‘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.
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.”