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How We Got Here

With excitement building for the Gruden Era, Tom takes a look back at the pedigree and successes and failures (ok, mostly failures) of the recent series of Redskins head coaches.

Patrick McDermott

The Redskins have their man.  Jay Gruden is the 28th head coach in franchise history.  He's the erstwhile offensive coordinator of the Cincinnati Bengals, a shift from the hiring philosophy that led to Mike Shanahan, an older, former head coach.

In fact, the Redskins, largely under Snyder, have tried a whole bunch of different strategies when selecting new head coaches since Joe Gibbs originally stepped down back in 1992.  The effort to recapture that glory has led to going after promising NFL assistant coaches, established NFL head coaches, promoting from within, hot college coaches, and even another crack with Gibbs himself.

None of those attempts thus far has produced a world championship.

As we prepare for yet another clean slate, I wanted to take a quick look back at the coaches since Joe Gibbs, to see where they came from and how they fared.

With the benefit of hindsight, then, I begin . . .

Coach: Joe Gibbs

Previous Gig: Offensive coordinator, San Diego Chargers

Years: 1981-1992

Record: 124-60 (Playoffs: 16-5)

Notes: What can you say?  This is the gold standard.  Gibbs was plucked from the Don Coryell coaching tree to replace Jack Pardee and take over a team that had muddled through some seasons ranging from below-average to solid, but hadn't won a playoff game in nearly a decade.  He began 0-5, scrapped much of the offense that had made him a top head coaching prospect while a coordinator, and installed a one-back offense that featured lots of shifts, motion, and different personnel groups, combining some of the vertical passing of elements of Air Coryell with a power running game.  The rest is history.  Gibbs wound up winning three world titles, earning a reputation for offensive wizardry and an uncanny ability (along with GM Bobby Beathard) to get the most out of personnel overlooked by other teams.


Coach: Richie Petitbon

Previous Gig: Assistant Head Coach / Defensive Coordinator, Washington Redskins

Years: 1993

Record: 4-12

Notes: It was all downhill for Petitbon after a dominating victory over the world champion Cowboys to open his tenure.  His team slumped to a 3-12 finish after that, and Petitbon never coached in the NFL again.  He went from being one of the more respected assistants in the NFL to appearing washed-up in the span of about ten months.  To be fair, following Gibbs set him up for failure.  His firing by Jack Kent Cooke closed the book on the old regime.


Coach: Norv Turner

Previous Gig: Offensive coordinator, Dallas Cowboys

Years: 1994-2000

Record: 49-59-1 (Playoffs: 1-1)

Notes: A red-hot offensive coordinator who helped produce back-to-back Super Bowl titles for Dallas, Turner's early head-coaching career was filled with promise.  Washington bottomed out in 1994 with a 3-13 record, but Turner quickly improved that with six- and nine-win seasons.  Trouble started in 1997 when a team expected to be a playoff squad went 8-7-1.  Turner only kept his job after a 6-10 mark in 1998 due to the limbo state of the Redskins' ownership at the time.  He had his best season in 1999, saving his job under new owner Dan Snyder by winning the NFC East and beating Detroit in the playoffs.  Snyder earned his reputation for meddling that off-season, acquiring some "name" free agents like Deion Sanders and Jeff George to go along with two top-three draft picks in LaVar Arrington and Chris Samuels.  With expectations (perhaps unrealistically) high going into 2000, Turner was finally fired after going 7-6 in the first 13 games of the year.


Coach: Terry Robiskie

Previous Gig: Passing game coordinator, Washington Redskins

Years: 2000

Record: 1-2

Notes: After Dan Snyder fired Norv Turner, Robiskie took over as interim head coach for the remainder of the season.  He lost 32-13 to Dallas and 24-3 to Pittsburgh before finishing the season with a 20-3 win over Arizona, securing an 8-8 mark for Washington.

FINAL GRADE: Incomplete

Coach: Marty Schottenheimer

Previous Gig: Head coach, Kansas City Chiefs (out of coaching in 1999 and 2000)

Years: 2001

Record: 8-8

Notes: After inheriting-and then firing-a coach he didn't want, Snyder brought in 58-year-old Marty Schottenheimer to serve as both the coach and general manager of the Redskins.  Washington struggled to an 0-5 start before righting the ship with an 8-3 finish, ultimately winding up .500, just as it had the year before.  Snyder wanted Schottenheimer to return, but only on the condition he gave up personnel control.  Schottenheimer refused, and that led to his dismissal.


Coach: Steve Spurrier

Previous Gig: Head coach, University of Florida

Years: 2002-03

Record: 12-20

Notes: Snyder plucked the Ol' Ballcoach from the college ranks after a couple of less-than-satisfying experiences with coaches with NFL-centric backgrounds.  The results weren't any better.  Spurrier got some attention for running up the score in preseason games, his decidedly laid-back attitude, and the "college" hours he kept, but the end result was a 7-9 season followed by a 5-11 season.  Still, he may have stuck around for at least one more year had it not been for the sudden interest / availability of an old friend of the franchise . . .


Coach: Joe Gibbs (second tenure)

Previous Gig: Head coach, Washington Redskins (out of coaching since 1992)

Years: 2004-07

Record: 30-34 (Playoffs: 1-2)

Notes: At the time, there was a lot of talk about whether Gibbs' had "tarnished his legacy" by coming back.  I said this at the time, but I felt like the years would be very kind to this second act.  Consider that Gibbs took the Redskins to the playoffs twice in his final three years (including one year in which his best player was murdered), going 4-2 against Dallas during that stretch.  If the premise that Dan Snyder has a negative impact on coaches, then Gibbs has to be viewed favorably for this run, even if it wasn't nearly the wild success his first stint was.  Gibbs won more games while serving under Snyder than any other coach.  He's the only coach to lead the Redskins to multiple playoff berths since, uh, himself.  Gibbs, who decided to retire after four seasons, is also the only coach to leave voluntarily on good terms under the current ownership regime.


Coach: Jim Zorn

Previous Gig: Quarterbacks coach, Seattle Seahawks (but see below)

Years: 2008-09

Record: 12-20

Notes: Dan Snyder actually hired Zorn to be the Redskins' new offensive coordinator when Joe Gibbs retired, then named him the new head coach about a month later.  Things got off to a great start, as Washington's momentum from Gibbs' final year seemed to carry over, with Zorn's Redskins rolling out to a 6-2 first half in 2008.  From that point until his firing after the 2009 season, Zorn went 8-18.  He looked overmatched at times, and the conventional wisdom became that jumping him from a position coach (albeit a very good one) to a head coach in the span of a few weeks probably doomed him to failure.  Zorn remained a sought-after quarterbacks coach, although he was not on a staff this past season after the previous regime in Kansas City was fired at the end of 2012.


Coach: Mike Shanahan

Previous Gig: Head coach, Denver Broncos (out of coaching in 2009)

Years: 2010-13

Record: 24-40

Notes: Mike Shanahan brought with him two Super Bowl rings and a lot of hope among Redskins fans.  After going the "untested assistant" route with Zorn and failing badly, there was optimism that an established veteran like Shanahan would bring back some stability to the franchise.  Shanahan also had personnel-related power and a promise that Snyder would not interfere with football decisionmaking.  This seemed to be a step in the right direction.  Yet, Shanahan went 6-10 his first year and followed that up with a 5-11 mark in 2011.  Things changed dramatically in 2012 with the addition of rookies Robert Griffin III and Alfred Morris.  Suddenly, the Redskins had their first divisional title this century.  Washington lost at home in the playoffs, but the biggest story from that game was the loss of Griffin to a major knee injury.  We know how that played out.  2013 was a disaster, with the Redskins finishing 3-13 and Shanahan being fired at the end of the season, having finished in last place all but one of his years in Washington.


All of that brings us to Jay Gruden, a hire that represents another philosophical shift in coach selection.  In fact, the only constant during the Snyder Era has been change.  Specifically, a willingness to try something-anything-new to get the team moving in a positive direction.

The Gruden hire is a good one in my view.  I think getting a young assistant with coordinator-level NFL experience is the smartest way to turn a football team around as quickly as possible.  Very few older, established NFL coaches have successful second or third acts (Bill Parcells being the biggest exception who comes to mind).  Even the most elite college coaches are hit-or-miss at best.  Recall that demi-god Nick Saban was 15-17 as an NFL head coach[1].

With Gruden, the Redskins get someone with a pedigree similar to that of the greatest coaching success in franchise history (and one of the greatest of all time).  There's obviously no guarantee of similar results, but this is at least a move that is difficult to second-guess at this early stage.

Even that is progress for this wayward organization.


[1] To be fair, Saban had been an NFL coordinator, serving as the Browns' DC for four seasons in the early 90s, but that was more than decade before he eventually returned to the NFL as a head coach.