Breaking Down Dwayne Haskins' Struggles, If He Should Be Benched

Photo: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

At the end of the Marvel movie Avengers: Age of Ultron, Vision is face-to-face with Ultron for what would be the last time. In that scene, he and Ultron, both artificial intelligent lifeforms, have a conversation about humans. Ultron views the human race as doomed and life on Earth as in need of saving—or upgrading, as he states it, in the form of extinction. Vision agrees with him on the former, to an extent, but also states that there is grace in human failure, a point Ultron cannot comprehend.

Vision also has a quote within that conversation where he says, “Humans are odd. They think order and chaos are somehow opposites and try to control what won’t be.”

As I began my short film study of Washington quarterback Dwayne Haskins, I thought of that quote, but with a football twist. That when it comes to young quarterbacks we somehow believe that struggles and progress are opposites.

I’m not so sure that’s always true, even if we believe it should be.

Haskins has been under fire, as of late. The second-year quarterback has even been the subject of a potential benching if his play didn’t improve. Though Washington fell for the third straight week this past weekend, the announcement of the team moving on from Haskins as their starting quarterback hasn’t happened.

And it shouldn’t. At least not yet.

Let’s first look at things from Haskins’ point of view.

Haskins was a one-year starter at Ohio State. His 14 games as a starter in his record-setting 2018 season were the only games he was the main signal-caller in his college career. No matter how old you are or how much time you might be in a program, snaps are what matter most, not years. Haskins might as well have been a redshirt freshman going into the NFL, experience wise. 

Things were also relatively easy for Haskins at Ohio State. Under head coach Urban Meyer and then Ryan Day after him, the Buckeyes have long been one of the most talented teams in the country year in and year out. When it came to Big Ten competition, there was no one even close to them consistently. In Haskins’ three seasons while he was in Columbus, the Buckeyes lost just five games and were ranked No. 2 in the nation, at one point, in each of those three seasons.

I don’t mean to say Haskins didn’t have to work hard for his success at Ohio State, but throwing the ball to the likes of Terry McLaurin, Parris Campbell, K.J. Hill, and Chris Olave, while handing the ball off to J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber made for some easier pre- and post-snap decisions. Ohio State’s offense is also notorious for being great at manufacturing space. With superior athletes all across the field, there aren’t as many tough tight-window throws.

So not only was Haskins coming into the NFL relatively green with a low number of total games started and total snaps seen as many other quarterbacks usually are, he was also coming from a place where the difficulty level of individual success was not very taxing on him at OSU.

Take all that and put him on one of the worst offensive rosters in the NFL, which was the case when Washington drafted him No. 15 overall in 2019, and a slow start to success should’ve been budgeted.

And speaking of that offensive roster, we have to be fair to the young quarterback and list off who he’s working with.

Up front, with no Trent Williams to protect his blindside, Pro Football Focus had Washington as their fourth-worst offensive line going into the season. Left tackle Geron Christian and left guard Wes Martin are one of the lowest graded left sides of the line in the NFL. Chase Roullier and Wes Schweitzer have played decently in the middle, but this team is still lacking an interior presence with guard Brandon Schreff out. Right tackle Morgan Moses appears to be the only real consistent impact presence along the line. This should absolutely be taken into the equation when evaluating Haskins.

Then you look at their offensive weapons.

As for a run game for Haskins to lean on, projected starting running back Derrius Guice was released from the team after his arrest on domestic violence charges. Adrian Peterson, who led the team in rushing the last two years, was cut. And that left rookie offensive weapon Antonio Gibson, who had just 33 career carries as an RB/WR hybrid at Memphis to be the starting back.

In the passing game, McLaurin is already a budding star in this league. He and Haskins had incumbent chemistry from their time together at Ohio State, and that is visible on the field when they suit up. McLaurin nearly had 1,000 yards receiving in his rookie season last year, but the next closest receiver to him in yards was Kelvin Harmon who had just 365. Harmon is out for the year with injury. That leaves undrafted Dontrelle Inman, undrafted Steven Sims Jr., and undrafted Isaiah Wright as Haskins' next three options at receiver. Oh, and at tight end, his best option right now is former quarterback convert, Logan Thomas.

As if that is not enough, the behind the scenes element of Haskins’ time in Washington has been a circus—and that might be putting it lightly.

Going into his rookie season, there were reports that head coach at the time, Jay Gruden, didn’t even want to draft Haskins at No. 15, and that the pick was orchestrated more by owner Dan Synder and president Bruce Allen than it was the head coach. More hints of this came out when after Gruden was fired following the team’s 0-5 start—he seemed to say there was pressure from fans and maybe other voices above him too to start Haskins after the team’s early struggles. But Haskins didn’t start his first game until after Gruden was gone—Gruden didn’t think Haskins was ready.

So if we look at Haskins’ coaching timeline from draft day until now, he worked all offseason in 2019 with Gruden as his head coach—an offensive head coach who is hands-on with quarterbacks—but only until mid-October when Gruden was fired. He then learned mostly from offensive coordinator Kevin O’Connell, but only for the next two months, as the entire coaching staff was replaced at the end of the season. Ron Rivera was named head coach after that, and Scott Turner was named his offensive coordinator.

So halfway through his first calendar year as an NFL quarterback, Haskins was already on his third voice to listen to as the main offensive coach in charge. Now we’re four games into this second season and people are ready to bench him for inconsistencies.

When it’s all spelled out like that, do you understand how silly that sounds?

Now, while I would argue not many quarterbacks have been put in a tougher situation to succeed early on than Haskins, for many reasons, he is not totally blameless for the opinions out there of him not being the guy long-term in Washington.

His play also has something to do with that.

At 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds with very long arms, Haskins has a cannon of an arm. Arm strength, both with distance and velocity, is not an issue with him. In terms of physical gifts as a thrower, Haskins might not be rare, but he is certainly adequate to make almost every throw you would want him to in this league. 

But the biggest area in which Haskins is lacking right now is in his decision making—his mental processing, which could be argued is even more important.

Over the last few days, I went back and watched every passing attempt from Haskins so far this 2020 season. Within them, there are building blocks and things you like to see. But where most people will point to his accuracy scores, which are not good, as the biggest flaw of his game right now, I would tell you what’s holding him back the most is what’s going in between the ears.

Take the play above from Week 1 as a starting point for our discussion about that. In it, Washington was in a 3x1 set, something Haskins ran a lot of at Ohio State. With just two yards to gain for the first down, Washington dialed up crossing mesh patterns, something Haskins also saw a lot of at Ohio State—you can see this constantly throughout each game plan, as it is clearly a route combination that gives Haskins confidence, and is also tough to defend.

But the Philadelphia Eagles did their homework on Haskins and were ready for the double mesh with how they covered it in man coverage. This play ended up being an incompletion, and it really could have been an interception. But it should have been a touchdown.

When diagnosing what coverage the defense is in pre-snap, the quarterback will start with the deepest part of the field. Haskins should have seen the Eagles were playing with just one single-high safety. That should have been important for him knowing what the route combination was. Haskins should have known that in order to create more space for the shallow crossers, one of his receivers was going to run a deep crosser to his right to carry both his man defender and hopefully the safety away from the short portion of the field. However, as the play progressed, the safety got aggressive almost immediately (while Haskins still had the ball and was looking that way) and committed to coming down on the first mesh route Haskins was looking at. That should have turned a light on in the back of Haskins’ head that there was no help over the top for his receiver running the deep cross.

Though his eyes were looking in that direction and the safety coming down was the reason why he didn’t pull the trigger on the first throw, that did not force his brain to notify him that the deep route was then the most open. Instead, he panicked a bit, solely focusing on the two yards and the first down, and threw a late, cross-field throw which was almost intercepted.

He should have taken the shot over the top. That was “what the defense gave him,” as coaches often say. 

This all happens very fast, but that is one of many hints that tell me Haskins isn’t seeing the full field the way he should be right now.

Here’s another play from two weeks later against the Browns where Haskins once again was not trusting his eyes. 

McLaurin is Haskins’ main man. They have great chemistry together, especially on quick in-breaking routes where Haskins can deliver McLaurin a ball in rhythm and in stride for yards after the catch. But sometimes, as seen above, he is too fixated on McLaurin—and the defense knows that.

The play was 3rd-and-15, so after you see the play call, they really were just hoping for some magic in a bottle to get yards after the catch to get the first down. With that as the goal, it makes sense that McLaurin was his primary, but Haskins failed to notice (or just didn’t care) about the signs of success for the play pre-snap.

The Browns had two safeties deep to signal two-high coverage on the back end. When Haskins motioned running back Gibson out of the backfield and the linebacker followed him, that tipped Haskins that it was Cover 2 man. With the cornerbacks playing close press coverage, there was a chance that McLaurin could break free in his release, create separation on the quick slant, and in fact get yards after the catch that could have been enough for a first down. But Haskins failed to identify or at least respect the alignment of the cornerback on McLaurin. The corner was lined up with inside leverage over McLaurin’s inside shoulder. The whole point of that is to better defend against a quick throw to the inside. Knowing that the corners were in man coverage, he should have known that. He also should have seen that the linebacker didn’t have any help over the middle for Gibson’s in-breaking route. 

The linebacker stuck with Gibson pretty good, but if Haskins threw it his way, perhaps he could have waited a bit for Gibson to gain separation which could have yielded a catch or even pass interference.

All of that is “what if.” Chances are they weren’t getting a first down there. But to me, that’s not the point. The point is that Haskins should not have been looking McLaurin’s way on this play—there was a better throw to be made. He needed to see that.

Haskins threw three interceptions against Cleveland in Week 3. The final one is shown above.

I want you to watch that play from the sideline angle first to see the play design, but then I want you to watch the end zone angle right after that to see that Haskins never takes his eye off the target, and that’s the reason why the defender was able to intercept it so easily.

Right now, Haskins does not do nearly enough manipulation with his eyes. He locks in on a single target, and it makes him very predictable. At Ohio State, you can get away with that. His receivers were generally so much more talented than the opposition, that even with a bad process, the results were going to go in his favor due to the talent discrepancy. But the NFL is a much different world. Haskins is learning that the hard way.

Seeing that he can’t just go off what made him successful at OSU is the first step. The next and biggest step to determining whether or not he should stick around in Washington is how he responds to that.

The final play I wanted to highlight from the Browns game was one where you can tell Haskins, at times, is just trying to keep his head above water right now in the NFL.

In the play above, there were almost three separate times where Haskins could have pulled the trigger to an open man and he didn’t for any of them.

If you watch the end zone angle you get a better look at the first two, where Haskins had an open running back and slot receiver in between the Browns’ zone coverage right down the middle of the field. On that play, he has to be able to hit the slot player Inman behind the linebackers at the hash marks. That is about as easy of a throw as you’ll find in this league, but Haskins didn’t see it. 

With him not throwing to the slot player, he could have then dumped it off to the running back out of the backfield, which he did not do, and if he would have navigated the pocket better, he could have hit the outside wide receiver who was then coming across the middle of the field a second later.

There were too many chances for bigger gains on that play for it to just go as a scramble out of bounds. That was an example of Haskins just not seeing what he needs to pre- and post-snap. The throws were there.

Against the Ravens last week, Haskins was once again flustered. This was more excusable than the other matchups, as the Ravens boast one of the best defenses in the league, but Haskins’ biggest concerns were once again not from the defense he was facing but rather how he was seeing it.

There were a handful of plays I could have chosen where Haskins continued to either lock eyes with his target too early, as to telegraph where the pass was going or just not seeing the field fully. But I wanted to highlight this one because it was the one that was most talked about after the game.

This play was 4th-and-13. Washington had to get this ball in the end zone. Down 18, this is the reason Rivera gave for why he opted to go for it instead of kick the field goal.

“It was fourth and goal to go, and I decided to go for it. I wanted to see what would happen,” Rivera explained after the game. “I really did. That’s what I said, let's go for it.”

What happened was Haskins never gave his guys a chance to come away with points due to the receiver he chose to throw the ball to.

“That’s the situational awareness he’ll have to understand,” Rivera said. “That ball has to be put in a position where it can get into the end zone, or you have to put it into the end zone.”

Now, the route combination wasn’t very creative. He had two players merging at the same spot in the end zone where the Ravens also had most of their coverage defenders. So, in Haskins’ defense, it wasn’t like he missed an obvious throw. But Rivera does have a point that Haskins has to know that the ball has to either be in the end zone or a heck of a lot closer than where he threw it.

So, should Washington move on from Dwayne Haskins? If you ask me, we’re nowhere close to being able to answer that question fairly.

First of all, who are they going to bench him for? This Washington team is bad. Their roster is bad, and their 2020 outlook is bad. What good does starting Kyle Allen do for this team? Even if by chance it means one or two more wins, how is that more valuable than more games on tape to determine whether your first-round quarterback is worth keeping around and investing in? Even for those who are lower on Haskins’ outlook, the alternatives aren’t worth it for this season.

As for 2021 and beyond, that’s where the conversation should really start, and honestly, we don’t have all the evidence to make that decision right now. Josh Allen is the big example people will point to for a potential turnaround with Haskins. It took Allen about a year and a half of struggles to really start to take steps toward getting better toward the end of last year. Now, in his third year (with the same offensive coordinator and an upgraded offensive cast each season), he’s on an MVP track.

I’m not saying Haskins is going to be Allen, but I’m not saying he won’t be, either. The point is, given Haskins’ background and the context mentioned above, to look at his early struggles and simply write him off is premature. 

He has to be better. Period. But struggles and progress are not as opposite as many people make them out to be. It takes consistent structure, an improving cast, and time to answer whether it is or not.

Not every quarterback is given a fair shake at all three. Whether Haskins will get his is still to be determined.

Written By:

Trevor Sikkema

Senior NFL Writer

Senior NFL Draft Analyst for The Draft Network. Co-Host of the Locked On NFL Draft Podcast.

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