ASHBURN, Va. — The Washington Redskins faced a choice last offseason. They needed a quarterback to build around. They also had coach Jay Gruden entering what most assuredly would be a playoff-or-bust season. They could have started over — firing the coaching staff, unloading high salaries, accruing more picks and drafting a quarterback.
They instead chose to keep Gruden and draft quarterback Dwayne Haskins in the first round. Now they will need to start over in a few months — a situation that isn’t good for Gruden, Haskins or the franchise.
At 0-4 with a game Sunday against the 4-0 New England Patriots (1 p.m. ET, CBS), the Redskins seem headed for 0-5 for the sixth time in franchise history and first since 2001. That season? They won eight of their last 11, same as they did the previous time under Joe Gibbs in 1981. But when you reach this point with a coach in his sixth season, it’s unrealistic to anticipate such a turnaround.
Every week there are reports about Gruden’s job security, which will continue until someone at the top bats them down or he is fired. The Redskins have solid young talent on a roster that shouldn’t be winless but find themselves in a predicament that causes flashbacks to January, when they decided to stick with the status quo.
Back then, the Redskins saw themselves as the team that was 6-3 in 2018 before injuries ruined their season. They kept a coach who was a game under .500 the previous four seasons.
But they didn’t really fix problem areas as much as they hoped they would get better. Then one thing after another pulled them further from that January thinking.
Their perennial Pro Bowl left tackle, Trent Williams, decided to hold out. It’s unclear if he’ll report. He should be traded.
Their best tight end, Jordan Reed, hasn’t played because of a concussion. It’s unclear when he’ll return.
Their starting running back, Derrius Guice, injured his knee in the first game and is on injured reserve.
Maybe the biggest issue is that their best option at quarterback, Colt McCoy, hasn’t played while dealing with the effects of a broken leg suffered in December. McCoy might not impress outsiders, but he’s well-versed in this offense and, if healthy, could run it more efficiently than Case Keenum or Haskins can right now.
The Redskins played the New York Giants last week without Williams, Reed, Guice, McCoy, standout rookie receiver Terry McLaurin and starting offensive linemen Brandon Scherff (guard) and Chase Roullier (center).
The problems don’t stop there.
They have a big-money cornerback (Josh Norman) who struggles in certain coverages and a big-money pass-rusher (Ryan Kerrigan) who has one sack. The defense, led by coordinator Greg Manusky and considered the team’s strength entering the season, has mostly been a disaster, ranking 32nd on third-down conversions.
All of this brings us back to Haskins. Look at the issues described above: That’s what he dealt with in his first NFL action, a game he entered already trailing 14-0 against the Giants. It wasn’t the best spot for a rookie, but Gruden needed a spark, and Keenum wasn’t getting it done.
It was a must-win game for a team that needed some semblance of hope, but the Redskins were relying on a rookie quarterback they have long thought would need time to develop.
To maximize Haskins’ ability, the Redskins would have to change some of what they want to do. Every NFL offense is difficult; the West Coast one is assuredly so. It’s tough for a new veteran quarterback and even harder for a rookie.
Then again, any chance of Gruden saving his job probably involves Haskins. If the rookie plays — and plays well for an extended time — then perhaps there’s a different conversation. It’s a long shot for sure, but without that scenario, Gruden’s departure is a “when,” not an “if.”
The difficult part for a coach on the hot seat is trying to develop a quarterback he’s unlikely to coach beyond this season. Haskins hasn’t been ignored by any means, but if you’re coaching for your job, you’ll play the guy who can help you Sunday — not in 2020 and beyond.
At least, not until he becomes your last chance for survival.
At some point, this season will be about Haskins’ development, which will again make for a strange turn. If Gruden is still around, he’ll be the one leading Haskins’ development, knowing it won’t do a whole lot to help his situation.
But even if … when the Redskins change coaches and possibly offensive systems, there are ways Haskins can benefit. He can learn to read defenses at an NFL level and get a feel for the speed. He can exit the season with better footwork, a big help in any offense. Heck, some of these offensive coaches might remain.
Still, this all adds up to an unwinnable situation, one fans have to watch for 12 more games. After that, the Redskins will do what they should have done last offseason. They’ll start fresh. They’ll shed some high salaries and try to trade some veterans.
In the meantime, they’ll regret not doing so in January.