ASHBURN, Va. – Safety Ryan Clark said the Washington Redskins defense messed up a coverage so simple that his 13-year-old son could run it.
Defensive coordinator Jim Haslett described one breakdown and added: "We learned that stuff in high school."
When coach Jay Gruden went for a fourth-and-1, a blocker blocked the wrong guy, leaving a scot-free pass-rusher to turn the play into a sack-fumble-touchdown for the other team.
Gruden was asked this week about "football IQ," a fair topic given the way his Redskins (3-9) have been playing. It's not that his players are always getting consistently beat man-on-man — he could understand that — but one of his biggest disappointments this season, particularly this deep in the season, is that there are "too many blown assignments."
The coach has therefore challenged his team. He wants to see smarter football the rest of the season, saying his players need to make the upcoming schedule the "most important four games of their careers."
"When the same plays happen over and over again," Gruden said, "then you have to think about changing the players out or changing the scheme, one or the other."
There's definitely a disconnect somewhere. Everyone says the practices are good. Players say they understand the schemes, that they're not too complicated. The defense gets some leeway because there have been so many injuries, but there are only so many excuses to be made for failing to remember something so basic that it was installed on the second day of training camp.
"When you talk to a coach, they're going to say we need to coach better," said tight end Logan Paulsen, who missed the fourth-and-1 block. "When you talk to the player, they're going to say we need to execute better. And I think that's the way it should be. People are taking accountability on the issue. And I think part of it is not giving it lip service. It's going in and putting in the extra time and studying, and knowing what's going on."
When mistakes become so widespread, the coaching staff usually gets the blame. Gruden, who took over a 3-13 team and faced a stiff learning curve in his first season as an NFL head coach, probably gets a mulligan unless the players start tuning him out. Haslett, in his fifth season in Washington, has a far less certain prognosis.
Regardless of who's coaching, the roster will need plenty of work. There are not only questions about talent, but also leadership and the intangible "football IQ," something Gruden said can be the "hardest thing" to discern when picking players.
"That's why in the draft there's a lot of misses from time to time in first-, second-, third-rounders," Gruden said, "because you can't judge that until you actually get them in your building. You can only see what they do on tape and the 40-yard dash. Football IQ and the Wonderlic test are two different things. I've seen guys with great Wonderlic scores that have the dumbest football IQ I've ever seen and vice versa."
And "football IQ" isn't easy to teach.
"You can learn to an extent," Gruden said, "but a lot of that comes naturally."
Clark knows this could be his last season because he's 35 years old. For everyone else, he echoes Gruden's call to be on notice for the month of December.
"Jay's job here this year is to build a culture, and that culture can't be one of being undisciplined, it can't be one of being unreliable," Clark said. "I think that's the thing that you've got to try to figure out these last four games. ... Do you have the correct people to at least start a foundation?"
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