First-year coach Jay Gruden has Redskins thinking quick turnaround
ASHBURN, Va. -- The honeymoon months are always fun and filled with promise for a first-time NFL head coach, in that blank-slate, anything-is-possible sort of way. But soon enough, we'll begin to find out if Jay Gruden and his new-look Redskins resemble the club that took the NFL by surprise in 2012, storming to an NFC East title, or the team that bottomed out in dysfunctional fashion in 2013, posting Washington's worst record (3-13) since the dawn of the Norv Turner era in 1994.
In overview, that is the key question: Which version was the real Redskins? And while we're at it, which incarnation of quarterback Robert Griffin III will we see in 2014 under Gruden, given that the arc of Griffin's first two years in the NFL so clearly mirrored the fortunes of the franchise? Somewhere in between is my hunch, but Gruden knows there's no upside to using the past two wildly divergent seasons in Washington as any meaningful measuring stick. Whatever the story of this year's Redskins turns out to be, it will only reveal itself in due time.
"I try to forget what happened here both in '12 and '13,'' Gruden said, talking in the moments after his team's OTA workout Wednesday afternoon at Redskins Park. "We just want to make it look like '14 around here. It's a whole new season, with brand new challenges ahead. We can't even think about the last two years. Things were learned from what happened in '12 and '13, from the growing process as far as a young quarterback is concerned. But I feel confident in Robert's abilities, and who wouldn't? He's a confident kid.
"If he has a problem right now, a negative, it's he wants every play to work. Sometimes he might throw a ball into coverage when he shouldn't, especially out here (in offseason workouts). But when you've got the live bullets flying around (during the season) and he's got the ability to run, I think you'll see more of the element where he's willing to just get what he can get out of a play and live to fight another day. Out here he's trying to make every play, but I've been really thrilled with what he's done so far.''
Gruden is wearing Redskins colors in large part, of course, because he's a quarterback-minded coach, hired by a team that has a franchise quarterback already facing something of a crossroads season in the third year of his career. The former Bengals offensive coordinator and ex-collegiate and Arena League quarterback sees the game from the QB position, and his challenge is to fully develop Griffin's gifts and perhaps undo any of the damage done by the quarterback's January 2013 knee injury and the upheaval of last season, when the trust and relationship between Griffin and former Washington head coach Mike Shanahan (and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan) completely deteriorated.
How Griffin's game matures under Gruden's touch will be the intriguing backdrop to Washington's 2014 season. Gruden's challenge is to take some of what Griffin did so brilliantly as a rookie in 2012 and find a way to use his unique athletic skills within a style of play that is sustainable health-wise. The way to read that may be that Griffin's read option days aren't completely over, but under Gruden, it'll never be 2012 again.
"Personally my belief is the read option is better as an element of surprise,'' Gruden said. "If you're making it a major focal point of your offense -- though they had success with it -- that's problematic. You want to have some of it, no question, because it's the way to get the numbers back in your favor offensively. And with a quarterback like him, why wouldn't you have some of it?
"But we're trying to develop him as an all-around quarterback. And I don't know if they had that (as a goal). I'm sure they did a little bit, but I think that's the clear intent moving forward, to develop him as an all-around quarterback. That's part of his growth, from '12 to '13 to now.''
Griffin seems eager to embrace making the vast majority of his plays from the pocket rather than with his legs, knowing that approach is necessary for his long-term success in the league. A year removed from last year's ACL/LCL rehabilitation, Griffin is clearly moving more fluidly without his knee brace and made several pretty throws from the pocket during the 90-minute OTA session I witnessed. Afterward he pronounced himself "very comfortable'' in Gruden's offense, but acknowledged it's a work very much in progress.
Under Gruden, Washington's offense will feature some elements of the controlled passing game that helped the Bengals reach the playoffs in quarterback Andy Dalton's first three seasons in the league, but with doses of the play-action game that Griffin has excelled in, and plenty of reliance on the Alfred Morris-led running game. Ideally, Gruden is planning to blend the best of what Cincinnati and Washington did offensively.
"We're going to have some different elements from Cincinnati,'' he said. "Some of the quick passing game will be about having the ability to get the ball out of the quarterback's hands to receivers out in space, and let them make a big play after the catch. It's a low-risk, high-reward type play, and you'll see some of those implemented in our offense. But then, here in Washington, they actually had some good play-action shot plays, and we'll carry some of those we like. There's definitely some concepts I really like and think are necessary for pro football quarterbacks.''
The vibe in Washington is predictably upbeat, after the Shanahan era ended in such desultory fashion. I've known Gruden since covering him in 1992 as the star quarterback of the Arena League's Tampa Bay Storm, and I knew his approachable, down-to-earth manner would play well with his players, after the somewhat imperial style of his predecessor in Washington. Chatting with Redskins receiver Santana Moss and newly arrived defensive end Jason Hatcher on Wednesday, both veterans lauded the sixth full-time head coaching hire of owner Daniel Snyder's 15-year tenure with the franchise.
"It's too early to start talking crazy, but I'll just tell you, man, right now the aura in the building is just tremendously great,'' said Moss, now on his fourth Redskins head coach. "A veteran like myself looks forward to coming to work knowing that you have a coach who's just so relaxed and so efficient at what he's trying to teach us. That way we can go out there and be at ease in what we're doing and what we're learning. I think that kind of approach is a big step toward trying to get your team to believe what you want them to be this year.''
Hatcher, the former Cowboy who signed during free agency, called Gruden "a player's coach'' but hastily added that he's not incapable of cracking the whip if necessary. "He's not a be-your-friend type of coach,'' Hatcher said. "He'll put you in your place when you need to be put in your place. But for the most part, he's all about the players and making the environment fun and stress-free. A lot of coaches in the league are not really player's coaches, so once you get that chemistry going, knowing the head coach cares about you, you'll run through the wall for him.''
There are no walls to run through in mid-June, in OTAs, but the Redskins did add some quality pieces in Hatcher, receivers DeSean Jackson and Andre Roberts and safety Ryan Clark this offseason, and there is a nucleus of talent on hand that produced a playoff season not that long ago. In the always-competitive NFC East, where the last repeat champion was the 2003-2004 Eagles, Washington has plenty of ground to make up, but it also isn't facing a massive rebuilding project.
There is always pressure to win now in Washington, but Gruden doesn't sound cowed by Dan Snyder's track record of burning through head coaches. When I asked Gruden to give me his perception versus reality impressions of Snyder, he didn't flinch. "As an outsider looking in, when he first took over, he was --,'' said Gruden, pausing. A bull in a china shop, I suggested? Laughing, Gruden said, "Yeah, I'm not going to lie. But the reality of it is he's a very passionate guy who really cares deeply about the Washington Redskins, their history, their tradition, the fans and this team. And he will do anything in his power to turn it into a champion. And when it's all said and done, that's the bottom line.
"I think we're getting along great so far, but we haven't lost a game yet. I don't know what will happen then.''
Gruden's older, more famous, brother, Jon Gruden, has been both a Super Bowl champion coach and a fired coach in this league. He was on hand for Wednesday's workout, and the ex-Raiders and Bucs head coach and current Monday Night Football analyst said Jay Gruden will prove to be a good hire for Griffin's future.
"I think he's organized, and he's going to be steady,'' Jon Gruden said. "He's proven he's a good play-caller, and I really like the staff he hired. I think the working environment is very good and I think that will help develop the players, particularly the quarterback and the young guys they're rolling along with.''
Jay Gruden knows there are no longer three-year windows given to new coaches in the NFL. It's get-it-done mode, every year. In 2013, three of the league's new coaching hires took their teams to the playoffs (Chip Kelly, Andy Reid and Mike McCoy) and two more missed the postseason by one game (Bruce Arians and Marc Trestman). That made it eight consecutive seasons where at least one new coaching hire headed a playoff-bound team in year one.
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"Our bar is set high here,'' Gruden said. "The way you build a team, it can happen quickly. Kansas City was 2-14 one year, then added a quarterback, stopped turning the ball over and made some plays on defense and went to the playoffs. The Eagles get their guys healthy, find a quarterback and all of a sudden they're flying high. That's what happens. It takes some weapons, but I think we have enough people here in this building that we can be competitive every week, and there's no reason why we can't do some great things this season.''
Landing Jackson, the exiled Eagles receiver coming off a career year under Kelly in Philadelphia, was the biggest coup Washington executed thus far in 2014. He gives Griffin a proven downfield speed threat and should help draw coverage away from the likes of Pierre Garcon, Roberts and Moss in the passing game. Gruden said he doesn't really care what went wrong for Jackson in Philadelphia. He's just happy the Redskins won the Jackson sweepstakes.
"He's not the only star receiver in the history of the NFL who's left a team and gone elsewhere,'' Gruden said. "T.O. did it. Randy Moss did it. Jerry Rice left the 49ers. There's been a lot of good players who have left previous teams for whatever reasons, it could be money, could be issues with the coordinator or head coach, whatever the reason is. It doesn't mean he can't play. We're willing to take a chance on this guy.
"He's an explosive player and obviously those guys are hard to find. It's one thing to be fast and another to be extremely tough. He's not afraid of anything. Sometimes in practice it looks like he's coasting, but when you turn on the tape, he's two or three yards past the other receiver running the same route. He's just got a great stride and great control about him.''
Gruden's honeymoon phase in Washington remains in bloom for a little while longer, but his own stride and sense of control of his new team has been impressively steady so far. Nothing short of results will truly matter come the regular season, but for now, he's a new head coach in the NFL as summer approaches, and that means all things still seem possible.