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Jay Gruden, Washington Redskins eye NFC East title

RICHMOND, Va. -- The rubble of last year's death march to 3-13 is now clear. The quarterback is healthy. A new coach is in place. Much has changed.

But Jay Gruden is very clear about one thing: The expectations for the Redskins won't.

Last summer, this long-snakebitten franchise was coming off a 10-win campaign with a young roster that was finally bearing the fruits of the total detonation and reconstruction general manager Bruce Allen and coach Mike Shanahan orchestrated over four offseasons.

Hopes were high. It didn't work out then, but Gruden doesn't see why it can't now. After all, many of the reasons for all that optimism were still dotting the fields in Central Virginia.

"I don't think there's any doubt that we set the bar at going after a division title -- this year," Gruden said after Wednesday's walkthrough. "Looking around the NFC East, I think we're comparable roster-wise. I don't think there's any team on paper that's better than us. We just have to go out there and prove it in our play. I feel good about where we are."

I wrote about the Redskins one year ago, and explained how they looked like they had survived a $36 million salary cap penalty -- as well as the draft-pick drain resulting from the 2012 Robert Griffin III trade -- to build a solid array of talent around their young signal-caller. For the first time in a while, it looked like Washington had a sturdy foundation.

Given that the coach was fired four months later and the team sunk into disarray, that was one of those training-camp stories that don't exactly make a reporter look like Nostradamus.

Yet, plenty of the points stand. The skill group around Griffin is loaded with potential. The defense has pass rushers and promising defensive backs. The offensive line is improving. And that's why, when Gruden studied the 2013 Redskins, the problems he saw were hardly insurmountable.

"There are some correctable things that I think we've addressed," he said. "On defense, tackling was poor. On special teams, the whole caboodle was not very good. And then offensively, it's third down and we turned it over too much."

But the coach saw, in those correctable issues, another global problem: The leaks in one unit would spring new ones in others. The special teams hung the offense and defense out to dry constantly. The offense put the defense in tough spots at times, too. And by the end of the year, the defense needed all the help it could get.

Fixing that, as with so many other things in the NFL, starts with the quarterback. In spring, Gruden called Griffin the kind of quarterback you create on your Xbox. As he's gotten a closer look under the hood, Gruden's seen that having that kind of wiring can be a curse, too. So he's trying to teach him now to start approaching plays within the context of the game, rather than just playing each one as a singular snap.

"I like his progress, I like the fact that he works hard, he studies the game hard, he's very accountable," Gruden explained. "The only negative on him, if there is one, is he wants every play to be a touchdown. And it drives me crazy. It's a good thing, but sometimes, it's not a good thing, you know what I mean? Does that make sense?"

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Delving deeper, the coach said: "He'll do some things, I know, on game day. He'll jump around, make six guys miss, throw a bomb for a touchdown, and I'm sure I'll high-five him. But if he does it again and it's a 12-yard sack-fumble, then what do you do? You gotta take the good with the bad, but we're trying to eliminate the absolute negative plays, the sack plays, and play situational football a little bit better."

The larger point is one for the entire team. In 2013, things started rolling downhill early, one thing led to another, and by the end, the Redskins were buried under an avalanche. A legendary coach lost his job. A quarterback with a pristine image was tarred. The idea of playing good situational football was trivial compared with the bigger problems.

Gruden's seen things in a blender before. Marvin Lewis blew up Cincinnati's operation after the Bengals went 4-12 in 2010, and hired Gruden as offensive coordinator out of the UFL, handing him rookies with which to replace franchise cornerstones Carson Palmer and Chad Johnson. And Gruden had to do it after a lockout that robbed him of his players until late July. He learned to simplify and to slow the process down to make sure the players learn. The Bengals wound up in the playoffs.

There are similarities here. As Gruden sees it, he has the players. The rest is in how sound they play.

"It's tightening the screws down a little bit," he said. "And sometimes, not to say it was last year, but sometimes, it's not about flashiest stats. Sometimes, punting's OK, playing field position and slowing the game down a little bit, letting your defense have some good situations, trying to get the field position back. A lot of times, everyone thinks, 'You got Robert, you got DeSean (Jackson), you gotta score every time.' "

He starts laughing. "Well, that's hard. We have to be patient with what we're doing."

The idea is to stack one complete game after another. Because as Gruden himself displayed, one area where neither he nor the Redskins will show any patience is in their expectations.

I'll guess a restless fan base is with their coach there.

Three and out from 'Skins camp:

1) The Redskins got plenty out of their joint practices this week with the New England Patriots, especially on defense. Ryan Clark said practicing against Tom Brady forced he and his teammates to raise their level of communication because of all the different looks New England shows. Ryan Kerrigan cited the pace, and told me it should get the players ready to face the Eagles in the NFC East. Gruden concurred with both points: "We were on two different fields, so they were able to go with their fast tempo, and our defense had to adjust and communicate quick. And sometimes in practice, you got these scripted plays and you're trying to go fast tempo, but it's not like that. (Linebacker) Keenan Robinson hadn't called a defense ever. He's now having to make the calls quickly. Now, we know moving forward, every day, we're gonna work two-minute, we're gonna work tempo. Every day. It's something we can focus on as coaches."

2) Washington's dearth of first-rounders from the blockbuster RGIII trade means the team badly needs to hit on its recent late-round picks. Two players have stuck out from this year's class: On offense, the coaches have noticed fifth-round pick Ryan Grant at receiver, as has the quarterback. "He's a great talent," Griffin said. "He does a lot of things instinctively and naturally that you look for out of a receiver. It wasn't something that was coached in him before, he came in and he was doing some things and it caught everybody's eye." He has a counterpoint in Bashaud Breeland, the fourth-round pick who has impressed at corner. The Redskins have numbers at those positions, but the staff wouldn't be surprised if either guy carves out a role by year's end.

3) One thing the Redskins clearly need to do is protect their franchise quarterback better, and early indications are the offseason changes along the offensive line have provided reason for hope. The team moved Kory Lichtensteiger to center and signed Shawn Lauvao to replace him at guard, but the biggest reason for optimism is the continued ascension of All-Pro left tackle Trent Williams. One Washington coach called his performance in camp "awesome," and with 2015 being a contract year for Williams, a big 2014 could mean an even bigger payday soon. Put all the above together, and the Redskins should be in better position to maximize Jackson, Pierre Garcon, Alfred Morris and Co. Gruden put it pretty bluntly: "The offensive line, I feel great about. They're doing a great job."

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.

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