Redskins

As signing day nears, O'Brien, PSU proudly push on

As signing day nears, O'Brien, PSU proudly push on

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) The peacoat he donned gave Bill O'Brien an authoritative look before he even uttered a word.

Soon enough, he would have the undivided attention of his new players in his first meeting as Penn State coach in January 2012.

Open, straightforward and to the point.

More than a year later, the Penn State football program is remarkably back on steady ground after one of the most challenging seasons ever for a college football team. Year 2 of the O'Brien era in Happy Valley gets its first major milestone when the Nittany Lions' first recruiting class since the NCAA hit the program with sanctions is finalized Wednesday.

The tone was set that very first day.

``Honesty. A lot of guys immediately expected that,'' Michael Mauti, the standout linebacker, said in recounting the first team meeting with O'Brien. ``That definitely resonated through everything he did. Whether meeting with guys about playing time or their positions'' or just to check in on academics or off-the-field life.

``You knew exactly where you stood ... You as a player and person,'' Mauti said. ``That goes a long way.''

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Sounds simple enough. What O'Brien espoused - honesty, hard work, and trust, among other core beliefs - could have come right out of the model playbook for a rookie coach. But those words have especially resonated with a team that, until his hiring, had been thrust into the middle of unimaginable turmoil not of its doing.

The arrest of retired assistant Jerry Sandusky on child sex abuse charges in November 2011 led to the ouster of Hall of Fame coach Joe Paterno just days later. Veteran defensive coordinator Tom Bradley took over as the interim coach, yet rumors constantly swirled around the Nittany Lions about the future and direction of the team.

Forty-six years of stability under Paterno suddenly came to a startling halt.

But O'Brien wanted the job, that task of getting Penn State ``back.''

Then offensive coordinator for the New England Patriots, O'Brien was meticulously prepared for his interview even while helping to guide his team to the Super Bowl.

``The qualities I saw were exceptional leadership skills, high integrity, a long pattern of success in his life - both personal and business - very confident but laid-back at the same time,'' said Penn State trustee and prominent donor Ira Lubert, who was on the search committee.

``Finally a great passion to succeed and a work ethic required to achieve the mission.''

In other words, he had a playbook of sorts before Penn State had even kicked off its new era on the field.

``The main, No. 1 rule for me is to make sure you have a direction, you have a message, a plan,'' O'Brien said. ``You can't be a good leader and be all over the map. You've got to be consistent in what your beliefs are, and your kids need to understand that, too.''

They did, of course, eventually. But it wasn't easy.

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Pre-dawn workouts. Rock music blaring from loudspeakers that echoed heavy bass beats off nearby campus buildings in the darkness. A settled quarterback situation after two seasons of uncertainty.

By the spring, O'Brien had already shaken some things up. At the same time, he also promised the program would continue to its honor its long, storied history of success both on and off the field.

The NCAA sanctions promised to make the job even more difficult. Few, if any observers had expected the serious penalties against the Nittany Lions including a four-year postseason ban, steep scholarship cuts and a $60 million fine. The coaching staff scrambled to keep most of the team together, with big assists from team leaders like Mauti, fullback Michael Zordich and defensive tackle Jordan Hill.

``The emphasis of that first team meeting,'' O'Brien said, ``always remains the same.''

In a sense, football ended up being a respite by the time preseason practice opened in August.

What Penn State did on the field has since become well-known to most college football fans. Few, if any prognosticators picked Penn State to finish 8-4 (6-2 Big Ten) and second in the Leaders Division behind only undefeated Ohio State.

``It was pretty impressive. To be down there, in the middle of that, wasn't a good situation. Even the students were feeling bad,'' said Terry Pegula, owner of the NHL's Buffalo Sabres and another big donor to the university. ``So Bill turned into the shining light in the whole thing. He had a lot of pressure on him and he did a heck of a job.''

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California beckoned Matt McGloin.

Soon, he hopes the NFL does, too.

The former walk-on quarterback from blue-collar Scranton headed west to work out and prepare for the draft at a facility that he said also hosted prospects like Oregon running back Kenjon Barmer and Alabama offensive lineman Chance Warmack.

But his memories of Penn State will last forever. And what he did under O'Brien, and in his offense, was a key ingredient to the coach's strategy. Indeed, if one player personified O'Brien's impact on Penn State, it would be McGloin, who ended his career holding a number of school passing records following two years of splitting time with Rob Bolden.

``He always has a positive attitude and brings it every day,'' McGloin said. ``You have to match his intensity. I just fed off him.''

With the change in coach came a change in interactions.

Paterno died last January at age 85. Physical ailments limited what he could do on the field during practice in the latter years of his career. He could charm a room and win over recruits and their parents in Happy Valley, but Paterno rarely went on the road to visit prospects in his final years.

Perhaps just as important as O'Brien's straightforward message was how he has delivered it. He is a different voice walking the figurative coaching line of being an authoritative figure while lending a sympathetic ear to players.

A year - and eight wins - later, McGloin said he will be friends with O'Brien for the rest of his life.

``He understands that Penn State lives around football,'' he said. ``It helps the community, the businesses.''

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The next generation of Nittany Lions should sign their letters-of-intent by Wednesday and join camp in August. It would be the first recruiting class since the sanctions were announced in July, and the first class to fall under the sanctions.

Some notable prospects have decided to look elsewhere, according to recruiting analysts. But O'Brien seems to be doing well overall. Tight end Adam Breneman is already a Nittany Lion after finishing high school early and enrolling last month.

Virginia high school quarterback Christian Hackenberg could be Penn State's signal-caller of the future. Any lingering doubts about whether he'll sign on Wednesday might be erased with a quick look at his Twitter page, which labels him a ``Nittany Lion for life.''

In the weight room, O'Brien said he planned some tweaks to how the team lifts. He knows the offense won't be the same with a new quarterback now that McGloin has graduated. Defensive coordinator Ted Roof headed home to Georgia to take the same job at Georgia Tech, but the Nittany Lions will play the same aggressive, multiple-look 4-3 scheme.

Otherwise, there's a welcome status quo for fans in Happy Valley.

``The theme,'' O'Brien said. ``will never change at Penn State as long as I'm the coach here.''

Hard not to believe him.

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Follow Genaro Armas athttp://twitter.com/GArmasAP

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Need to Know: Tandler's Take—The best- and worst-case scenarios for the 2018 Redskins

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Various sources

Need to Know: Tandler's Take—The best- and worst-case scenarios for the 2018 Redskins

Here is what you need to know on this Sunday, May 20, two days before the Washington Redskins start OTAs.  

Best- and worst-case scenarios for the 2018 Redskins

Last week I took a stab at figuring out what the best-case and worst-case scenarios were for the key players on offense and defense. While individual stats are fun to track, it’s what the team does that really matters. What range of outcomes is realistic for the 2018 Redskins? While anything is possible, here are my thoughts on the best they are likely to be able to do and the worst. 

In both cases, I am assuming that the Redskins have reasonably good fortune when it comes to injuries and that the good and bad bounces of the ball equal out over the course of the season. 

Worst case: 6-10, last in NFC East

This is based mostly on Alex Smith having a tough time adjusting to Jay Gruden’s offense, his new teammates, and the NFC. Thinking he could struggle is not just negative thinking, there is history to back it up. 

Smith was traded from the 49ers to the Chiefs in 2013. In his first nine games, he completed just 59.7 percent of his passes with nine touchdowns and four interceptions He had an adjusted net yards per attempt of 5.23. Had he finished the season there he would have ranked 28th in the NFL. His passer rating was 81.4, which would have ranked 25th. It’s safe to say he was off to a very slow start. 

But the Chiefs went 8-1 in those nine games. It is doubtful that the Redskins could survive such a slow start. In the past three seasons, with Kirk Cousins at quarterback, they were 4-17 in games where Cousins’ passer rating was under 90. If you drop the ceiling to 81, the record drops to 0-14. 

Kansas City managed to start 9-0 in 2013 because of a running game that produced at least 100 yards rushing every game and a defense that got at least one takeaway every game and got three or more turnovers in a game five times. 

Could the Redskins duplicate that and survive a slow start by Smith? It’s possible, but this is the worst-case scenario. And there is no guarantee that the Redskins will significantly improve a running attack that was 27thin the league last year or a rushing defense that was dead last. 

Offensively, the hope is that Derrius Guice will improve the running game. But rookies are, well rookies. And being a high draft pick is no guarantee of success. In the past three drafts, 20 running backers were drafted in the first three rounds. Of those players, four rushed for 750 yards or more as rookies. Maybe Guice will be one of the productive players but the odds are not in his favor. This isn’t saying he will be a bust; however, he may not have instant impact. 

One other note about the rushing game. It’s important to remember that both tackles are coming off of surgery, the right guard was injured last year, the center has all of six starts under his belt, and left guard remains up in the air. Maybe everything will hum when the season starts but that seems like a tall order. 

Improvement in the stopping the run also relies at least in part on rookies. Daron Payne will have an adjustment period as will Tim Settle. The inside linebacker spot should be stronger but it’s hard to say that it will be a strength. The rushing defense probably won’t be last again, but it may not climb out of the twenties in the rankings. 

The Redskins haven’t been awful at getting takeaways, but they have not done it at a consistently game-changing level. They have three or more takeaways in a game five times in their last 30 games. I don’t see any reason to think that this will change dramatically. 

To put the 6-10 worst-case scenario onto the schedule, the Redskins could go 2-4 in the division with splits against the Cowboys and Giants and getting swept by the Eagles. Against the NFC South, which had three teams with 10 wins or more last year, they might be 1-3. That leaves a split with the AFC South (two of the final eight teams in the playoffs last year) and of their two other NFC games for a 6-10 record. 

Best-case scenario: 10-6, Wild card, win a playoff game

This scenario doesn’t require a whole lot of explanation beyond flipping the elements of the worst case into more positive outcomes. 

Smith could pick up where he left off last year when he completed 67.5 percent of his passes and was third in the league with 7.2 adjusted net yards per attempt. Maybe the yards per attempt will drop some as he tries to find a consistent deep target.

A healthy Jordan Reed would help Smith out tremendously. If Reed can participate in most of training camp, the two could hit the ground running. Smith’s ability to connect with Josh Doctson on some 50-50 balls also will be important. 

As for the running game, Guice could break out early behind a line that gels quickly. It’s not out of the question for him to gain 1,000 yards (that’s just about 65 yards per game), maybe a little more. A healthy Chris Thompson could kick in over 1,000 yards from scrimmage. 

Jonathan Allen and Matt Ioannidis could pick up right where they left off last year before Allen was lost for the season with a foot injury and Ioannidis missed two games with a broken hand and was hampered by the injury for a few weeks after that. That would let Payne and Settle, well, settle into the pro game. 

The Redskins also would need at least to maintain the solid pass defense they had last year. And they would benefit from fewer turnovers on offense (27 last year, 26thin the NFL) and by adding a few takeaways to the 23 they got in 2017.

So how could they pull this off? The would need to go 4-2 in the division, with a sweep of the Giants and splits against Philly and Dallas. They then would need 2-2 records against the NFC South and AFC South. That part of it is probably the toughest task. To get to 10 they would need to beat the Cardinals on the road in the season opener and then have a good day against Aaron Rodgers and get a win over the Packers. It’s not an easy road but if enough pieces fall into place it’s not out of the question. 

A 10-6 record should be good enough for a wild-card spot. If they get through their fairly tough schedule with double-digit wins, they should be good enough to go on the road and take out the three or four seed. 

Stay up to date on the Redskins. Rich Tandler covers the team 365 days a year. Like his Facebook page, Facebook.com/TandlerNBCSand follow him on Twitter  @TandlerNBCSand on Instagram @RichTandler

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Timeline  

Days until:

—Minicamp (6/12) 23
—Training camp starts (7/26) 68
—Preseason opener @ Patriots (8/9) 82

The Redskins last played a game 139 days ago. They will open the 2018 NFL season at the Cardinals in 113 days. 

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Niskanen takes the blame for all three Lightning goals

Niskanen takes the blame for all three Lightning goals

There was no tougher critic on Matt Niskanen’s Game 5 performance on Saturday than Niskanen himself.

Niskanen and his defensive partner, Dmitry Orlov, were on the ice for all three of the Tampa Bay Lightning’s three goals in the Capitals’ 3-2 loss. That was striking given the Orlov-Niskanen duo is typically Washington’s best defensive pair.

That was not the case on Saturday and Niskanen took full responsibility afterward.

“First three goals are all my fault,” Niskanen said. “I had a tough first 20:30 so I've got to be better next game.”

Pretty much no one played the first goal right.

The goal came just 19 seconds into the game. Orlov turned the puck over in the neutral zone and Evgeny Kuznetsov looked like he could have gotten the puck, but instead played the body of Cedric Paquette. Niskanen stepped up at the blue line, but the Lightning got the puck past him creating a short rush that beat Braden Holtby who was way too far back in the crease.

Yes, Niskanen got caught a bit high, but he was just as at fault as Orlov, Kuznetsov and Holtby.

The second goal happened because Steven Stamkos tripped Orlov to create a turnover and it wasn’t called.

Niskanen got in between Ondrej Palat and the puck, but Palat beat both him and Holtby on the shot. Not sure I would put this one on Niskanen.

The third goal…well, that one was a bad play by Niskanen.

When you go one-on-one with a player, a defenseman cannot allow that player to turn the corner. That’s especially true when that player is defenseman Anton Stralman who is not exactly gifted with blazing speed. This was just a complete misplay.

Regardless of how many goals were strictly on Niskanen, that’s not the point. This was a message not so much to the media but to the team. That message was this: This one’s on me, I will be better next game.

Leaders always take responsibility. Niskanen is taking the blame here and saying he will be better in the hopes the team around him will be better as well.

They will need to be to win Game 6.

“A lot of people counted us out when we were down 0-2 in the first round,” Niskanen said. “Things got hard in the last series where we could have melted and we just kept playing. So that's what we've got to do again, bring our best effort for Game 6 at home, win a game and then we'll go from there.

“But we're focused on bringing our best game of the season for Game 6 and we'll be ready to go.”

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