GREEN BAY - Before the Green Bay Packers and Washington Redskins met in an NFC wild-card playoff game in January a panel of four NFL personnel agreed to select the winner.
The Packers, a 1½-point underdog, nevertheless got the nod from all four scouts: 31-24, 24-20, 28-24 and 28-21.
Right the scouts were as Green Bay, after a terrible start led to an 11-0 deficit, defeated the Redskins, 35-18.
Ten months later, on Sunday night at FedEx Field, the Packers will be the underdog again, this time by 2½ points. The difference is, a panel of four personnel people tabbed Washington to win by scores of 20-17, 28-21, 29-27 and 24-21.
“I don’t know what the hell happened to Green Bay,” an executive said Tuesday. “I think Green Bay will be able to throw on them quite a bit. Down the middle (on defense) the Redskins are weak.
“But Green Bay can’t stop anyone now? What is going on? With the injuries on the offensive line and to (Clay) Matthews, I’ll go Redskins.”
Another personnel director took Washington because he called it a “resilient” team with a top-notch defensive coordinator in Joe Barry.
“I like the Redskins at home, 20-17,” a third scout said. “(Jay) Gruden and his staff are playing mistake-free football trying not to beat themselves. Pretty balanced across the board with offense, defense and special teams.
“If you’re looking for flash you won’t find that in Washington. Not a lot of big-name players. More of the journeyman, blue-collar type team that finds ways to win.”
The Redskins started 0-2, won four in a row and sit in third place in the torrid NFC East race at 5-3-1.
“I don’t know if Green Bay can stop the bleeding unless they score on every possession,” an AFC personnel man said. “Defensively, they lack pressure and coverage, and last week they struggled to slow down the run.
“Kirk Cousins may not have weapons of mass production, but they have a variety of good playmakers at each position. The defense is just starting to form enough chemistry to play like a complete unit instead of a bunch of individual parts.”
Sean McVay, the third-year coordinator and son of 49ers front-office great John McVay, calls the plays but coach Jay Gruden is heavily involved. The Redskins favor close formations, bunches of receivers, primarily a zone run game and multiple tight-end sets. They’re running less (38.1%) than a year ago (42.4%) but more effectively (113.3 to 97.9). The Redskins rank fourth in yards (407.8), tied for 14th in giveaways (12) and 16th in points (23.6).
If WR DeSean Jackson (5-10, 175) is back from a shoulder injury, there would be five legitimate targets. Jackson, the former Eagle, is the consummate deep threat. His ability to track the ball and make contested catches opens up underneath windows for ex-Colt Pierre Garcon (6-0, 211) and Jamison Crowder (5-8½, 182). Garcon, who had an NFL-high 113 catches in 2013, has lost at least a step over nine seasons but still does the dirty work well with soft hands and a hard-nosed approach. Crowder has become one of the league’s premier slots because of his instant separation ability. He has good, not great speed but catches everything and gets up the field in a jiffy. If Jackson sits for a second straight game, smooth but spindly Ryan Grant (6-0½, 201) would replace him outside. He has great hands and improving routes. TEs Jordan Reed (6-2½, 246) and former 49er Vernon Davis (6-3, 248) make a formidable receiving pair, and Derek Carrier (6-4, 248), the Edgerton High and Beloit College grad, played nine snaps in his debut Sunday. Reed has 4.71 speed, accelerates in a hurry and eats up most LBs. Davis, 32, averages a team-high 14.7 in 26 receptions.
The loss of two starters hasn’t reversed the upward trend of this unit. Trent Williams, a top-five LT, will miss the second of a four-game substance-abuse suspension. Remarkably, Ty Nsekhe (6-8, 335), a 31-year-old refugee from the CFL and Arena leagues, held up great Sunday against Minnesota’s Everson Griffen. He has phenomenal length, adequate feet and angles, good sustain and toughness. RT Morgan Moses (6-6, 335), a second-year starter, also has long arms (35 3/8 inches) and has improved to an adequate level. He’ll get knocked off-balance by speed-to-power rushes but generally is pretty hard to beat. An ankle injury has plagued him for weeks. The Sept. 25 loss (calf) of C Kory Lichtensteiger, an undersized seven-year starter, forced G Spencer Long (6-4½, 324) to play. Long, a third-round pick in ’14, is ornery, pass blocks well and might be an upgrade. Former Brown LG Shawn Lauvao (6-3, 326), a 70-game starter, lacks some anchor but scraps and is active with his hands. RG Brandon Scherff (6-4½, 323), the fifth pick in ’15, is the best. When his height and average arm length (33 3/8) didn’t fit for RT, he moved inside and already ranks as one of the NFL’s premier guards. He’s technically superior, fast to the LB level and finishes blocks.
The coming-out party for Kirk Cousins (6-2½, 210) was last year. This season, his second as full-fledged starter, has seen him reduce unforced errors and distribute the ball even more efficiently. He isn’t immune to bad throws. They just don’t pop up as often. He scans the field adroitly, gets rid of the ball (just 12 sacks) and completes 66.9%. His passer rating of 94.8 ranks 14th. Cousins isn’t much of an athlete and ran just 4.84 as a fourth-round pick in ’12. He’s a thrower, not a runner. He’s also smart (33 on the Wonderlic test), enthusiastic and a strong leader. His confidence swells with each passing week. Backup Colt McCoy (6-1, 215) has career marks of 78.9 and 7-18.
Starter Matt Jones (6-2½, 232) was inactive the last two weeks because of fumbling and pedestrian play. He wasn’t hitting holes hard. His replacement, rookie Robert Kelley (5-10½, 228), has carried 43 times for 184 (4.3) in Games 8-9. A free agent from Tulane, he demonstrates power, better feet than Jones, patience and a workhorse mentality. He plays faster than he timed (4.71). Scatback Chris Thompson (5-7, 195), a fifth-round pick in ’13, is an effective third-down receiver. He gets to top speed fast and isn’t afraid to run inside. He lost a fumble Sunday.
Second-year coordinator Joe Barry directs a one-gap style of 3-4 base defense. His coverages are multiple, but lately he has been favoring man behind pressure. According to Sportradar, the Redskins rank eighth in blitz rate (33.8%). Much like the Titans, he has 300-pounders roving around on some third downs. The Redskins rank tied for 12th in takeaways (12), 17th in points (23.2) and 21st in yards (365.4).
Probably the best member of the beef trust up front is Chris Baker (6-2, 320). The Redskins have been run on (115.2, 4.6) partly because one scout said there isn’t a legitimate run-stopping NT. Baker didn’t start a game until December of his fifth season (2013). Still, he uses long arms (34 1/8) and bulk to handle the run OK and provide occasional bull-rush pressure. Former Steeler Ziggy Hood (6-3, 305) and former 49er-Colt Ricky Jean Francois (6-2½, 313) are eight-year veterans. Jean Francois, long-armed (34) and competitive, plays run better than pass. Hood, the 32nd pick in ’09, has bounced around with four teams because he likes to work edges and is just so-so at the point. Rookie Anthony Lanier (6-5, 282), a free agent from Alabama A&M, debuted in Game 8 as an interior rusher on third down. He’s long-armed (35 1/8), talented (4.81 40) and raw. Former Packer Cullen Jenkins (6-3, 305), in 156 snaps, still shows flashes of his old suddenness.
Almost all the pass rush comes from rotating OLBs Ryan Kerrigan (6-4, 265), Preston Smith (6-5, 268) and Trent Murphy (6-5½, 290), who also puts his hand down to play inside in sub. They’re good, but certainly not great. Kerrigan, the 16th pick in ’11, is a leverage-power rusher who gives extraordinary effort. His 4.75 speed does enable him to turn the corner if the tackle sets to absorb bull rush. Smith, a second-round pick in ’15, has started to come on after a semi-slow start. He runs 4.78, is an excellent athlete and is starting to mix speed with power moves. Murphy, a second-round pick in ’14, has dropped considerable weight after his move to DE was aborted a week into training camp. His speed isn’t good (4.85) but he has massive hands (11 1/8), a physical demeanor and always plays to the whistle. He likes the spin move. SILB Will Compton (6-1, 238), a free agent in 2013, became a starter in mid-2015 and never leaves the field now. He and WILB Mason Foster (6-1½, 250) are very average. Compton sees it fast, flies to the football and hits hard. He’s just limited by size. Foster, a starter for Tampa Bay from 2011-’14, moved into the lineup Dec. 7 and has held the job. He’s a tough guy who likes mixing it up; his speed deficiencies leave him vulnerable in coverage. Rookie Su’a Cravens (6-0½, 222), a second-round pick, is used by Barry to blitz on some sub downs. Not athletic enough for safety or big enough for LB, he’s in the right role.
LC Josh Norman (6-0, 200), the ex-Panthers all-pro, is by far the best of the bunch. A press-man specialist, he attacks receivers confidently and aggressively. He plays much faster than he once ran (4.61), and also talks a lot of trash. RC Bashaud Breeland (5-11½, 200), a fourth-round pick in ’14 and three-year starter, had a poor start but seems to be settling in. He’s OK. Rookie nickel back Kendall Fuller (5-11½, 196), a third-round pick, had a long day trying to cover Minnesota’s Stefon Diggs. Aging FS Will Blackmon (6-0½, 212) still has range and feel. Veteran SSs Donte Whitner (5-10, 208) and Duke Ihenacho (6-0, 208) hit like sledgehammers but can’t match up in coverage.
K Dustin Hopkins, with his third team, suffered two of his four misses (in 26 attempts) in Game 8. He crushes his kickoffs. P Tress Way, a left-footer in his third season, ranks 26th in gross average (44.4) and 31st in net (37.7). Jamison Crowder, with stop-start direction change and burst, is the NFL’s leading punt returner (16.9). WR Rashad Ross and Chris Thompson are OK on kickoffs. Coach Ben Kotwicka’s units ranked 25th in a 10-category breakdown after nine weeks. ILB Martrell Spaight and CB Quinton Dunbar are the leaders.
Even if speedy DeSean Jackson returns from a rotator-cuff injury that sidelined him Sunday against Minnesota, the most dangerous wide receiver might be Jamison Crowder. A fourth-round draft choice from Duke in 2015, he is developing into a matchup nightmare from the slot. Already Crowder has 44 receptions for 535 yards and five touchdowns after a rookie season in which he finished with 59 and two. He has the type of instant separation that Randall Cobb used to provide the Packers.
The Redskins have had to replace not one but both starting safeties. In Game 3, veteran DeAngelo Hall blew out his knee. In Game 4, former Bronco David Bruton suffered a season-ending concussion. Will Blackmon, the Packers’ fourth-round draft choice in 2006, moved up to start at free safety. At strong safety, the Redskins have been rotating former Bronco Duke Ihenacho and Donte Whitner, whom they signed off the street Oct. 5 after he had languished there for seventh months following his release by Cleveland. Safety remains a major concern.
When Ron Wolf was the Packers’ general manager from late 1991 to early 2001 he periodically would invite people with interest in being a scout to visit the team’s headquarters and take a test. They were given tape of some players, a few hours time and told to write scouting reports.
Scot McCloughan, the Redskins’ general manager, is one of those who passed the exercise with flying colors.
“It’s a skill some people have,” Wolf said, referring to the ability to evaluate football players. “Those that are really good are really good; those that aren’t good aren’t good. It’s kind of like playing the game. You either can play it or you can’t play it. There’s no middle road there. Scot is an exceptional guy in that area.”
McCloughan, a graduate of Wichita State, played three years of minor-league baseball for the Toronto Blue Jays. His father, Kent, played cornerback for the Raiders from 1965-’70 before spending more than 30 years scouting for the team. He and Wolf worked together for years.
“One of my closest friends was his father,” Wolf said Tuesday. “He recommended Scot. We brought him in, he did very well and so we hired him.”
That was January 1995. McCloughan, 45, spent the next five years serving as the Midlands area scout for the Packers before departing in April 2000 to become director of college scouting in Seattle.
He worked under Mike Holmgren and Ted Thompson until becoming vice president of player personnel for the 49ers in 2005. Three years later he was named GM, a position he held for two years.
“He goes from our place to running the thing in Seattle to running the entire operation in San Francisco,” said Wolf. “He changed the entire structure and formation of their team. He laid the framework that (Jim) Harbaugh really enjoyed there with all those tremendous players.
“He’s a very good scout. All you’ve got to do is see his meteoric rise.”
About the time McCloughan left San Francisco is when he began his struggles with alcohol. John Schneider, his former colleague in Green Bay and Seattle, brought him back to the Seahawks as an executive in personnel from 2010-’13 but alcohol again played a role in his departure.
Redskins owner Dan Snyder took a chance on McCloughan in January 2015 and hasn’t been disappointed.
“He’s doing wonders now with the Redskins,” said Wolf, who has regular conversations with McCloughan. “In his first year they’re in the playoffs. He’s had a phenomenal career.”
Last season, the Redskins were picked to finish 3-13 by Sports Illustrated. They went 9-7, winning the NFC East for the second time in 16 years, before being ousted by the Packers, 35-18, in a wild-card playoff game.
“I would think toughness would be a very important thing for him,” Wolf said. “The game is predicated on size and speed. People want to make fun of that but really that’s what the game is all about. You have size and speed, you’re going to be successful.”