The juxtaposition last week in Washington was glaring.
On one side of the field, you had the Patriots, the team that’s done everything right — three Super Bowl championships since 2000, five conference titles, one head coach, and three starting quarterbacks.
And on the other side were the Redskins, the team that’s done, well, everything wrong — eight head coaches, three playoff berths, one playoff win, 15 starting quarterbacks and seven last-place finishes in the same span. And we won’t even mention the team’s PR messes off the field, particularly the current flap over its nickname.
Getting a glimpse of excellence last week in joint practices with the Patriots was good for the Redskins, whose loyal fan base (more than 60,000 fans in three days at Richmond) is desperate for a winner.
“I talked to a bunch of our coaches and players — it’s great to see another team, at the level they’re at, work at practice and the tempo and the way they do things,” said former Redskins tight end Chris Cooley, now a radio host on a Dan Snyder-owned station. “They’re so professional. Maybe it will rub off on our players.”
Washington fans are leery of the excitement brought in by a new coaching staff because they’ve been there many times before. Marty Schottenheimer, Steve Spurrier, Joe Gibbs, Jim Zorn, and Mike Shanahan all were supposed to bring the Super Bowl trophy back to D.C. for the first time since the 1991 season, but none could figure out their quarterback situation or develop sustained success. The Redskins had a magical 2012 season with a 10-6 record and the immediate flash of quarterback Robert Griffin III, but followed it up with a giant dud last year, limping to the finish line at 3-13 and costing Shanahan his job.
Now the next man up is Jay Gruden, the younger brother of the famous “Monday Night Football” announcer, whose only previous head coaching experience came in the Arena Football League.
But there might be good reason for optimism in Washington (yes, we know, stop us if you’ve heard that before). Gruden earned high marks for the work he did with Andy Dalton as Cincinnati’s offensive coordinator the last three years, and came into his interview with a leg up on the competition. Redskins general manager Bruce Allen, the son of former Redskins coaching great George Allen, knows a thing or two about the Gruden family — Jon was his coach in both Oakland and Tampa Bay. Whereas Shanahan was obsessive and controlling of every aspect of his program, Gruden is more of a low-key, high-energy players’ coach.
“You can tell it’s the same DNA in many ways. Even meetings are enthusiastic,” Allen said of the Gruden brothers. “I think Jay has a different perspective [than Jon], being that he played the [quarterback] position more and did a really good job in Cincinnati. I was impressed with how much he’s matured since when I saw him as an assistant.”
More importantly, the Redskins have an intriguing roster, particularly on offense. Most importantly, Griffin is in his second year off his torn ACL, was able to get around the edge several times against the Patriots in practice last week. He says he’s not thinking about the injury anymore. He’s also surrounded by a nice list of playmakers — wide receiver Pierre Garcon, new slot receiver and punt returner Andre Roberts, emerging young tight end Jordan Reed (who hopefully can avoid his concussion problem), unexpected addition DeSean Jackson, and running back Alfred Morris, who has rushed for 2,888 yards and 20 touchdowns in two seasons.
The defense, ranked 30th in points allowed last year (29.9 per game), is still a big question mark, especially in the secondary, where there are questions about how much aging veterans DeAngelo Hall and Ryan Clark have left in the tank. But they have a good core of veteran leaders and young, emerging talent in the front seven, including Brian Orakpo, Ryan Kerrigan, and linebacker Perry Riley.
“It’s so disappointing that we win the division one year and then last place, and we earned both of those positions,” Allen said. “Hopefully some of the young guys have grown. I think that Jay’s new offense and what he’s instilling, the guys have really accepted his coaching. Hopefully that helps us get in the right direction.”
The good sign in Washington is that whether you agree with Snyder’s tactics in defending his team’s nickname, at least he seems to have figured out how to run his football operation. Snyder was Jimmy Haslam before Jimmy Haslam, firing coaches after one year (Schottenheimer) and making bizarre hires (Zorn was first hired as offensive coordinator, then elevated to head coach). Although there are concerns that he has given too much organizational power to Griffin, at least Snyder has entrusted Allen to run the football operation for the last five years, and given him the resources to go out and land someone like Jackson when he unexpectedly became available. He also gave Shanahan four years to prove himself — an eternity in Snyder terms —
The Redskins aren’t backing down from expectations, either. The Eagles appear the class of the NFC East, but the division is wide open.
“I don’t think anything is long term,” Allen said. “We have to get better, quick.”
Gruden doesn’t mind having big expectations right away. “We’re not going to use year one, starting over, as an excuse,” he said. “We’re going to compete right away. We’re not trying to go .500, or win more games than we won last year. We’re trying to compete for the division championship, compete for the playoffs and a trip to the Super Bowl, no question.”
Sideline use of tablets still needs some work
New technology not always better
The use of tablet technology isn’t a new thing for the NFL — almost every team has transitioned from the traditional playbook to tablets over the last few years — but this season for the first time they’re coming to the sidelines, thanks to a partnership with Microsoft.
The tablets are supposed to simplify things for coaches — instead of having dozens of print-out photos to sort through on the sideline, coaches and quarterbacks can now scroll through images and draw on the photos with just the swipe of a finger. And according to the Associated Press, the tablets will operate on a secure network to prevent hacking, and will be locked in a temperature-controlled cart when not in use.
Of course, there are a few kinks to be worked out this preseason. Bill Belichick said he’s a fan of the technology, but the wireless internet at FedEx Field was a little wonky on Thursday night, making it difficult for the coaches on the sidelines to use the tablets. This likely isn’t a problem unique to FedEx Field, as most stadiums still don’t have the infrastructure to allow 70,000-plus people to use wireless internet at stadiums during games.
“I’d say the quality of the tablets is good, and the clarity of the pictures and all that is good, better than what we had,” Belichick said Friday. “The issues are that . . . if the WiFi isn’t connected or isn’t working or something happens, then you have nothing, you have zero.”
“That happened in our game and it’s happened in other games, from my understanding of talking to other people that had been involved there too. So, we wanted to get a little feedback on that, on the subject.”
Belichick noted that coaches in the press box also use tablets to look at eye-in-the-sky photos, and they didn’t have a problem with the WiFi.
“So in the press box, they’re good,” he said. “On the field . . . again with the people I’ve talked to, there haven’t been a lot of instances where they functioned for the entirety of the game. At some point, they were down and then they came back. So, I think there are some plusses to them. I think there are definitely some things that we need to get used to in terms of using, I wouldn’t say new technology but a new product really, the way it’s organized.”
49ers’ new stadium gets one thumbs down
The “rain on their parade” award of the week goes to Bloomberg Businessweek for its interesting review of Levi’s Stadium, the 49ers’ new $1.3 billion palace in Santa Clara, Calif. While most write-ups and reviews of the stadium have glowed about its use of innovation and environmental consciousness (including in this space), Businessweek gave the stadium a thumbs down last week after attending a Major League Soccer game, calling it a “dud.”
The stadium boasts of massive Wi-Fi capabilities (hello, Bill Belichick), solar panels that collect enough power over one year to power the stadium for 10 football games, and a LEED certified green roof, but Businessweek writer Ashlee Vance mostly noticed poor transportation planning — especially noteworthy given that Levi’s is hosting the Super Bowl in February 2016.
“Billing Wi-Fi as a testament to Silicon Valley’s technological mettle is embarrassing. And that green roof? It’s a tiny patch of shrubs on top of suites that I never even noticed while at the Earthquakes game,” Vance wrote. “It typically takes me 15 minutes to drive from my house in Mountain View to the stadium. It took 90 minutes to get home by train. To get back to San Francisco, fans would then need to catch a larger train from Mountain View and ride another hour home.”
Other fans complained to the San Jose Mercury-News about waiting 90 minutes after the match just for a train to arrive, and then rides took an hour.
“I hope they’ll give us another chance,” Valley Transportation Authority spokeswoman Colleen Valles told the Mercury-News. “We’re definitely looking at different ways we can make this better for people.”
Deployment of Revis tied to Browner’s skills
One last word about our story last week on the potential of “Revis Island” becoming “Revis Hemisphere” this year, as Darrelle Revis has spent 99 percent of his snaps in training camp at left cornerback so far.
I have heard plenty of fans and media cast doubt over the prospect of Revis sticking to one side of the field, a la Richard Sherman, instead of matching him up with the opponent’s best receiver. Obviously, Revis can line up anywhere on the field and cover any receiver in the game. He’s going to be a stud no matter how he is utilized.
But Revis’s usage will mostly be dictated by fellow cornerback Brandon Browner. According to Pro Football Focus, Browner played 2,443 snaps in three seasons at Seattle — every single one of them at right cornerback. Bill Belichick and the Patriots knew this when they signed Browner in March, and appropriately have only used him at right cornerback in training camp. It would be beyond foolish to sign a player who has spent 2,500 snaps at only one position, and then promptly take him out of his comfort zone and play elsewhere. Belichick is no dummy. Browner is a right cornerback.
So that will limit Revis’s options. In the first four games of the season, when Browner is suspended, we might see more varied uses with Revis. And Revis may occasionally line up next to Browner against twin receivers in man-to-man coverage, or against a slot receiver.
But when Browner is in the game, you can count on Revis spending most of his time on the left side of the field.
Coaches take a hit by reducing preseason
The NFL plans on expanding the playoffs from 12 to 14 teams next year, and to compensate for adding two extra games in the postseason, the NFL is considering reducing the preseason from four to three games, according to a report from Jason Cole at Bleacher Report.
Players surely won’t mind a shortened preseason, and fans won’t mind being forced to pay for one fewer exhibition game when they buy their season tickets. But, once again, will anyone bother consulting the coaches with this? Coaches’ jobs have become much tougher since the new collective bargaining agreement severely limited offseason practice time, eliminated two-a-days in training camp, and reduced full-contact practices in the regular season. Now the NFL might take away 25 percent of the preseason? As it is, the coaches only have four games to truly evaluate the bottom of their roster and make tough decisions for their 53-man roster. Taking away a preseason game will only make their jobs tougher.
Too many penalties
Mark Cuban ruffled some feathers in March when he declared that the NFL is “10 years away from an implosion.” He was talking about the NFL’s oversaturation on TV, but maybe he was onto something else when he said, “When you try to take it too far, people turn the other way.”
According to Mike Pereira, the league’s former chief of officiating, NFL officials called 25 defensive holding and nine illegal contact penalties in the six preseason games on Thursday night, as per the league’s new emphasis. Referees called only 181 defensive holding and 38 illegal contact penalties all of last season.
The Patriots’ game with the Redskins had 23 penalties overall, 19 accepted. The Broncos-Seahawks game had 25 penalties, and the other four games had 13, 14, 15, and 16 penalties. Owners better be careful what they wish for. Nothing will kill the enjoyment of the NFL product faster than if each game becomes a penalty-fest.
Madden speaks his mind
Finally, someone forgot to send the memo to Hall of Famer John Madden about the NFL’s effort to ward off the bad PR from concussions and other serious injuries.
Madden was in Canton, Ohio last week for the Hall of Fame ceremony and appearing on a panel about the NFL’s “Heads Up Football Program,” which attempts to certify youth coaches in a program to then teach proper tackling technique to kids. Madden, though, was probably a little too honest for the NFL’s taste.
“All due respect to the program, I don’t believe in it,” Madden said. “How long does it take to get a certificate? . . . I respect what good coaches do. I know that you don’t learn to be a coach in an hour and a half. Take the helmets off kids