“We got to get out on the field soon.”
That’s the takeaway for Jacksonville Jaguars new offensive coordinator Jay Gruden. After being hired in mid-January, Gruden has had limited interaction with his new players, thanks in large part to the sweeping shutdown following the spread of COVID-19. The Jaguars facility first shut down March 12, and while the organization entered Phase 1 of reopening on May 26, players and coaches are still not allowed back in just yet. As such, offseason meetings and training thus far has been entirely online.
This has been an evolving situation that has brought immense challenges for the entire sports world. The Jaguars coaching staff and front office have spoken on the subject numerous times as well. But the difficulties are increased ten-fold for a new coordinator. Implementing a new playbook takes time, tweaking and repetition as it is. To try to do so over a computer without the ability to see a player go through the steps or receive one-on-one coaching is unheard of. Yet that’s what Jay Gruden is currently facing.
“It’s one thing to install plays on a chalk board and virtual meetings getting to know the concepts and all that stuff,” explained Gruden Tuesday while on a call with local reporters.
“It’s another thing to go out and execute and see what we’re good at, to see what guy can do. I don’t have a lot of information as far as how these guys can handle different positions and how to run different routes and all that stuff.”
The Jags were 20th in the NFL in 2019 in total yards (5,468) and yards per game (341.8) and 26th in points per game (18.8). While waiting to see them in action in person, Gruden is relying on what he already knows of his team to create a plan of attack.
"I know Dede [Westbrook] plays in the slot, we drafted Laviska [Shenault Jr.], we’ll see what he can do outside and inside. I’d like to move some other receivers around a little bit, Chris [Conley] and DJ [Chark Jr] and see what happens. Then we got Chris Thompson for some backfield stuff, but seeing Ryquell [Armstead] and obviously Leonard [Fournette] do some stuff in the backfield and just get to know everybody and get Tyler Eifert back in the mix and get him moving around and see where Josh Oliver is at and James [O’Shaughnessy].
“We have to get these guys on the field. I think, from a knowledge standpoint, they’ll know the plays and the concepts, but then getting them out there and seeing them execute it versus some different looks and find out what they’re good at so we can best utilize their skillset."
Until facilities do reopen to players and coaches and some version of training camp can begin (NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has extended online OTA’s into June) then Gruden must continue to coach online. He’s doing so in more of a CEO capacity, leaning on his background as a head coach for the past five and a half years with the Washington Redskins.
“This time we would have more group activity if it was a normal year. Obviously, it’s not a normal year. So we are doing more individual stuff and trying to hone in on the individual positions.
"I haven’t done any group installed meetings trying to get 40 guys on one line at one time where I have a picture of me and I’m going over plays. I try to break it up where each coach can teach the system because it’s the first they are teaching them our system as well. It is good for them to teach it and work with their guys.
“Coach [Terry] Robiskie took the running backs and Coach [Keenan] McCardell with the receivers and Coach [Ron] Middleton with the tight ends, Coach [Ben] McAdoo with the quarterbacks and I am able to go in and out and Coach [George] Warhop with the linemen. For them to really hone in on their positions and what their task is and when we can come together, we will do more group installs and the walk throughs and the practices. I think it will be more beneficial that way.”
While Gruden is working through the playbook with his position coaches, he also has additional built in “coaches” to help explain his style and offense for those who are seeing it for the first time.
Tight end Tyler Eifert played under Gruden in 2013 when the latter was offensive coordinator for the Cincinnati Bengals (2011-2013). The Bengals won the AFC North title that season and Eifert posted 445 yards and two touchdowns on 39 receptions in his rookie year.
“He is a great weapon. When you have a tight end in the back that can do some work in the middle of the field, it really opens things up for guys like DJ [Chark Jr.] and hopefully Laviska (Shenault Jr.) and Chris Conley and some of these other guys, Dede Westbrook. It makes everybody better. Not only to that but the running game as well with Leonard [Fournette].”
During Chris Thompson’s time in Washington—2,366 all-purpose yards 15 touchdowns—Jay Gruden was the only head coach he knew. Gruden’s time with the Redskins (2015-2019, week five) meant everything to Thompson, who was openly emotional in the locker room following Gruden’s firing. Now that the two are reunited, Gruden knows Thompson can help in meetings and the locker room.
“I can rely on Chris for sure. Chris is like another coach. He will correct me sometimes honestly. He’s awesome. He’s smart, very detailed in what he does and he’s the guy that really came from a practice squad and built himself into one of the best third-down [running] backs in the league. You know, without some injuries, his numbers would be up there with some of the best ones. He is a great player and a great guy. I am happy to have him on the team.
“It is great to have those guys in there to have experience and knowledge of the system, not only that but they are great guys and great players.”
For the time being, any advantage will help. With Phase 1 of reopening NFL facilities in place, having players and coaches on the practice field is at least back on the horizon.