Gruden’s ‘Code Red’ is red herring for Redskins
Washington setting up a long-term rebuild, Theismann says
Daniel Snyder looked on from the sideline of Thursday’s practice at Redskins Park, his team mired at 2-4 after back-to-back losses, when former quarterback Joe Theismann leaned over to say, “We’re building a foundation here that is really gonna be something.”
As a rule, Theismann doesn’t discuss personnel matters with the Washington Redskins’ owner, who never offers public comment on his team. But from Theismann’s prime vantage point, the Super Bowl-winning quarterback has been encouraged by what he believes is a coherent plan for reversing the 7-25 record of the previous two seasons — a plan that includes a proven general manager, a stout offensive line, an energetic coaching staff and, above all, the time for them to pay dividends.
Theismann’s long-term view stands in sharp contrast with the fever-pitched rhetoric that erupted following the Oct. 18 loss to New York Jets and Coach Jay Gruden’s characterization of Sunday’s game against Tampa Bay as a “Code Red” situation.
Did “Code Red” mean Gruden would bench quarterback Kirk Cousins if he were to throw a ninth interception? Did it mean Gruden, the team’s eighth head coach since 1999, expects to get the ax himself if the Redskins lose to the Buccaneers (2-3) at FedEx Field on Sunday?
In any NFL market other than Washington, such questions six games into a season would be dismissed as hysteria. During Snyder’s 16-year tenure as Redskins owner, short tenures and turnover have been the norm.
But regardless of Sunday’s outcome, neither coach nor starting quarterback likely will lose his status — either during the bye week that follows or before the season is over — according to interviews with people familiar with the organization’s thinking.
Barring injury, Cousins is expected to get 16 games to demonstrate that he can be a capable NFL quarterback. And Gruden, who is in the second year of a five-year contract, is expected to have the full season to bolster his record.
“This is a season where you
have to live with what you’ve got and see what it looks like after 16 weeks and maybe more as things play out in this division,” Theismann said this week, making clear that he doesn’t speak for the team’s front office. “From my perspective, you have to see what you have.”
Former NFL executive Joe Banner, who served as president of the Philadelphia Eagles from 2001 to 2012 and later served as CEO of the Browns, sized up the Redskins similarly.
“People have to understand: You brought in a new general manager, who I happen to think is outstanding,” said Banner, now an ESPN analyst, referring to Scot McCloughan, who was granted total control of the Redskins’ roster when hired in January. “He clearly is on a multiyear plan to gradually improve the team with a certain specific focus: He’s trying to improve the two lines on both sides of the ball. So if you think of the Redskins being in the early innings of a baseball game with a clear plan, then the thought of doing something like switching coaches in the middle of the season wouldn’t make any sense in the context of that plan.”
Others who declined to speak for attribution say the Redskins’ front office has come to share that view, committed to seeing through the rebuilding plan that McCloughan has instituted.
one inside or outside the organization is anointing Cousins the Redskins’ quarterback of the future. With six touchdowns and eight interceptions, he remains what he was Aug. 31, when Gruden named him the starter over Robert Griffin III: a work in progress. Still, the front-office consensus remains that he is the team’s best option.
Benching Cousins after six games would make little sense in the view of former Redskins general manager Charley Casserly. Now an NFL Network analyst, Casserly said he’s troubled by the quarterback’s inconsistency but believes that benching him would be self-defeating.
“To me, they need a quarterback, but they’ve got to play this thing out with this guy,” said Casserly, dismissing Colt McCoy as a backup with limitations and Griffin as ill-suited to the offensive scheme. “You’ve got to find out if you can get Cousins to be more consistent. If you do what you did last year [play all three quarterbacks], you’ll be where you were last year.”
Said Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Fouts, now an CBS analyst: “I know patience is short in a lot of teams, but it seems like it’s really lacking in the Beltway. All I know [is] if you yank a young quarterback midseason like this, you’ve got to ask yourself: Are you making him a better quarterback?”
Though 27, Cousins is regarded in NFL circles as a second-year starter, hence the characterization of him as “young.”
To that end, Gruden has constructed an offense to minimize his shortcomings (impetuous decision-making) and showcase his strengths (a quick release).
The retooling of Washington’s offense began in the offseason, with McCloughan beefing up the offensive line to better protect whichever quarterback was under center and to bolster the running game. The idea was that the Redskins could succeed, regard No less of their quarterback, if they ran the ball well, controlled the clock, played great defense and got an occasional big play on special teams.
For the most part, that formula worked in the season-opening game against Miami, which was lost on a fourth-quarter punt returned for a touchdown. And it made the difference in the Week 2 upset of St. Louis. But as injuries mounted on offense, sidelining big-play wide receiver DeSean Jackson and tight end Jordan Reed, Gruden’s offensive playcalling grew even more conservative.
In hopes of staving off interceptions, he reined in the passing game so much that it made it easy for opposing defenses to stop the run. The coach conceded as much following the 34-20 loss to the Jets, in which the Redskins rushed for 34 yards.
For his part, Gruden appears to have the locker room’s support, particularly after halting his public criticism of players. Scathing in his critique of Griffin following last season’s 27-7 loss to Tampa Bay, Gruden has accentuated only positives in players’ performances since spring workouts. Those who fall short are simply cut (cornerback David Amerson, place kicker Kai Forbath) or benched (Griffin, wide receiver Andre Roberts) without a harsh word.
Since 2005, 17 NFL coaches have been fired during the season by 13 teams. In five instances, the team’s record improved. And in only one case — the Cowboys replacing Wade Phillips with Jason Garrett in 2010 — did the move represent a long-term solution.
Banner, the longtime Eagles president, never fired a coach midseason and said he never would, calling the likelihood it would improve anything “nonexistent.”
But having worked in Cleveland, he understands impatience in fielding a winner.
“They’re not winning the Super Bowl this year, I hate to tell you,” Banner said of the Redskins. “But if Scot is allowed to implement the plan he has started, there is a chance it could be the dawn of a new era.”
While some heard panic in Gruden’s “Code Red” alert this week, players took it as a challenge.
“We’ve just got to go out there and win,” fullback Darrel Young said. “We can’t go into the bye 2-5.”
Cousins is trying to tread the middle ground, neither panic king nor being too blithe about what’s at stake Sunday. Meanwhile, he’s ignoring criticism of his play by tuning in to NPR instead of sports-talk radio and watching HGTV rather than ESPN.
Theismann’s chief concern is that Cousins not try to overdo it in light of the “Code Red” call. A quarterback can do only so much, even if things are going poorly, he noted. He can’t go beyond what the coach asks. And fans may not necessarily cheer the result.
“We lose to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, there’s going to be well-founded hysteria. You have to be concerned,” Theismann conceded. “Tampa is a football team that’s still trying to find its way. We don’t want to be a football team that’s trying to find its way. We want to have found the way. It’s just gonna take a little while to get there.”
Scot McCloughan “is on a multiyear plan to gradually improve the team,” said NFL exec Joe Banner, who called the GM “outstanding.”