For the first time in his professional career, Dwayne Haskins is playing for a head coach who is willing to advocate for him. And so far it's bringing out the best in him.
I'm not here to relitigate his brief-but-troubled time in Washington after being a first-round pick in 2019. Suffice to say he quickly became a human pawn in an ugly game of tug of war between owner Dan Snyder and then-coach Jay Gruden. Gruden's staff weren't fans; he was viewed as the owner's pick. Haskins made more than his share of missteps and immature mistakes, but by the time Ron Rivera took over – with sweeping control – he'd already heard plenty about Haskins to start hedging his bets.
Plenty of blame to go around. It wasn't going to work there.
But things are totally different in Pittsburgh, where the Steelers took the ultimate low-risk proposition of signing the youngster who did throw 50 touchdown passes in a season at Ohio State. And the primary reason why Haskins is there is that head coach Mike Tomlin went to bat for him. Tomlin, I was told by sources at the time and to this day, was enamored with Haskins in the pre-draft process, with Ben Roethlisberger nearing the end, and made it clear he'd like to work with him once things fell apart in Washington. And, it's precisely what Haskins was desperate for; he always viewed Pittsburgh as the best place to try to get his career on track, precisely because of Tomlin and the culture he built there.
So far, it's paying off. Haskins has looked better than Mason Rudolph throughout the summer and Thursday night, for whatever the second preseason game is worth, Haskins seemed more at ease and comfortable than ever before. He wasn't jittery. He wasn't hurried. He was steady and smooth and slipped around the pocket to find secondary options downfield. His ball placement, overall, was much improved (yes, there are several throws the developmental QB would want back) and he showed a command of the offensive concepts in place.
He looked, frankly, like a QB with ample upside who was blossoming in a change of scenery. He looked like someone who could play in this league. Will he ever be a full-time starter, or live up to his draft billing? Who knows, but he showed ample reason to continue giving him a long look, and remaining open minded about the possibility of him being a better quarterback and teammate.
Color Tomlin impressed (which in this instance is what matters most).
"I thought he was in command tonight," Tomlin told reporters after the game. "He did a great job communicating with people, going through his progressions."
It's easy to be quick to give up on players after a year or two, or write them off. And Haskins will have to stack months of quality on-and-off field work before this can be deemed a success story. But since he got to Pittsburgh he's kept a low profile, avoided being his own worst enemy, and just might end up proving some people wrong.
Bengals' new-look 'D' overshadowed by Burrow buzz
For all of the talk about Joe Burrow's recovery, understandably so, it's hardly the only area of concern for the Bengals entering 2021. In some ways it has obscured their years of major issues with that defense, and especially as Burrow fights his way through the first weeks and months of the season, that unit is going to have to be able to play better complimentary football than a year ago.
The early returns have been quite strong – albeit going against an offensive line with much to sort out and with Burrow still dealing with the mental side of his recovery from knee surgery. Of course, we'll find out much more starting this weekend with the preseason schedule underway.
"It's still early, but the energy and confidence that the guys are playing with, that's something we're looking to build on, without a doubt," defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo told me. "We've got guys that are playing with confidence right now, and it's a long way to go but we're building a good foundation, and that's what's important."
One thing working in the Bengals' favor is there seems to be a better esprit de corps, if you will, with this unit. There was a veteran old guard on that side of the ball that predated the arrival of head coach Zac Taylor and this staff, many of whom had gripes and grudges with thew organization going back. Guys like Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap and William Jackson pretty much knew they weren't finishing their careers here, and some of them let it be known they wanted out way before they finally did exit.
That dynamic is gone, and while I do still wonder about the overall talent here (not retaining Jackson or Carl Lawson could come back to bite them), this is a team game and good vibes can't hurt.
"I just think all the guys that we signed have a little bit of a chip on their shoulder for one reason or another – to prove this or prove that," Anarumo said. "And they've been a pleasure to deal with every day. They're smart players and they ask great questions, and have an internal drive to be great."
If they can manage to be acceptable – slightly below average, even – then it could be a more interesting season in Cincinnati than many expect.
Ravens already swimming in issues on offense
The Ravens offensive line issues bear significant monitoring this preseason, and, when coupled with Lamar Jackson missing the first 10 days of camp as an unvaccinated player with a positive COVID-19 result, time might already be running out to truly ramp up that passing offense before the regular season.
Star left tackle Ronnie Stanley is coming off a significant midseason surgery and just started to do individual drills this week. At best perhaps he is ready for some work in the third preseason game, but even then will be working through things himself testing his body in a way he never has before. It's been a rotating cast of less-than-ideal candidates working as the starting left tackle without him (Tyree Phillips, Patrick Mecari, Andrew Smith), key veteran signings Kevin Zeitler and Alejandro Villanueva haven't seen much of the field lately working through their own medical issues, and the makeshift five man units have been getting whipped fairly regularly at practice.
Which begs the question … would you play Jackson at all under those circumstances in the preseason? Is the potential reward of working on passing more to running back J.K. Dobbins and being under center more to incorporate more play action and trying to expand the passing efficiency outside the hashmarks really worth the gamble of playing behind potentially only one bonafide offensive line starter (Bradley Bozeman, who is transitioning from left guard to center)? We've seen teams keep far lesser QBs on ice without such daunting personnel issues.
Factor in that top pick Rashod Bateman barely practiced at all before requiring groin surgery that could delay his regular season debut to October, and that top returning receiver Hollywood Brown has barely practiced and Baltimore's receiving group at practice this week was comprised almost entirely of very raw rookies or bubble guys or dudes just signed off the street, and you have to wonder about what real gained can be made given how many key figures on this offense have been out.
And, if in fact this is the case, and Jackson end up largely a spectator for the exhibition games, then it makes those lost eight practices at the start even more significant, when Bateman and Brown were at least somewhat available and before the offensive line injuries mounted. Very well could be the Ravens don't really get to see this revamped offense all together (or nearly all together) beyond Week 1.
More insider notes
- Found it very interesting that Bill Belichick made a point of getting Mac Jones into a two-minute situation in his preseason debut (or forcing a two-minute situation when one did not arise naturally in the game). I could see a scenario where both Jones and Cam Newton see a decent amount of work in games, depending on game flow and tendencies. Cam in red-zone, the kid in two-minute and some situations where tempo and rapid passing are necessary. Who knows? Belichick is certainly not chained to conventional wisdom and has earned the right to try some different stuff …
- For as heady as he is, and for how long he has been a Band-Aid or caretaker QB, I gotta say Ryan Fitzpatrick continuing to be dumbfounded over Miami getting a long look at Tua Tagovailoa last season still blows my mind. That team wasn't winning anything of significance with either guy at QB, they finally got in position to take a top-five QB while obviously in a deep rebuild. What did he think was going to happen? …
- Going to go out on a limb and say the lazy narrative about WFT possibly taking the wrong guy with its top pick in 2020 will be officially expunged by October. Chase Young in Year Two with a real offseason/preseason is very bad news for NFL quarterbacks.