Heading toward training camp, football fiends thirst for breakout potential. Who or what is the next big thing on the gridiron? In Around The NFL's "Making the Leap" series, Gregg Rosenthal spotlights emerging units to keep an eye on in 2018.
Alex Smith was not a consolation prize.
"We got better," Gruden said of the team's switch from Cousins to Smith, a claim that the coach sounds confident will show up on the field this season. I believe him.
Smith is now 13 years into a counterintuitive career. He's a former No. 1 overall draft pick who doubles as a perennial underdog. He's been traded twice, both times coming after excellent seasons. He's a game manager who excelled throwing deep last season, a player derided for being boring despite being excellent at improvising with his feet. Smith has seen too much to believe that Washington is a permanent home, but at least there is no young hotshot on the Redskins' roster ready to take his job. Gruden is invested; with money, with draft capital and with his words.
What looked like a marriage of convenience at first glance has potential to be a lasting solution. The Redskins have the pieces around Smith to prove a point that Gruden has not-so-subtly made for years:
It wasn't all about Kirk.
'More firepower than ever'
Smith has functioned best when playing point guard, distributing the ball in offenses that focused on matchups, not feeding the ball to one superstar. As loaded as the 2017 Chiefs were, this Redskins squad could have an even more diverse group of weapons.
The acquisitions of former Seahawks deep threat Paul Richardson and rugged rookie running back Derrius Guice have attracted most of the attention in Washington this offseason, but the return to health for tight end Jordan Reed, running back Chris Thompson and tackle Trent Williams will be just as crucial. Add that group to an offense with one of the league's best slot receivers (Jamison Crowder), one of the best backup tight ends (Vernon Davis) and another deep threat with potential to make the leap (Josh Doctson), and the ceiling is the roof.
"I believe that we have more firepower than ever," Gruden told Kimberley A. Martin of the Washington Post after minicamp. "Not to say that the teams in the past didn't have any. I just feel good about our depth and the weapons that we have once they become healthy."
The Redskins have at least two of everything. Doctson and Richardson can take the top off a defense and win jump balls at the point of attack. Crowder, Reed and Thompson all know how to find space over the middle of the field that the team's vertical receivers help to create. Thompson is a passing-down standout and the perfect complement to Guice's relentless, Marshawn Lynch running style. Davis is necessary insurance for Reed's foot problems, and the team even has three quality tackles in Williams, Morgan Moses and Ty Nsekhe to help prevent one injury from capsizing the team. There is safety here in numbers, with flexibility to survive injuries and multiple candidates for breakout seasons.
Gruden deserves credit for being a rare constant in Washington. The Redskins' front office has been rife with turnover, hiring and then firing former general manager Scot McCloughan, but the end result heading into 2018 is an offensive roster that makes sense. Perhaps that's due to Gruden's rare ability to coach and evaluate talent. McCloughan claims that Gruden saved the team's 2017 draft class and identifies players better than some coaching greats like Mike Holmgren and Pete Carroll.
The deep roster, which also includes Pro Bowl guard Brandon Scherff, plays to Gruden's strengths. Not unlike Josh McDaniels in New England, Gruden wants a roster versatile enough to shape-shift each week depending on the opponent. He just needs someone calling the shots who is sharp enough to pull it off.
Smith's biggest asset
Most coaches drool when talking about arm strength. Gruden gets more excited when talking about a quarterback's processing time.
"He's the smartest person I've been around, without a doubt," Gruden said about Smith this summer.
It's hard not to think about Cousins when reading that comment. Gruden's ambivalence about his former quarterback was not only reflected in contract negotiations, but in his occasionally acerbic public comments. Cousins was excellent in both the 2016 and '17 seasons as a whole, but struggled badly in both Decembers. Gruden said that it's hard to say Cousins was outstanding when the team went 7-9, a comment that Cousins politely took issue with after the 2017 season.
If Cousins had a fatal flaw in Washington, it was his tendency to hesitate before making a big throw. Cousins didn't always pull the trigger when receivers were open, a point that Jay's famous, beautiful brother pointed out on national broadcasts.
Smith has struggled with similar issues during his career, finding a better balance last season between playing smart and being too careful. There is a chance that Jay's fraught relationship with quarterbacks could mirror his brother's M.O. in Tampa, where Jon seemed to love them all right up until the moment they took a snap for him. It's definitely the honeymoon stage at the moment.
"He'll get the most of his receivers and offensive line because they're going to want to play for him and they're going to feel confident that he's going to make something happen in a positive way or at least give it everything he's got and take responsibility if something doesn't work out," Gruden said of Smith at the close of minicamp.
Whether Smith is an upgrade on Cousins feels beside the point. The rest of the Redskins' offense should be better and Smith can execute Gruden's vision. Gruden is quietly one of the league's best play-callers and he wants a quarterback who can read the defense and see the same mismatches.
"That's why we wanted to get a veteran quarterback here that can adjust to different schemes and alert on the fly," Gruden said. "... We are not in here to build the team around him; the team is built and he has to lead it like right now."
Those are the words of a coach unafraid to raise expectations, one who knows that a third straight non-playoff season could be fatal. They are words that shouldn't faze Smith, who has already survived nine offensive coordinators and one Jim Harbaugh in a career with its share of playoff scars.
Both Smith and Gruden know there's no guarantee they'll ever have a better chance for success than with this team, this year. Both men should be awfully happy to have found each other.
Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.