Redskins must reverse opening-game trend under Jay Gruden

Jay Gruden has a 28-35-1 record in four seasons as Redskins coach. Steven Senne/AP Photo

ASHBURN, Va. -- The first impressions haven't been good. The Washington Redskins have followed a losing pattern during coach Jay Gruden’s first four seasons in the season opener. Wash, rinse, repeat -- four times.

They’re 0-4 in openers under Gruden, a coach who enters without a playoff berth the past two years and absent any postseason success. Losing the opener at Arizona wouldn't necessarily ruin their season, but it would be good to win one for a change.

Of course, not everyone is paying attention. Most players, even those around for all four defeats, had no clue.

“I don’t even think we realized it until it was brought up to us,” Redskins running back Chris Thompson said.

“Didn’t realize that,” Redskins linebacker Ryan Kerrigan said.

This is a key season for Gruden, whose contract runs through 2020. There’s been no public edict about what he must do to keep his job beyond this year, but suffice to say it’s not wise to test owner Dan Snyder with a third straight non-playoff season.

“We need to produce, without a doubt,” Gruden said earlier this summer.

The Redskins average only 12.3 points per game in openers, but 28.8 points in Week 2. There are many theories why they’ve failed in openers, from debates about preseason playing time to intensity of practices.

Last season against Philadelphia, Redskins receiver Terrelle Pryor, wide open down the middle, failed to locate a deep ball on a play in which he would have scored easily. On the Eagles’ first series, facing a third-and-long, quarterback Carson Wentz was nearly sacked. Nearly. He broke to the outside and threw a touchdown pass. The Redskins lost 30-17.

Gruden boiled down the Redskins' Week 1 futility to one word: turnovers. In those losses, the Redskins have yet to win the turnover battle and have turned it over a combined 10 times while taking it away five.

Quarterback Kirk Cousins, now with Minnesota, owned a 71.7 passer rating in three of those openers, with two touchdowns to five picks. In the red zone, Cousins threw two picks and one touchdown, completing 33.3 percent of his throws.

But don’t just blame Cousins: In 2014 at Houston, with Robert Griffin III at quarterback, Washington turned it over twice inside the Texans’ 10-yard line and had a punt blocked for a touchdown. The Redskins lost 17-6.

Enter new quarterback Alex Smith. In his five openers with Kansas City, the Chiefs went 4-1 as he threw a combined 12 touchdowns to four interceptions.

“Key turnovers cost us in all four of those first games and it can’t happen,” Gruden said. “Critical plays and critical situations, we failed to make, and the other team did make."

Washington faces a team Sunday that has a new coach and quarterback. The Arizona Cardinals took a similar approach to Washington in the preseason, limiting starting quarterback Sam Bradford to just 11 passes -- three fewer than Smith.

The real problem for the Redskins could be that several key offensive players haven’t yet played together in a game. Third-down back Chris Thompson and tight end Jordan Reed both sat out the preseason games but did practice as they recover from offseason surgeries. Receiver Jamison Crowder didn’t play, either. The team just signed starting running back Adrian Peterson two weeks ago.

The starting offense showed little, but keep this in mind: The Redskins did not run any run-pass option plays in the preseason, which will be a staple during the year.

“There’s some blind faith that we all put into this,” Smith said.

The Redskins did hit a little more in training camp, with one live-tackling session they haven't run in the past. Kerrigan said they got more reps during practices last week. New receiver Paul Richardson said Smith’s attitude also should help.

“I see his leadership; I see him not leaving plays on the field,” Richardson said. “I don’t see him saying, ‘OK, we messed this up but we’ll get to it later.’ I see him making those corrections immediately. He’s communicating with the offensive line, with the backs, the receivers, the tight ends. We know what to expect from him. He doesn’t have any let-up in him. Even in the preseason, he’s scrambling and taking hits. He’s not just trying to stay pretty. It means something to him.”

A fast start would help in an NFC that looks strong. The Redskins must play two games against the defending Super Bowl champion Eagles and also have games against New Orleans, Atlanta, Green Bay, Carolina and 2017 AFC runner-up Jacksonville.

“You can get too over-hyped and think this game is going to define your season and it’s one of 16," Smith said. "Every team wants to start fast. … [But] it’s not going to define us.”