What to make of Commanders’ John Matsko and Chris Harris’ coaching struggles

DETROIT, MI - SEPTEMBER 18: Defensive backs coach Chris Harris of the Washington Commanders gives a speech in a huddle prior to an NFL football game against the Detroit Lions at Ford Field on September 18, 2022 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Kevin Sabitus/Getty Images)
DETROIT, MI - SEPTEMBER 18: Defensive backs coach Chris Harris of the Washington Commanders gives a speech in a huddle prior to an NFL football game against the Detroit Lions at Ford Field on September 18, 2022 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Kevin Sabitus/Getty Images) /

It’s hard to imagine two position coaches more different than John Matsko and Chris Harris. Matsko, the Washington Commanders 71-year old offensive line coach, is a beloved veteran, who must have realized long ago that offensive line coach was as high as he was likely to rise in the NFL ranks.

He began right out of college, and has made the rounds, coaching at five different colleges and eight different pro teams along the way. About 10 years ago, he got together with Ron Rivera in Carolina and has remained with Rivera ever since.

The 40-year old Harris, who coaches the Commanders’ defensive backfield, had an eight career as a professional safety, making All Pro along the way. Immediately upon finishing his playing career, Harris began coaching. He rose quickly and two years ago was considered one of the better young coaches in the league – with a head coaching opportunity in his future.

No two position coaches were more instrumental during Washington’s improbable run to the NFC East title in 2020. In 2022, no two coaches have presided over such disappointment.

What happened?

Why are Commanders coaches John Matsko and Chris Harris struggling to get the most out of their players?

There’s no single answer to that question. Injuries have taken a toll. Schemes and personnel decisions have been questionable. But the bottom line is that the offensive line and the defensive backfield, which performed above expectation in 2020, have regressed noticeably ever since.

Just as they have very different resumes, Matsko and Harris have demonstrated different strengths and weaknesses over the past two seasons.

Matsko has done very well with veteran castoffs. In 2020, he took several players who no one else seemed to want and molded them into an above-average unit. He had holdovers Brendan Scherff and Chase Roullier to anchor the middle of his line. He got very productive seasons out of his two free agent tackles – Charles Leno Jr. and Cornelius Lucas. He did the same with journeyman guard Ereck Flowers. When Scherff went down with injury, he inserted another journeyman, Wes Schweitzer, and the line never missed a beat.

Given that recent track record, it is somewhat troubling that Matsko has not been able to work similar magic with two veteran with whom is very familiar this season – guards Andrew Norwell and Trai Turner. Both have underperformed.

But the more troubling bit, which was on display in 2020, though it didn’t matter that season, is that Matsko seemed to get little progress out of his younger players. Draft picks Saadhiq Charles and Keith Ismael didn’t show much of anything. Lucas was inserted into the starting lineup only after young left tackle Geron Christian Jr. got hurt. But it turned out to be a blessing because Christian had not performed very well when healthy. The team brought in a revolving cast of undrafted free agents and practice squaders to provide depth. To date, not a single one of those players has contributed to the Commanders on the field.

What is truly odd about this situation is that Matsko established himself as a quality offensive line coach back in 2008 with the Baltimore Ravens. He did it by taking very young players – Marshall Yanda, Jared Gaither, etc. — and turning them into a first-rate line. He obviously has been able to teach young players in the past. But so far in Washington, he has only had success coaching veterans.

This becomes very important now because the future of the Commanders offensive line rests with Charles and Sam Cosmi, two young players who have shown great promise, but who must continue to develop if they are to form the foundation of a great line. At 71, Commanders fans have to hope that Matsko remains up to that task.

With Harris, it is virtually the opposite scenario. In 2020, he presided over a solid cornerback contingent of Kendall Fuller, Ronald Darby and Jimmy Moreland. One of the biggest unnoticed stories of that season was how Fuller and the oft-injured Darby stayed healthy the entire year. Darby was on the field for over 1,000 defensive snaps, and Fuller wasn’t far behind.

Harris got very good work from youngsters like Moreland. He uncovered a gem in seventh-round rookie Kam Curl. And when injuries struck the safety position, he cobbled together solid performances from the likes of Jeremy Reaves and even Troy Apke.

But the troubling sign in 2020 was the regression of the veteran safety Landon Collins. Fast forward to 2022, and we have witnessed similar regression from Fuller and fellow corner William Jackson III. Veteran safety Bobby McCain has been average at best. The brightest spot, in addition to Curl, has been the emergence of youngsters like Benjamin St-Juste and Darrick Forrest. That may bode well for the future, though both are still very much works-in-progress.

So we are left wondering whether Harris can coach veterans, just as we are left wondering if Matsko can coach the kids. Both coaches have solid track records, and it is way too early to panic. But it is something to keep an eye on. The Washington Commanders desperately need their best position coaches to produce improved play from their units if they are to begin to show signs of life in a rapidly crumbling 2022 season.

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