‘Jay keeps it real’ Red­skins play­ers ad­mire Gru­den, but does that give him stay­ing power?

Gru­den is on the verge of go­ing where no coach has gone un­der Sny­der: A fifth year.

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY LIZ CLARKE

Jay Gru­den winced as he eased him­self onto a leather sofa at Red­skins Park this past week. The Wash­ing­ton Red­skins coach had strained a calf mus­cle while run­ning, he ex­plained at the out­set of a mid­sea­son in­ter­view, and it was sore. “Awww, a strained calf mus­cle!” right guard Bran­don Scherff chimed in with mock em­pa­thy, hav­ing over­heard the re­mark as he limped from the train­ing room af­ter get­ting treat­ment on a sprained knee that ended his streak of 38 con­sec­u­tive starts.

Gru­den looked up and laughed as the 6-foot-5, 319-pound Scherff, grin­ning at his joke, trudged past, a por­trait of tough­ness lum­ber­ing to­ward the team’s weight room.

“There’s not one player on this team that I don’t en­joy mess­ing around with and talk­ing to,” Gru­den said. “They’ve all got great per­son­al­i­ties. They’re great kids.”

And most Red­skins play­ers, in turn, “would run through a wall” for Gru­den, ac­cord­ing to in­side line­backer Ma­son Foster, who tweeted as much last week.

“Af­ter a bad prac­tice or a bad game, he’s the first one to let you know you’re not get­ting it done; Jay’s go­ing to let you know it’s not good enough,” Foster, cur­rently on in­jured re­serve, ex­plained in a tele­phone in­ter­view. “But he’s also the first, af­ter a great game or a

great play, to say, ‘You looked great out there! You guys are play­ing your hearts out!’ Jay keeps it real with you. And he ac­tu­ally cares about you as a per­son.”

If Gru­den makes it to 2018 in Wash­ing­ton, he would be­come the first head coach to reach a fifth sea­son un­der Red­skins owner Daniel Sny­der.

“Knock wood!” he chuck­led when this was pointed out. “I still have to get to next sea­son!”

It was clas­sic Gru­den: meet­ing the harsh truth with a laugh.

He knows his over­all record is be­low .500 (25-31-1, in­clud­ing a loss in his only play­off ap­pear­ance) and that af­ter claim­ing the 2015 NFC East cham­pi­onship with a 9-7 mark, the Red­skins have fin­ished 8-7-1 and are 4-4 en­ter­ing Sun­day’s game against the 6-2 Min­nesota Vik­ings.

“I still think we have tal­ent enough to go out there and com­pete,” Gru­den said, al­lud­ing to the litany of in­juries to the of­fen­sive line, tight ends and safeties. “We’ve got to fig­ure out a way to get over the hump.”

That hump isn’t 10-6 or even an­other di­vi­sion ti­tle. At some point — and some point soon — it’s win­ning play­off games.

Af­ter nearly two decades of promis­ing hires and pre­ma­ture de­par­tures, it’s un­clear whether any Red­skins coach can achieve long-term suc­cess un­der Sny­der, whose ten­ure has been marked by tu­mult. Who might suc­ceed where such proven com­modi­ties as Marty Schot­ten­heimer, Joe Gibbs and Mike Shana­han fell short?

Could it be that the seem­ingly im­per­turbable Gru­den has a shot?

Could it be that the un­con­ven­tional ap­proach of a head coach who’s happy to let play­ers be them­selves, rather than force them to buckle to his will, so long as they get job done is ul­ti­mately best suited for the job?

“He’s hard on us, but at the same time he’s laugh­ing and jok­ing and hav­ing fun with us,” said run­ning back Chris Thomp­son, who has flour­ished un­der Gru­den’s coach­ing. “As a whole, ev­ery­body just en­joys com­ing to work; they en­joy be­ing around him. He’s never in a pissy mood. And if he is, it goes away quick.”

Asked about his de­meanor ear­lier in the sea­son, Gru­den con­fessed, “I’m a happy guy.”

In do­ing so, Gru­den broke the un­spo­ken creed of old-line NFL coaches that great­ness is one step re­moved from mis­ery — that the price of post­sea­son glory, for an NFL head coach, was phys­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal well-be­ing in the form of ul­cers, anx­i­ety and lack of sleep.

“It can be mis­er­able — if you have peo­ple around you [whom] you don’t like to go to work with, and that’s play­ers and coaches in­cluded,” Gru­den said of the job. “I’ve got a great coach­ing staff, great train­ing staff. And when Dan [Sny­der] comes by, we shoot the [breeze] a lit­tle bit. It’s fun.

“Now, the pres­sure of win­ning is great. And the work you put in is hard each week. We just got done with Seat­tle and [quar­ter­back] Rus­sell Wil­son and [four-time Pro Bowl safety] Kam Chan­cel­lor, and now [Min­nesota Vik­ings Coach] Mike Zim­mer is com­ing to town. It’s a grind. It’s hard, deal­ing with the in­juries, juggling the ros­ter and prac­tice squad. It’s hard, but it’s still fun to come in here.”

For the Red­skins to be 4-4 af­ter so much off­sea­son turnover is some­thing of a sur­prise. Gru­den lost both co­or­di­na­tors (of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Sean McVay left to coach the Los An­ge­les Rams; de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Joe Barry was fired af­ter his unit ranked 28th in con­sec­u­tive sea­sons). Sny­der fired gen­eral man­ager Scot McCloughan the month be­fore the NFL draft. The of­fense lost 2,000 re­ceiv­ing yards with the de­par tures of DeSean Jack­son and Pierre Gar­con. All but one de­fen­sive as­sis­tant’s jobs turned over. And team Pres­i­dent Bruce Allen failed to de­liver the long-term con­tract for quar­ter­back Kirk Cousins that he promised would be eas­ily han­dled.

Seem­ingly, Gru­den hasn’t missed a beat, his abil­ity to adapt to change mak­ing him a man for this sea­son.

“I just think this day and age in pro foot­ball, you have to be ready to ad­just and make changes,” Gru­den said. “You’re never go­ing to see the same ros­ter one year to the next. Some­times it’s coach­ing; some­times it’s per­son­nel.”

Re­claim­ing play-call­ing du­ties has been both chal­leng­ing and grat­i­fy­ing, he said.

When McVay had the job, Gru­den said, the two re­treated to their pri­vate of­fices, scripted plays in­de­pen­dently, com­pared notes and “came to a happy medium” on the best ap­proach weekly.

This sea­son, Gru­den is spread­ing the work­load among his as­sis­tants: of­fen­sive line coach Bill Cal­la­han, run­ning backs coach Randy Jor­dan, tight ends coach Wes Phillips, wide re­ceivers coach Ike Hil­liard.

“I don’t do ev­ery­thing my­self,” he said. “I take pieces from all of them, and we come up with a plan.”

The num­ber of in­juries to the of­fen­sive line has made con­sis­tent of­fen­sive pro­duc­tion even more chal­leng­ing. The run­ning game has strug­gled, and Cousins hasn’t had time to throw deep con­sis­tently. So Gru­den has fash­ioned a run­ning game of sorts from a heavy diet of screen passes that Thomp­son has turned into big gains. The Red­skins rank 14th in to­tal yards, av­er­ag­ing 343 per game.

“We might only rush for 70 yards one game but might throw screens for 150,” Gru­den noted. “There are dif­fer­ent ways to skin a cat in a run­ning game. It’s eas­ier said than done to go out there and just run the ball. Bruce and Dan want to run the ball all the time; that’s the old Joe Gibbs way. I get that. I’d love to hand the ball off; it makes it eas­ier for ev­ery­body.”

But run­ning the ball has been tough against the de­fen­sive fronts of Philadel­phia, Dal­las and Seat­tle — as it will be Sun­day against Min­nesota’s third-ranked run de­fense.

That’s why Gru­den is ea­ger for his out­side re­ceivers, Josh Doct­son in par­tic­u­lar, to emerge as con­sis­tent deep threats. Doct­son’s diving, 38-yard catch on the gamewin­ning drive at Seat­tle was a start.

With so many starters on oneyear deals — Cousins chief among them, but line­backer Zach Brown and cor­ner­back Bashaud Bree­land, as well — the up­com­ing off­sea­son could be par­tic­u­larly dis­rup­tive for the Red­skins.

Gru­den said he has no in­sight into whether Cousins will be back.

“I think he likes it here,” Gru­den said, “but I know at the end of the day it’s a busi­ness, and he has got a fam­ily and he has got his de­ci­sion to make.”

As for the rest, Gru­den said: “We’ll do the best we can to keep as many as we can. I think the most im­por­tant thing is to keep a core group of vet­eran guys that, who­ever you bring in, they’ll fit in and know how you want things done. They’ll work hard. I don’t have to go down and mi­cro­man­age ev­ery­thing. Ryan Ker­ri­gan, Trent Wil­liams, Josh Nor­man, Kirk Cousins, if he comes back — those guys will.” Nor­man is on board. “It’s hard to ex­plain Jay Gru­den,” Nor­man said. “When he’s se­ri­ous, he’s se­ri­ous. Most of the time, he never is. But he’s a play­ers’ coach — some­one that’s all about their men, that fights for ’em and wants to see them be suc­cess­ful. You want to do good for a guy like that. You don’t want to see him go nowhere.”

JONATHAN NEW­TON/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

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