Colin Kaepernick

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HOFFMAN: Gruden's Kaep comments partially accurate, but it shouldn't matter

December 04, 2018 - 11:58 pm
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By Craig Hoffman

Jay Gruden's conference call with reporters Tuesday made national headlines when he revealed the Redskins discussed bringing in Colin Kaepernick in the wake of Colt McCoy’s leg injury. Gruden said the team ultimately decided to go in a different direction. We soon learned that "direction" was Josh Johnson, who played under Gruden in Tampa in 2008 and Cincinnati in 2013.

Gruden's explanations as to why the team chose to go with Sanchez initially and Johnson this time around instantly came under scrutiny. What follows is this reporter’s opinion on those comments and criticisms based on years of covering the league, a few conversations over the last few weeks about the difficulty of acclimating a quarterback on short notice and some research into Kaepernick as a player.

What follows is not a referendum on Kaepernick’s protest of inequality and police discrimination during the national anthem or its effect on the decision making process. I think it would be naïve to think that it doesn't factor in as ownership measures the effect someone so polarizing would have on the business of their franchise, rightly or wrong, not to mention any personal disagreement said owner may have with Kaepernick’s stance. This is article is about the football claims Jay Gruden made today. 

"I think when you're talking about bringing a quarterback in; I think you have to think of A) what is that quarterback's skillset?” Gruden said on Tuesday’s call with local reporters. “B) How can you implement that skillset to fit your offense without having wholesale changes? Had this been Week 1, maybe he would probably be a greater possibility but since it's Week 13 with four games to go, in order to really utilize somebody like Colin Kaepernick's skillset, you're talking about a whole new group of formations and run concepts and all that good stuff. It's just very difficult.”

This comment from Gruden was met with vitriol from football minds I respect, such as Mark Bullock of The Athletic who wrote this article showing the vast similarities between Gruden's system – especially this year with Alex Smith – and Kaepernick’s years in San Francisco.

Bullock and other critics are unquestionably correct here in that the similarities in scheme are undeniable. However what’s ignored is the difficulty in learning the new language. You may have eaten apples your entire life, but if you don’t speak Spanish, are you confident you could order una manzana in Spain?

Not fond of the analogy? Let’s be more direct. Alex Smith is considered one of the smartest quarterbacks in the NFL. He’d played under multiple coaches in multiple systems over his 12 years before coming to Washington. At the time of his injury, with the benefit of an entire off-season and training camp where he took every single rep with the first team, he was still struggling to process the same concepts he’d run for years with new terminology and the subtle differences under Gruden’s guide.

"Do we want to go with a guy that's familiar with my terminology who we worked out last week,” Gruden asked rhetorically. “Or with a new guy to back up [Mark] Sanchez with a similar skill set, or go with a guy and teach basically a whole new kind of offense with a new offensive line and with a lot of those zone reads and all that stuff?”

Clearly, in Johnson, the answer was they wanted someone familiar with Gruden’s terminology. However, the idea they would have to teach an entire new system just isn’t true. The rest of the players already know the read-option plays they would install with Kaepernick. If the argument is the quarterback would have to learn – Gruden estimated that Sanchez only knows about 20% of the offense. How far behind would Kaepernick really be?

Also not holding water is the idea that they wanted someone similar to Sanchez’s skillset, as evidence by the signing of Johnson. However this is probably a smart football decision.

While it might be easier to have a similar offense to the simple, pocket-centric style that Sanchez will play, having a wildcard option isn’t a bad idea for an offense that struggled mightily on Monday night. The Redskins are going to need to heavily emphasize the quick game thanks to Sanchez’s lack of ability to drop back and consistently read coverage, and an offensive line that is beyond banged up and won’t be able to provide him time.

Johnson’s ability to run could easily be utilized in a read-option package that adds a wrinkle to what will be an otherwise simple offense. Think of Johnson less as a backup and more as an alternate to Sanchez. With that data available, it seems the team chose to split the difference. They got someone with a different skillset that knew the system and the terminology.

After diving in, I kept coming back to two main conclusions. First is, Gruden’s points do have some merit. While the concepts are similar and Kaepernick has shown the ability to execute them in extended stretches of his career (including his final four games in 2016 where he completed 67% of his passes with six touchdowns and just one interception), the verbiage is a more-than-valid limiting factor. The Smith example drives that home.

The “style” parts of Gruden’s comments hold less water. Kaepernick’s an inconsistent passer, but his inconsistencies are not much different from the other quarterbacks under consideration. He’s just a much better and more willing runner.

That leads me to the second conclusion: It shouldn't matter. In a short season scenario with the playoffs within reach, every option must be considered because there are no good options. There are no great quarterbacks sitting around waiting to be signed in December.

Kaepernick would need to work out so that the team can see how sharp he looks as a runner. Should a tryout show that he’s sharp, he can do something every other quarterback under consideration can’t. He can win a game with his legs, and did it against Green Bay in the playoffs in 2013. He is elite at something, meaning he’d have the highest upside.

Instead, the Redskins are going the safe route. They’re going with what’s familiar, and with the above reasons that make some level of sense despite some parts of the explanation that don’t hold up.

Craig Hoffman is the Redskins beat reporter for 106.7 the Fan. Follow him on Twitter

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