Washington Cardinals Football

Washington head coach Ron Rivera was frustrated with Dwayne Haskins’ rate of development in a year when the division is there for the taking.

Any pressure Washington head coach Ron Rivera might be feeling is coming from the men below him, not the man in the suite above him. To replace Dwayne Haskins at quarterback after four games is a mightily defiant move, but it’s where Rivera feels his duty lies: to 52 other players, not to owner Daniel Snyder. This is Rivera’s bid to control the door to his locker room, to make sure the owner’s creeping poison gas doesn’t waft over his team like chloroform and knock it into yet another long-term failure coma.

Haskins can’t play, not in this league, not yet anyway. He needs remedial football work, and everybody knows it. One zinger in every five passes does not make an NFL quarterback. The only person who may not know it is owner Daniel Snyder, who handpicked Haskins with his usual face-pressed-to-the-glass infatuation on draft day last year.

The problem with devoting any more time to an unready kid who hasn’t yet learned accuracy or his craft is that it messes with everyone’s livelihood, and that messes with your team chemistry. This is a league in which the guaranteed money is scarce and incentive clauses are loaded. Every time Haskins errs — every time he throws short of a marker, doesn’t make the right adjustment, can’t complete a makable third-down throw — he takes money out of everybody’s pocket and wastes their effort. And that’s simply “not fair,” as Rivera has said.

In retrospect, it’s clear that Rivera was ready to make a change to Kyle Allen fully a week ago, after Haskins’ four-turnover game against Cleveland. Hear again what he had to say after that game. He rattled off name after name of players who had “put their heart out on the field,” Daron Payne, Jonathan Allen, Montez Sweat, Jon Bostic, the offensive line, the tight ends, the backs, the receivers. He named practically everyone on the 53-man roster. “Truthfully, they deserved better,” he said. The implication was a stunner: Poor quarterback play had sabotaged an otherwise good effort, and the other guys shouldn’t have to put up with it.

Rivera was even more blunt on Wednesday. “One thing people don’t see is the frustration from the players on the sideline. I see that.”

Will Kyle Allen be any less frustrating? It’s impossible to know — but what everyone now knows Rivera intends to follow his convictions. He will be second-guessed for the rest of the season by the owner. “You’ll live with it,” Snyder said. Yes, he will. But Rivera obviously prefers that to dissension within his locker room over one player’s special dispensation to “grow into” his job, simply because the owner likes to play fantasy football. Put yourself into the shoes of those other players, the ones whose hands and knees are in the dirt. That’s what Rivera did.

Haskins’ completion rate on throws under pressure is just 24 percent, league-last. Can’t win that way. Washington is the worst team in the entire league on third down plays, converting just 33.3 percent. Can’t win that way. And Haskins is himself responsible for six sacks (according to Pro Football Focus) and five turnovers, 11 negative plays, in just four games. That means Washington has had live with the likelihood that once every quarter, Haskins will put them in a hole. Can’t win that way.

Those plays create a daisy-chain effect. If Washington can get 70 offensive snaps per game, players know they can do some damage; if they only get 60, because they gave up the ball a couple of extra times on turnovers or failed conversions, that’s 10 fewer chances to make something happen, 10 fewer chances for a running back to meet his incentives or for a receiver to trigger a performance bonus. It’s 10 fewer chances to eke out a win that might put you atop the lousy NFC East, which is there for the taking. It’s 10 fewer chances for morale and belief to rise, instead of sink.

These were foreseeable problems. Haskins played just 14 games as a starter at Ohio State before he turned pro, and his numbers there, while impressive, came with some red flags well-noted by pro scouts and ignored by Snyder: The depth of his targets was low, much of his yardage came on shallow routes and his accuracy when facing five or more defensive backs suffered, a bad omen for aspiring pro quarterbacks. Through 11 games as an NFL starter, he’s still showing the same tendencies.

These things might be curable in time, and without a doubt events have been unfair to Haskins: He was cheated by the pandemic shutdown of some fieldwork and a preseason, and he’s playing under his third head coach in less than two seasons. But have events been any more or less unfair to his teammates?

If you had to point to one causative factor in Washington’s encyclical failures, the strange paralysis of 8-8 seasons that deteriorate to 3-13, it’s a lack of central cohesion. Recent franchise history shows that this is the exact point where other coaches lost their grip, when the owner chose a pet at quarterback and began to exert subtle splintering pressure. Mike Shanahan wasn’t in the building five minutes before Snyder forced Donovan McNabb on him, and his tenure was a continual scramble against dysfunction from then on.

So those who argue that this season should be a rebuild all about one-man’s learning experience because he was a first-round draft choice are thinking in the flat wrong direction. Look around at winning organizations, and you don’t see them tilting the entire weight of the franchise toward one player. In fact, they do the dead opposite. As Bill Belichick once said, “If I favor one I don’t favor 52.”

This is an important moment. It’s Rivera’s one and only chance to get the dynamic of his team right, and he seized it.

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