Gru­den’s ‘Code Red’ is red her­ring for Red­skins

Wash­ing­ton set­ting up a long-term re­build, Theis­mann says

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - BY LIZ CLARKE

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.”

JONATHAN NEW­TON/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Scot McCloughan “is on a mul­ti­year plan to grad­u­ally im­prove the team,” said NFL exec Joe Ban­ner, who called the GM “out­stand­ing.”

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