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NFL: IUP grad Haslett gets free rein of Redskins defense

by JOSEPH WHITE AP Sports Writer on August 15, 2014 10:54 AM

ASHBURN, Va. — Mike Shanahan was fired. Jim Haslett stayed on.

When the Washington Redskins ousted Shanahan after last year’s 3-13 season, they didn’t exactly clean house. Several assistants from the old regime were retained under new coach Jay Gruden, with the organization adopting the mindset that the problem started at the top — and pretty much ended there.

None of the holdovers is more intriguing than Haslett, the former IUP All-American defensive end. As the Redskins’ defensive coordinator last season, Haslett was in charge of a unit that often had issues. In his four seasons, the Redskins have ranked 22nd, 25th, 26th and 31st in offensive points allowed.

But there were mitigating circumstances. The Redskins were trying to rebuild from the Jim Zorn era those first two years, and Haslett in particular had the challenge of installing a 3-4 scheme with players left over from the previous coaches’ 4-3.

More than anything, however, was the feeling that Haslett was never really in full charge of the defense. He was working under Shanahan’s infamous micromanagement style, subject to the head coach’s whims on which players to play and which calls to make during a game.

So, when asked to make the case for Haslett staying on, his players usually hit the same theme.

“It was a different regime,” defensive tackle Barry Cofield said Thursday. “He’s going to have a different level of responsibility. He’s going to have more flexibility to call his defense, and I’m willing to bet that he sold that plan to the bosses. And they agreed and they liked what they heard.”

A local note on this story: Haslett’s son, Chase, has followed in his father’s footsteps by joining the IUP football team. A quarterback, Chase Haslett transferred to IUP over the summer after spending three years at Illinois. The Crimson Hawks hold their first practice of preseason camp today, and the younger Haslett will be in the mix for the starting QB job.

Gruden, a rookie NFL head coach, has made it clear that he will give his assistants plenty of breathing space. He plans to focus primarily on the offense and give Haslett and special teams coordinator Ben Kotwica the kind of leeway unimaginable under Shanahan.

“I just want to make sure that the guys that I hired are allowed to do their job,” Gruden said, “and that’s coaching.”

Haslett is measured in his comments when talking about the transition from Shanahan to Gruden.

“The bottom line is we won three games last year, we won 10 the year before, and the defense helped them win 10 games with a bunch of turnovers and all that,” Haslett said. “Last year we won three, and I don’t think the offense, defense or special teams played very well.”

The closest hint Haslett gives to his new autonomy comes when he is asked how he will handle his players this year.

“We’re going to try to let them use their abilities a little bit more than I thought that I did in the past. ... I want to make sure those guys are used properly,” he said.

More reasons to keep Haslett: experience and comfort. He’s been through the NFL head coach routine with the New Orleans Saints and St. Louis Rams, making him an invaluable resource for Gruden. Also, the pair have a working history in which the tables were turned: Head coach Haslett hired Gruden to be the offensive coordinator for the 2009 Florida Tuskers of the now-defunct UFL.

“We get along very well and I have a lot of respect for what he’s done, not only working with him,” Gruden said. “I think the big thing with him was just trying to get him a few more horses, trying to get him some better personnel. I’ve said a lot that it’s sometimes not so much about the plays but about the players, and we’re trying to do a better job of getting better players in here to help fit his scheme and what he wants to do.”

The Redskins beefed up the pass rush by signing Jason Hatcher and drafting Trent Murphy. Veteran safety Ryan Clark was added to bring smarts and leadership to the secondary. Gruden’s training camp was much more physical than Shanahan’s, which Haslett believes will help improve the poor tackling from last year.

With those additions, and with more say in how the defense runs, the success or failure of this year’s defense will squarely rest on Haslett.

“There was blame put on the head man, there was injuries, we didn’t have this, we didn’t have that,” Cofield said. “I think (this year) we have all the pieces, so we’ve got to point the thumb (at ourselves) this year not do any finger-pointing.”

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