no longer an active coach. One player did say Mike Shanahan and the former Redskins coach did pick up two other votes from this survey. He had his issues, but players liked the way he ran practices and how he kept them fresh for late in the season.

The next big thing: Redskins

January, 23, 2014
Jan 23
The first priority for the Redskins is finalizing Jay Gruden's coaching staff and putting together their playbook. After that, here is what they need to do in the next few months:
  1. Figure out who they want to keep. They have a number of free agents, especially on defense. They need to find a way to keep linebacker Brian Orakpo, a pivotal player because he can rush the passer and has become a solid run defender. He'll always flirt with double-digit sack totals and twice has gotten there. The team can always use the franchise tag to keep him around, but he is a priority. They also will want to re-sign inside linebacker Perry Riley. Then there's cornerback DeAngelo Hall, coming off a good season, and backup D-lineman Chris Baker, who contributed late. He showed enough to warrant interest elsewhere.
  2. Who fits up front? With a new offensive system, the Redskins must decide how much they want to reshape the line. The O-line is a smaller group, built for Mike Shanahan's outside zone and stretch zone system. Gruden will still use zone blocking, but he also featured bigger guards at Cincinnati. Kory Lichtensteiger will need to bulk up to stay at guard; perhaps he could move to center. It's tough to make a lot of changes -- at least in the first year of a new regime -- but the Redskins likely will make some.
  3. Spend. The salary-cap penalty is gone. And that means the Redskins will be able to spend -- money has never helped them win a title, but it will enable them to rebuild their defense. They'll have approximately $30 million in salary-cap space; of course, they'll need to spend a decent amount to fill out their defense since six players who started at least seven games are free agents. But the Redskins can be active. Considering they have no first-round pick, that's important. They need to fix their secondary, even if they re-sign Hall. They need to replace retired linebacker London Fletcher and re-sign Orakpo and Riley. They also could use another receiver, especially if Leonard Hankerson's recovery from ACL surgery takes a long time. The good news for Washington is that this draft is deep, especially with bigger cornerbacks.



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