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Year of the Black QB

How will Washington move forward in support of Dwayne Haskins?

Former quarterback Jason Campbell says finding the right coach to help the rookie succeed is paramount

ASHBURN, Va. — As soon as retired quarterback Jason Campbell learned that Washington’s NFL franchise had fired head coach Jay Gruden this week, it was clear to him what the team must do next in support of rookie quarterback Dwayne Haskins.

“Any coach they recruit has to not just understand the quarterback position but also understand what Haskins’ strengths are,” said Campbell, who is a former Washington first-round draft pick and has advised Haskins during his first season. “They have to get one of these offensive minds, these guys who understand the age we’re in and the type of offense that works, who can really relate to [Haskins] and get him to where he needs to be. Right now, for Washington, that’s everything.”

At one time, Gruden was viewed as the quarterback whisperer Washington needed. It’s easy to forget now, but team president Bruce Allen hired Gruden, whom he worked with in Tampa Bay’s organization, to help rebuild Robert Griffin III. (Gruden, though, quickly determined that Griffin was ill-suited to be a long-term starting NFL passer.)

But things also change when you’re fighting to keep your job.

Throughout Washington’s winless start that resulted in Gruden’s ouster, the debate about Haskins’ standing on the depth chart raged on. Gruden’s many critics accused him of, essentially, sabotaging Haskins’ development because he was not high on the former Ohio State star (whom team owner Daniel Snyder was eager to draft) in part because Gruden preferred to draft a player who was more ready to contribute and help the team win. It’s a familiar storyline with this bunch, illustrating the dysfunction of a once-proud franchise that has become a national laughingstock.

Regardless of Gruden’s handling of Haskins (we’ll get back to that later), what matters now is Gruden has left the building, and the organization has to move on and chart the best path forward for a young, inexperienced quarterback. The man most responsible for constructing the 0-5 team is still counting on Haskins.

“We’re excited as hell to have him [Haskins] on this football team,” Allen said at team headquarters on Monday while officially announcing that Gruden had been fired. “He has a great future ahead of him.”

For Washington’s vision of Haskins’ future to become a reality, though, senior management will have to do something it has regularly failed at for the past 20 years or so: make a good hiring decision.

Under Snyder’s reign as owner since 1999, the team has produced an abysmal 139-185-1 record and only five playoff appearances in 20-plus seasons. During this span, Snyder has now fired five coaches and will hire his eighth coach after the season. For Washington, the next head coach must be a game changer — especially in getting Haskins up to speed as a starter.

“They have to do things differently,” said Campbell, who started 52 games during four seasons with Washington and has experienced the organizational dysfunction firsthand. “When you’ve been in the league for some time and been other places … you just see things are done differently than in Washington. You look at some of the coaches they had there. The young, talented coaches who got away.

“These are guys who went other places and are head coaches. Sean McVay [Los Angeles Rams], Matt LaFleur [Green Bay Packers] and Kyle Shanahan [San Francisco 49ers]. Those are the type of guys who understand this age we’re in and the offense being played. And they all understand the quarterback position. Guys like that could really help [Haskins].”

Campbell declined to advocate for anyone in particular to fill Washington’s coaching vacancy (Bill Callahan is the interim head coach). But ESPN’s Ed Werder reported that a list of potential candidates would include Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin, Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive coordinator Todd Bowles and Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, who has played a key role in the development of reigning league MVP Patrick Mahomes.

No matter whom Washington hires, Campbell just wants the team to make a sound decision, because he’s rooting hard for Haskins.

“People want to talk about the [New York] Giants game when he had those [three] interceptions, but that’s a difficult situation to be thrust into,” Campbell said. “I’m not making excuses for him, but fans don’t understand how hard it is to be ready when you’re not getting the practice reps. That’s not just him. That’s any quarterback.

Washington quarterback Dwayne Haskins is sacked by the New York Giants’ Dalvin Tomlinson (center) and Tuzar Skipper (right) during their game on Sept. 29 at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey. Haskins threw three interceptions in a 24-3 loss.

Al Bello/Getty Images

“What I know for sure is that this kid has arm talent. He can make the throws. He’s also a big, tall kid. There’s a lot to work with. No one can honestly say what he can’t do yet because he’s just really starting out. Anyone who looks at that one game … that’s just crazy. There are coaches who will want to work with him.”

Where Washington officials push back on the “Gruden hates Haskins” narrative is that Gruden wasn’t alone in wanting Haskins relegated to clipboard duty. It’s evident to Washington’s football people that Haskins is not ready to start on a team with a strong roster, let alone on one with Washington’s crater-sized holes. The team is in a standoff with Pro Bowl left tackle Trent Williams, who apparently wants out. Washington’s running game can be charitably described as ineffective. And as for the team’s defense, well, Washington’s opponents are averaging 30.2 points and 407.8 yards per game, ranking 30th and 28th, respectively, in the 32-team league. One team official joked that if Gruden truly disliked Haskins and wanted to sabotage his development, he would have named him the starter for Week 1.

Of course, there’s also the swim-or-sink approach.

Dwayne Haskins walks onto the field in the fourth quarter of the Sept. 29 game against the New York Giants. “People want to talk about the Giants game when he had those [three] interceptions, but that’s a difficult situation to be thrust into,” said former Washington quarterback Jason Campbell.

Elsa/Getty Images

Many fans have argued that Haskins should start regardless of the team’s deficiencies, figuring he could benefit from first-team practice reps and game experience. That’s reasonable in theory. Football, however, is played on the field. It would be foolish for Washington to risk ruining Haskins’ body and psyche when he’s not ready to take command of the team. At least on that much, Washington officials appear to get it, which is why Callahan announced Haskins was not a candidate to start this week against the Miami Dolphins.

Campbell, meanwhile, remains confident that under the correct tutelage, Haskins eventually will be ready to take charge for Washington.

“If you get him with the right type of people, if you get him with the right type of coaching staff, he has the opportunity to be successful,” Campbell said. “But again, they have to make the right decision.”

And for the team’s long-suffering fans, that’s the scary part.

Jason Reid is the senior NFL writer at Andscape. He enjoys watching sports, especially any games involving his son and daughter.