ASHBURN, Va. -- During a team meeting earlier this week, Washington Redskins coach Jay Gruden singled out quarterback Mark Sanchez for a minute detail that, to him, was actually a big deal. And he wanted it known just how big.
“Sanchez!” Gruden said. “Get in front of a mirror and do your cadence 100 times tonight!”
As the Redskins try to stay in the playoff race with an injury-ravaged offense, they were tasked with not only crafting a game plan, but returning to the basics to get their quarterbacks -- Mark Sanchez and Josh Johnson -- ready for a game. Sanchez arrived two weeks ago; Johnson on Tuesday.
The Redskins (6-6) host the New York Giants on Sunday. They lost quarterback Alex Smith to a career-threatening compound spiral fracture and backup Colt McCoy to a broken leg. That left them in an emergency situation with quarterbacks.
It’s not an ideal situation and for the Redskins’ coaches, it meant going over aspects of the game they’d typically do in the spring. “This is Day 1 of rookie minicamp, maybe the second week of OTA,” Gruden said.
But even during that time, they can install parts of the offense a little bit at a time. This week, they’ve had to throw waves of information at Sanchez. They also wanted to get Johnson ready to play; Gruden said they’ll “have a package of plays for Josh possibly and maybe throw him in for a series or two, try to utilize both of their skill sets.”
Here’s what needed work:
No, Sanchez did not practice in front of a mirror. But he did work on it a few times, trying to get it down the way Washington needed. And Gruden was serious about what he told Sanchez. His cadence was not in line with what Washington needed when he replaced McCoy during the Monday night loss at Philadelphia. Too often, Gruden said, Sanchez’s cadence would tail off. It leads to false starts.
“I wanted to kill him,” Gruden said. “Cadence was an issue.”
Sanchez wasn’t bothered that Gruden said something about his cadence in front of the team. He understands it’s a big deal.
“I respond better to hard coaching,” Sanchez said. “I love that stuff. That’s great because I’ll probably say it to my kid in Pop Warner someday.”
Redskins passing game coordinator/quarterbacks coach Kevin O’Connell said they start working on cadence early in the spring. They want their quarterbacks’ cadences to match in how they enunciate and their timing. Smith and McCoy were identical, just like McCoy and Kirk Cousins were in unison the previous three years.
“So when a guy goes in, his cadence is the same,” O’Connell said. “Cadence is definitely one that you have to get as many reps as you can and be as consistent as you can.”
They can’t just snap the ball on one every time. As Gruden said, that would result in the Giants’ defensive ends gaining a major advantage by knowing the snap count.
O’Connell played with Sanchez in New York and Redskins offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh was his quarterbacks coach with the Jets. They know what he knows and can help him translate that to Washington’s offense, starting with the feet. The coaches had to make sure Sanchez could time his drops with the receivers’ routes.
In some places, a team will use a five-step drop. In another, for the same route, they might use a three-step drop and a hitch. The Redskins aren’t trying to be perfect with Sanchez; they’re in survival mode.
“They’re not grooming me to start Game 1,” Sanchez said. “It’s, ‘Here’s how we’ve done it. If you feel comfortable taking a three step and a hitch instead of a five and plant, go for it.’ That’s the blending. It’s different when you’re a 10-year vet."
When Sanchez was a rookie, Cavanaugh expected perfection in his drops.
“I’ve seen both sides,” Sanchez said. “[In New York] with Cav it was, ‘Again! Not three steps, five steps!’ Out here it’s like, what do you want to do? I’m like, how different is this? A few years back, Cav, you were riding me for that.”
There’s a reason Sanchez would arrive at Redskins Park around 6 a.m. and stay until 9:30 p.m. There’s a reason he’d need to take a half-hour nap in one of the sensory deprivation pods at the facility.
“Those are awesome,” Sanchez said. “That helps a lot, recharges you a little bit. Get in a half-hour or an hour and get back upstairs and watch more film.”
The reason: He must learn the protections. If he can’t get the protections right, the line will struggle -- and he’ll leave himself open to free rushers. It’s mostly on third downs where it becomes a bigger issue, when defenses use more exotic looks.
So he would go over formations and protections with O’Connell, making sure he knew their rules and how to counter what the defense might do. Not everyone does it the same. Sanchez also used flash cards to memorize plays or assignments.
Sanchez has seen these looks, but teams handle these differently. He has to know what they call their various protections. It’s part of managing a game.
“Communication is where it’s at,” Gruden said. “Everyone says, just a game manager. But you win with game managers. Get in the right play, get in the right protection and get the ball to the open guy. That’s what it’s all about.”
The Redskins will still use their run-pass options. They can run a lot of what they have in the past. They just can’t have the same volume of plays in the game plan. They can use perhaps 30 to 50 percent of their playbook.
When asked how many plays they had, Gruden said, “Too many. Never met a play you didn’t like.”
They have a series of plays for various situations: If, because of injury, they have to use more two-tight-end sets or three-receiver sets. They also have short-yardage and goal-line packages as well as red zone and third down. There are play-actions, bootlegs, quick passing game, screens.
“There’s a lot to it, a lot of communication and terminology,” Gruden said.
But that goes back to Sanchez staying at the facility late and arriving early. The same is true for the coaches this week. All that work for a return to basics.
“We’ll limit the number of plays and formations,” Gruden said, “and just play and try to win a game.”