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In wake of miserable season, Jim Haslett has bright outlook for Redskins’ defense

By Todd Dybas / The Washington Times

Jim Haslett had a hard time believing what he was hearing.

His wife, Beth, was on the phone from Florida last week. She explained that it was beautiful there. People were enjoying their August vacation. Say what?

“I said, ‘Who the hell takes vacation in August?!’” Haslett said. “I didn’t know people took vacation in August. She said, ‘Yeah, someday you’ll see it.’ I’m like, ‘I don’t know.’ It’s kind of interesting. Honest to God, I didn’t know anyone took vacation in August. I thought it was taken in July because that’s our time off. Someday, I’ll see that.”

Forgive Haslett — fit and 58 years old with the only hint of his age coming from the crow’s feet outside his eyes — if he didn’t consider August a vacation option. He’s been involved in football for 50 years now. August is for football, not beaches.

The Redskins’ defensive coordinator had the same pursuit this August as the rest of the holdovers from last season’s 3-13 mess. He wants to put it behind him. When Mike Shanahan was fired, Haslett thought it might be time to do that by moving on. After four seasons, he figured his future with the organization was clear.

“I didn’t think there was one,” Haslett said. “Obviously, when you go 3-13, people get let go. You move on. That’s kind of the bad part of the business.”

Yet, he’s back. The Redskins hired Jay Gruden, who was the offensive coordinator for the Florida Tuskers of the now-defunct United Football League when Haslett was the head coach, to replace Shanahan. Team president and general manager Bruce Allen told Haslett and a handful of other coaches their return would be up to the new boss.

“At the time, to be honest with you, I wasn’t really worried one way or another,” Haslett said. “I just was going to play it out and see what happened.”

That doesn’t mean 3-13 wasn’t weighing on him. It left him mad. Though, the frustration of last year was countered by how pleased he was with core defensive players who kept fighting despite the grim reality being apparent midseason. Considering the number of “distractions,” a word Haslett used often when referring to last season, he took a bunker mentality to his defensive meeting room.

“We actually got together as a group and said it was us against the world,” Haslett said. “Don’t worry about what happens over there. Don’t worry about what people say. Just go out and play your butts off.

“You guys need to survive here. You need to have jobs. You need to show the world you’re good football players. We kind of pitted our room against everybody. There was nothing you could do. You had no say in what was going on. You had no say in the offense. You had no say in special teams, so you just kind of did your thing. I thought after the first few games — except Kansas City — we played pretty well.”

Haslett points at Ryan Kerrigan, DeAngelo Hall, Barry Cofield, Brian Orakpo and others as examples of Redskins defenders who continued to play through the mayhem. He also becomes defensive when talking about his unit last season. He’s emphatic they were not as poor as he feels they have been portrayed.

“I hate this part of the business,” Haslett said. “People will write stuff like, ‘They’re horrendous.’ This is what you get around here. ‘You’re this or you’re that,’ but we’re still 18th in defense. It’s not great. But, there’s still 14 teams behind us. … We could have been a lot better.”

They were 18th in yards allowed. They were also tied for 30th in points allowed. However, there’s a disconnect in those numbers.

Of the 14 teams that allowed more yardage than the Redskins, only two teams allowed as many or more points. Those were the Chicago Bears and Philadelphia Eagles, who were 30th and 31st in yardage allowed, respectively. The Dallas Cowboys allowed a staggering 6,645 yards in 2013, yet fewer points per game (27.0 vs. 29.9) than the Redskins.

The Redskins’ defense was bombarded to start last season before improving. In the first three games, it allowed an average of 488 yards. In the remaining 13 games, it cut that average to 323. The latter would have ranked eighth in the league last year over a full season.

For Haslett, those numbers point to hope, as does an effective preseason for the Redskins’ No. 1 defense. He pushes aside the points per game stat as skewed by field position or opponents’ special teams touchdowns. His number one concern is not a newfangled, advanced metric. It’s turnovers, the prime issue for so many coaches.

The Redskins failed in that category last season. They finished minus-8 in turnovers. In 2012, the year they won the NFC East, they were plus-17, good for second in the NFL.

“To me, it’s how many times can I get the ball back for the offense so they have the ability to score more points,” Haslett said. “That’s why we won the year before.”

The Redskins will remain a 3-4 defense. Haslett played as a linebacker in the 3-4 and has coached both a 3-4 and 4-3 alignment. When Shanahan arrived in Washington in 2010, he wanted to use a 3-4 after seeing the success of the Pittsburgh Steelers, according to Haslett. Haslett says the construction of an effective 3-4 starts with a skilled nose tackle, strong edge rushers and a versatile safety.

“It’s a hell of a defense,” Haslett said. “You’ve just got to have all the bodies and parts. Still not sure we’ve got everybody, but pretty close.”

Being a powerful defense and having a semblance of team unity is what Haslett expects this year. Last year was misery. Only one season of his professional life was worse.

“Katrina,” Haslett said, referencing the 2005 hurricane that ripped through Louisiana and the Gulf Coast when Haslett was head coach of the Saints. “[Last year] was right behind it.

“One, I had no control of; and this one I felt like I had no control of. But, I could control the guys that I was coaching.”

Gruden has left the defense fully in Haslett’s hands. An example of Gruden’s offensive focus came during the second game of the preseason when the coach said he was looking at offensive plays while the defense was on the field, a lapse he later chided himself for. Meanwhile, he has tried to bolster Haslett’s odds of success.

“He’s been shaken a little bit the past couple of years,” Gruden said. “His defense hasn’t been ranked as high as I’m sure he would like, but my job was to get him some more horses over there that he could work with and free him up and let him do his own thing and see where it goes.”

While waiting to learn his fate with the organization after last season, Haslett had another conversation with his wife. He had come to a conclusion:

“If I never coach again, I’ll be happier than I was last year.”

Gruden brought him back, which will force Haslett to find his happiness while on the field.

Another season is a few days away and those strange people just concluded their August vacations. For the fifth consecutive year, Haslett is walking past the ancient AstroTurf field that precedes the real practice field in Redskins Park. Once again, his focus is to work the players during the week, then let them loose Sunday, which means any late-summer relaxation will have to wait.

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