Jay Gruden's Rushing Attack Explained: Part 1
For the past two decades, the Gruden family name has become synonymous with offense in football. The brothers, Jay and John, have built a reputation on retooling offenses and building a team from the offensive side up. With Jay Gruden taking over the reins for the Jacksonville Jaguars this fall as the new offensive coordinator, we here at JaguarReport are taking a look back at his past offenses in a three-part series.
While in Tampa and on the heels of winning a Super Bowl with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Jon Gruden adopted the phrase “Pound the Rock” for his team, a promise to run the ball en route to wins. It’s a motto that Jay—an offensive assistant on that team—has carried with him. Since becoming an offensive coordinator—and subsequently a head coach—in the NFL, Gruden’s rushing offenses have never finished higher than 17th. His team's total offense has typically floated around the same tier, save for 2013 when the Cincinnati Bengals finished 10th in total offense overall.
Yet the rushing attack for Gruden’s offenses have developed characteristics that have served it well over the years. With a developing quarterback—Gardner Minshew II— and a first-rounder entering his fourth year in Leonard Fournette, as well as a versatile back signed from Gruden’s former team (Chris Thompson) there are pieces in place to mold this into an ideal Gruden rushing offense. To better understand what that could look like this fall, we examine the three defining qualities of a Jay Gruden rushing attack.
For the sake of time and brevity, we looked only at his stints as either a head coach (AFL, UFL or NFL) or as offensive coordinator in the NFL. That breaks down as such:
- Head Coach, Orlando Predators of the Arena Football League (2004-2008)
- Head Coach, Florida Tuskers of the United Football League (2010)
- Offensive Coordinator, Cincinnati Bengals (2011-2013)
- Head Coach, Washington Redskins (2014-2019/Week 5)
For the same reason, we looked only at those who had both double-digit carries and double-digit receptions.
Trait 1: At least one running back has double-digit receptions
Going back to Gruden’s time with the Predators his running backs have always been used in the passing game as well. Sometimes out of the backfield, sometimes in the flat for short passes, but always in some shape or fashion. Every season that Gruden has been in charge—save his first season with the Predators, 2004—at least one back has tallied double-digit receptions. It’s not uncommon for that running back to even be in the top three on the team in receptions.
One of the first great experiments for Gruden in this regard was Javarus Dudley. He was technically labeled a receiver but was also a ball carrier for Gruden and his most productive touchdown machine. Dudley’s two years under Gruden with the Predators concluded with 184 receptions for 2,547 yards and 43 touchdowns through the air along with 36 carries for 82 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground. That’s a score every 4.4 times Dudley touched the ball. It also formed an important lesson for Gruden: Get the ball in your playmakers' hands, in whatever way possible.
As Gruden moved back into the NFL in higher-profile roles, he brought this lesson with him. Brian Leonard, a fullback, was Gruden’s chess piece with the Bengals. In his two seasons under Gruden in Cincinnati, Leonard picked up 191 yards on 50 carries, along with his 277 yards on 33 receptions. Not eye-popping numbers by any means, but the next step in the path Gruden followed to create his offense.
Fullbacks are a bit of a lost art in football so the ability to involve one as more than a slightly more athletic blocker is always an anomaly in the modern game. With Leonard, we saw Gruden do just that while creating a style that would begin to define his scheme; develop a rushing playbook that depended on balance just as much as power.
After joining the Washington Redskins as Head Coach, Gruden continued to develop this part of his philosophy, using guys like Alfred Morris (467-1,825-1 rushing; 27-210 receiving), Matt Jones (243-950-6 rushing; 27-377 receiving), Adrian Peterson (462-1,940-12 rushing; ) and Samaje Perine (175-603-1 rushing; 22-182-1 receiving) to name a few.
But it’s Chris Thompson, the free agent who signed with the Jaguars this offseason, who serves as the best example of Gruden’s versatile back. Thompson was drafted to the Redskins in 2013, so he’s been with Gruden the majority of his career thus far.
Thompson was used sparingly his rookie season, primarily playing on special teams. Gruden arrived in 2014 and Thompson spent much of that season on the practice squad. Gruden continued to encourage the young back out of Florida State though and asked him to trust both the coaches and the process. He was promoted to the active roster in Week 15 of the 2014 season and became a regular part of the offense in 2015. Every one of those years since, Thompson has finished with double-digit carries and receptions. There is no other Redskins player during that time who can say the same.
- 2015: 35 rushes, 216 yards—48 receptions, 240 yards, two touchdowns
- 2016: 68 rushes, 356 yards, three touchdowns—49 receptions, 349 yards, two touchdowns
- 2017: 64 rushes, 294 yards, two touchdowns—39 receptions, 510 yards, four touchdowns
- 2018: 43 rushes, 178 yards—41 receptions, 268 yards, one touchdown
- 2019: 37 rushes, 138 yards—42 receptions, 378 yards
When Thompson signed with Jacksonville, he was upfront about his place, explaining he knew he was in Duval to help Leonard Fournette.
“I know Leonard (Fournette) is the guy, so whenever he needs a break, I’m trying to go in there and just pick up where he left off,” said Thompson.
And while this will still be Fournette’s unit to lead and most likely received the bulk of the reps, Thompson brings something to the field that can’t be overstated. He brings something, well, different. The ability to catch out of the backfield and make a defense play honest allows an offense to script a drive more to their own liking. It gives an extra weapon that brings freedom to the play-calling regardless of the situation. And it gives Leonard Fournette a break.
While Thompson is a prototypical example of a versatile Gruden running back, the offensive coordinator has more than just one quiver in his arsenal now. Fournette was not only the team’s leading rusher in 2019 (265-1,152-3) but also finished with the most receptions (76-522). With the absence of a downhill power runner, having an elusive runner who can also work in space will allow the offense more room to breath and the leeway to cheat a little bit, running with any perceived deficiency as opposed to in spite of them...if necessary. Jay Gruden can call for a power back as well; but we'll save that for Part 2.
Stay tuned for parts two and three of Gruden’s rushing attack explained.