Humanizing failure: The fall of Dwayne Haskins in Washington

After 14 total starts at Ohio State, redshirt sophomore quarterback Dwayne Haskins, Jr. believed he was ready for the next level. He had the coveted rocket right arm, a solid 6-foot-3 frame that’s built to withstand the pounding an NFL defense could give, and showed production on the field as he led the Buckeyes to a 13–1 record, including a win in the Rose Bowl.

He was — as some experts and fans around the league noted — a tantalizing prospect.

Maybe it was these kinds of titles that led to Haskins’ downfall. Maybe it was the external pressure, the internal expectations, or a combination of both. Regardless of the cause, Haskins in the college ranks was not the same football player at the professional level.

Now, less than two years after Washington fans burst into joy at the announcement of his name, he has found himself compared to the likes of Jamarcus Russell, Paxton Lynch, and other infamous NFL busts.

That near two-year period leaves most with the same question in mind: What happened? And while some say the answer to this will never be truly understood, the uncomfortable reality is that it’s hidden in plain sight.

It’s bigger than football.

For the sake of transparency, Haskins was far from perfect. He made more than his fair share of mistakes and errors during his time in Washington. As Les Carpenter of The Washington Post noted:

[Jay Gruden and Ron Rivera] never described a player who was arrogant, despite such suggestions outside team headquarters. Instead, they seemed confused as to why [Haskins] wouldn’t do the things most quarterbacks do instinctively — arrive early to the team facility, sit for hours in meetings and study opponents deep into the night. He had a sharp mind and grasped plays quickly but had trouble applying them in games. Some of the coaches blamed this on a lack of preparation.

By all accounts, the problem was simple: Haskins didn’t work hard enough. He had the talent and the capability to be a great quarterback, but failed to consistently do what it takes to maximize the potential his skills bring.

And now, it seems his NFL career is on life support. After signing a Reserve/Future Contract with the Pittsburgh Steelers in January, many believe this is his final chance to prove he is worthy of having a roster spot on any team at the professional level.

However, even if Pittsburgh does happen to be Haskins’ last stop, it won’t tell the whole story. It’s easy to depersonalize and — to some extent, even — dehumanize professional athletes. The NFL, like all sports leagues, is a business. That’s something, for better or for worse, that will never change.

And that’s why it’s important to look at it from Haskins’ perspective.

To word it quite plainly, Haskins never had the full support of the organization at any point in his time with Washington after he was selected with the 15th overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft. To make matters worse, he was well aware of that fact before he ever stepped foot in the team’s facility in Ashburn.

According to reports, the conflict between Washington’s coaching staff/scouting department and the team’s ownership became so tense on draft night that Kyle Smith, who was eventually promoted to Vice President of Player Personnel when Ron Rivera was hired as Head Coach the following year, voiced his disagreement with Owner Dan Snyder and President Bruce Allen in the war room as the pick was sent in.

Chris Russell of Sports Illustrated described the events that unfolded:

Smith started to ask questions on what the choice was going to be. Sources described to us a tense silence. Smith asked the room specifically: Is the organization really thinking of taking Haskins?

At that point, one voice chimed in. It was the owner’s voice, confirming that Haskins was going to be the choice.

More silence ensued in the moments around the pick and with the pick made, Smith pushed himself up from the table and unloaded on the room — a speech that was described as “fiery and passionate’’ about the pick and how much he disagreed with the selection.

It’s hard to come into an organization as a first-round rookie who is expected to be the face of the franchise. Haskins was no exception to that. However, he faced an entirely unprecedented situation in itself: the entire world knew his coaching staff didn’t want him there.

But it’s not the effect on Haskins directly that made the biggest impact. It was the effect on his teammates. What were they supposed to make of the reports? How were they supposed to trust a 22 year-old quarterback that the guys calling the shots openly didn’t trust?

How were they supposed to put their bodies on the line for a player who was only wanted by two people in the organization?

Quarterbacks, especially at the highest level, thrive on the confidence they gain from their teammates’ trust. Unfortunately for Haskins, he was forced to play catch-up from the moment he put on his burgundy and gold hat on draft night.

And while this doesn’t serve as an excuse for his turbulent tenure with Washington, it certainly didn’t make things easier.

On Sept. 29, 2019, the Washington Redskins took on the New York Giants in MetLife Stadium. After falling behind 14–0 halfway through the second quarter, Washington Head Coach Jay Gruden benched then-starting quarterback Case Keenum in favor of Haskins on the team’s final possession of the first half.

At the sight of the rookie taking his first snap, a newfound wave of hope washed over Washington fans everywhere. The wave was short-lived, as Haskins went on to throw three interceptions en route to a 24–3 loss to the Giants. Despite the poor outing, many fans chalked it up to a young quarterback being thrown into a game in which his team was behind by two scores. The widespread opinion was he had shown just enough to be optimistic about his chance to develop and grow into the passer that he was at Ohio State.

Unfortunately, he was never given that chance.

According to Les Carpenter in his previously-referenced piece for The Washington Post, Gruden was determined to show ownership he had no interest in developing a “project” quarterback.

After banishing Haskins to a side field during [the 2019] training camp, Gruden threw him into an early-season game at the New York Giants to show Snyder how far Haskins was from being a capable quarterback, a person with knowledge of the situation said.

These bewildering tactics taken by Gruden to spite the team’s top brass can easily be connected to his firing just a few weeks into the 2019 regular season.

And while Haskins’ lack of an acceptable work ethic and immaturity (which was on full display after his first win as a starting quarterback against Detroit, where he missed the final snap to take a selfie with a fan) can easily be pinned as the explanation for such decisions, electing to not even attempt to develop the traits required to be successful is just as bewildering as sending your first-round pick to throw on a separate practice field by himself.

After being let go as Jacksonville’s Offensive Coordinator earlier this year, Gruden has been making the rounds in the D.C. media scene, trying to clean up his image as a coach in hopes of landing another job in the NFL.

While on The Kevin Sheehan Show this month, he reflected on his situation with Haskins, saying he would’ve had “no problem at all” starting him all 16 games in 2019. He added, “He just had a long way to go. I mean he showed talent in practice without a doubt, but he also showed he had a long, long way to go.”

However, no matter what Gruden says about the past or how he tries to paint his reputation, there’s one thing that he will always be responsible for: the unreconcilable damage of a young quarterback’s confidence.

Dwayne Haskins, the person.

The 2020 season — specifically a moment within it — showed us a dynamic of Haskins the public had never seen before.

Enter Ron Rivera. The two-time NFL Coach of the Year arrived in Ashburn with the reputation of a leader who was prepared to usher in a much-needed culture change in the Washington Football Team organization. The role this reputation played in his hiring was enlarged when reports of sexual misconduct within the team’s headquarters came to light.

Haskins entered the season as the presumptive starter, as there wasn’t an outright competition for the job in training camp. In the opener against Philadelphia, he showed considerable improvement from 2019. He was more mobile, seemingly more comfortable, and didn’t turn the ball over as he led Washington back from a 17–0 deficit to win by ten, 27–17.

After a 30–15 defeat at the hands of the Cardinals in Arizona in week two, Washington went on the road once again, this time to Cleveland. When it’s all said and done on Haskins’ career, this is the game I’ll always point back to as the turning point.

Throughout the majority of the game, Washington goes blow-for-blow with the Browns. However, despite a promising start, Haskins struggles. Even with two impressive passing touchdowns to Dontrelle Inman, he is once again wildly inconsistent, throwing three interceptions on Washington’s own end of the field.

Following the 34–20 loss, it was clear among a majority of viewers that Haskins’ performance was one that single-handedly cost Washington the game. In fact, the consensus was that had any other quarterback on the team’s roster started, the burgundy and gold would’ve left Cleveland with a record of 2–1.

Regardless, the team had an investment in Haskins. And Rivera, who was asked in the postgame presser if he is considering evaluating the quarterback position heading into week four, knew this. He made it clear there was no change coming.

“I just got done talking with Dwayne. I told him, look, I’m behind you. I’m going to stick with you, so you go out and play football. He has to understand you don’t have to make the big play all the time. Plus you’ve got guys who can make plays. You need to get the ball in their hands and let them go out and make plays.”

Washington returned home for week four when they welcomed a top-of-the-line defense in the Baltimore Ravens to FedEx Field. Haskins, statistically, had the best game of his professional career. Despite throwing for 304 yards with a 71% completion rate and a rushing touchdown, Washington lost the game handedly, 31–17.

Most concluded that this was the first real sign of significant improvement from him as a passer. However, despite the stats, Haskins was still missing open receivers and moving through his progressions too quickly. As JT O’Sullivan of The QB School on YouTube, while breaking down Haskins’ game against Baltimore, pointed out:

“I don’t want to be a jerk about it, but this is about as simple [of a route concept] as it gets … when you’re not making this throw, making this connection, hooking this up, that’s strictly a decision-making and thought processing issue.”

Despite these issues from Haskins, the offensive line didn’t do him much favors, and this was noted numerous times by O’Sullivan throughout the video. At one point, he makes this remark regarding the performance of Washington’s offensive line on one particular play:

“It’s borderline disrespectful to ask a quarterback to make this kind of throw in a game with six rushers, including one left completely untouched on his way to the backfield.”

Unfortunately, those lapses in protection surfaced all game long, as Haskins was sacked multiple times, including one for an 18-yard loss.

On Wednesday of the following week, Haskins was benched in favor of undrafted free agent Kyle Allen. Rivera’s reasoning for the move was that he felt the team was in a position to win a historically bad division, as Washington was still atop the NFC East standings at 1–3.

The coach’s comments left the impression that had Washington beaten Cleveland in week three, Haskins would still be the starter heading into week five. Nevertheless, the plug was pulled on the second-year QB, and his confidence took a nosedive once again.

The next time Haskins took the field was week 14 against the 49ers, when he entered the game in relief of Alex Smith. He would then start the team’s game against Seattle the next week, where he threw two interceptions in a 20–15 defeat.

However, the final act of Haskins’ time with Washington would come in the team’s week 16 matchup with the Panthers.

With an NFC East title and a trip to the playoffs on the line, Haskins went 14/28 for 154 yards with 0 touchdowns, 2 interceptions, and a 36.9 quarterback rating. It was arguably one of the worst single-game performances from an NFL quarterback in recent memory.

For three-and-a-half quarters, Washington fans watched a quarterback play with absolutely no confidence. Haskins was benched in favor of journeyman Taylor Heinicke midway through the final frame.

After having his captaincy revoked during the week as a result of his attendance at his girlfriend’s birthday party with no mask on and surrounded by strippers, the team, both players and coaches alike, had given up on the second-year passer. And while most viewers will remember the performance, I personally will always think of his postgame comments before I even think about the game itself.

That’s because this was the moment. It was the moment that one thing truly became clear: Haskins’ downfall was bigger than football.

“You sign up for this job. It is what it is. Sometimes being human isn’t enough. Own up to your responsibilities and your mistakes and be a better person moving forward. Put your best foot forward and pray for opportunities. When you have them, seize them and make the most of it. You never know when you’ll get another one.”

Sometimes being human isn’t enough.

“[This was] definitely the hardest week of my life. I just want to bounce back and move forward, pray and get my life together.”

Pray and get my life together.

All of this eventually culminated with a somber tweet posted by Haskins in response to his release from the team following the game against Carolina, in which he stated the following:

“My time with the WFT has unfortunately come to an end. I [want to] thank the team & fans for the opportunity to play for the team I grew up rooting for. I take full responsibility for not meeting the standards of an NFL QB & will become a better man & player because of this experience.”

Become a better man.

Once again, I’m not making excuses for Dwayne Haskins. There were things he could’ve, and should’ve, done better during his time in D.C.

However, I am inclined to believe he has fallen victim to the mindset that the average fan has in regard to professional athletes: they’re supposed to be robots. They aren’t supposed to be fazed by external criticism, no matter how harsh it may be.

While the NFL is a business, and teams must make business decisions, it’s important to keep in mind that these are humans who operate the same way we do. They read replies on Twitter and articles on ESPN just like you and me. And while athletes, especially those who are paid millions to do what they love, shouldn’t be coddled by any means, dragging a player down doesn’t make you look savvy. It doesn’t make you look funny or smart.

In fact, it makes you look disgusting.

Critiquing film and providing informed, reasonable comments regarding a player’s performance is one thing. Calling a player names and suggesting he should work at your local fast food chain is another.

When it comes down to it, Dwayne Haskins is 23 years old. He isn’t the first young adult with millions in the bank to make a poor decision every now and then, and he certainly won’t be the last. With that in mind, it’s important to remember that Haskins, just like all professional sports figures, is more than an athlete.

Originally published at https://brettesch.substack.com.

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Brett Esch

Native Texan. Communication Arts major at Bethel College. Sports and freelance journalist.