Jay Gruden has been in Washington for four years, so he understands that coaching and playing there is a little different. And he knew what was coming with all the change over the past nine months. He has two new coordinators; Kirk Cousins lost two big-time receivers and didn’t get a long-term deal; and the franchise went through an ugly divorce with GM Scot McCloughan in March.
Perception was the circus is back in town. Gruden knew it, and he also knew what it would take to change it.
“People made more of the transition than we did,” Gruden said Wednesday from his office. “(After the changes), it was about getting to OTAs and training camp and just coaching football. And our guys have settled into their roles, practiced hard and diligently, worked hard. That's kind of the way it is around here. We try not to let the media affect the way that we prepare, that’s for sure.”
But that takes the right kind of player. And there’s our lesson for the week, and it applies to our Cowboys and Giants sections up top, too: Eventually the makeup of your team, for better or worse, will show up.
Gruden believes the Redskins’ makeup showed itself after the team’s season-opening loss to the Eagles. On the surface, that heartbreaking defeat seemed to confirm the overriding offseason narrative that the old Redskins were back. Instead, it just set the stage to reveal what was different about this group.
And that difference came by design. Gruden and the personnel department have stuck to a profile for the type of player they wanted in Washington, which happened to be the type of player that was equipped for Washington. That player, the coach explains, is competitive and loves football, and is undeterred by whatever might crop up around him.
“Let’s look at D.J. Swearinger for a second,” said Gruden, of the Skins’ new safety. “He’s been cut. He’s bounced around. He’s been talked bad about. And I saw a guy that improved tremendously from Year 1 to whatever it was his last year at Arizona. You can just see him continuing to get better, and he obviously handled some adversity in being released and let go. And that’s just one for instance.”
Swearinger, by the way, is now a captain, and not nearly the only example Gruden had for me.
“We draft Jonathan Allen, and there’s not one person that said one bad thing about him at Alabama, and then you watch him on tape and see what type of motor he has,” he said. “Same with Ryan Anderson. Take Josh Norman. Why’d we go out and get Josh Norman and give him all that money? Because he plays his a-- off, he’s covering, he’s tackling, he’s hitting, he’s forcing fumbles, he’s a playmaker.”
And Gruden kept cycling through names. Homegrown guys like linebackers Ryan Kerrigan and Preston Smith and Martrell Spaight. Veterans they’ve brought in like defensive linemen Ziggy Hood and Terrell McClain. A risk like linebacker Junior Gallette, whose passion for football led to the Redskins taking the leap of faith. And stories like linebacker Will Compton, who’s remained a leader despite losing his starting job.
“I’m looking at my board right now, and trying to say, ‘OK, this guy is a hunk of s---‘,” Gruden said, laughing. “And I don’t really have any. They’re all willing to give everything they have.”
All of this, Gruden says, showed up in Week 2, when the Redskins answered a Rams’ rally with a game-winning drive. It happened again last Sunday as Washington fought through a couple turnovers. And it was there in the team’s ability to remake itself on the fly with important figures like McCloughan, former offensive coordinator Sean McVay, and wide receivers Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson now gone. It’s even there in Gruden’s approach to Cousins’ contract situation.
“He’s making $25 million. Poor guy, just so much to deal with,” Gruden joked. “He’s in a good place. Whatever happens here, he’s going to be a starting quarterback in the National Football League for many, many years. I think he just wants to come out and compete. We haven’t talked one time about the contract. It’s not like, ‘Hey you need to sign or I’ll bench you.’ Come on. We’re just trying to win games here.”
And to the surprise of many on the outside, but few on the inside, that’s actually happening now. “It’s a fun group to coach, man,” Gruden said. “You never say it’s easier, but it just makes it more pleasant to come to work, because I know I’m going to get the best out of these guys every day.”
Which, it turns out, is exactly what we all missed sorting through the rubble over the spring and summer.
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