1. We have spent so much time talking about Kirk Cousins, Josh Norman, Scot "McLovin" McCloughan and a million other topics over the last few months in this space, but one person/topic I have neglected is Jay Gruden. Let's chase that rabbit down the ol' hole, eh? (That is a simple rabbit hole reference. Nothing more, nothing less.) When trying to think of a way to intro the topic, here is what I can't get away from: "As the 29th head coach of the Washington Redskins, Jay Gruden has positioned himself to become one of the more successful coaches this franchise has ever had." It is precisely this kind of "on-it's-face-absurd" statement that I was trying to avoid, but I think it actually turns out to be what I actually believe. Further, this statement also implies that Gruden has done something to create and develop his opportunity here in D.C., which I also think is an overlooked element to this story. He is not there yet, but we have seen enough so far to see a coach who at least has a chance to lead an awesome era of Redskins football.
2. Let's go back to January 2014, when the Redskins were (once again) in head coaching search mode. The team was actively looking at guys like James Franklin (now the head coach at Penn State), Darrell Bevell (Seattle Seahwaks offensive coordinator) and even Jim Caldwell (currently the head coach of the Detroit Lions). Other names were floated out there, like Perry Fewell (currently on the Redskins coaching staff) and guys like Sean McDermott and Rich Bisaccia. If you'll recall, there was even an undercurrent that seemed to be pushing to make a move on Art Briles, Robert Griffin III's former college coach at Baylor. Jay Gruden was absolutely in the mix, as was his fellow Bengals coordinator Mike Zimmer, even though you may remember the Bengals getting beaten by the San Diego Chargers the prior weekend in the playoffs (the Bengals were favored and should not have lost this game, in many people's humble opinions). The Redskins weren't just looking for a head coach--they were looking for someone to maximize the talent of the quarterback they had paid so dearly for in the draft. I was a Mike Zimmer proponent at the time, in the hopes that a defensive-minded coach would be the right answer for us. When we hired Jay Gruden instead, it was clear that the franchise--like every franchise in this league it seems--was looking for the next offensive whiz. It was also clear that Gruden was hired to work with RG3. Here is my take on that situation now, from the perspective of what has happened since: Jay Gruden knew full well that head coaching opportunities in the NFL did not grow on trees--if he needed any help on that lesson, he had his brother Jon. He knew that the Redskins wanted him to mold RG3, and even if he suspected from the beginning that this was a futile task, he had to embrace the challenge to get this job. I am not saying that Jay Gruden believed that Griffin was a lost cause, but I am saying that I don't believe that Gruden was as sold on the Baylor product as he may have made it sound. This is not necessarily a shocking revelation by any means, but it does fit into the narrative that Gruden arrived to his first head coaching gig with a very clear goal (develop RG3), and the failure to accomplish that goal did not cost him his chance to be a head coach.
3. In hist first season as head coach, Gruden started three different quarterbacks, thanks to key injuries to that position as well as other positions. His 4-12 record that year was a one-game improvement from the 3-13 disaster that finished Mike Shanahan. It was hard to see the Gruden Era ending differently than so many other coaching eras we have witnessed. Going into his sophomore year as a head coach, Gruden had to deal with Griffin coming off another injury and he had a new personnel man to work with: one Scot "McLovin" McCloughan. When teams hire new general managers, incumbent head coaches don't sleep easy. It is ironic that, just as general managers like to pick their own head coaches, so too do head coaches like to pick their own quarterbacks. Neither Gruden nor McLovin came to D.C. and got to make that choice. Once again, Gruden found himself in a situation that he was going to have to play perfectly in order to survive. Gruden had to figure out a way to get his guy on the field so he could stay as McLovin's guy on the sideline. You'll recall the February presser where RG3 was announced as the starter for the 2015 season. It seemed a bit...odd. There were plenty of people out there screaming that this was a head fake besides me, but instead of arguing that this was done in an effort to potentially boost Griffin's trade value, I argued this was done to give some very deep cover to Kirk Cousins. (Clearly more was involved here than just this stuff.)
4. We knew that Jay Gruden liked Cousins. His brother Jon loved Cousins, and was never shy about saying so. We knew that Mike and Kyle Shanahan both loved Cousins. Nobody was more shocked and dismayed than Jay Gruden when Kirk struggled MIGHTILY with the interception disease in 2014. When Griffin was named the starter for the 2015 season in February, Cousins made an interesting move: he went and worked out for and under Jon Gruden in Florida. While Griffin was taking the kind of offseason heat that starting quarterbacks in Washington take, Cousins was largely ignored thanks to his turnover issues and the hopes that Griffin would benefit from an entire healthy offseason working on the offense. Whether he did it deliberately or not, Gruden gave Cousins the space to work on his game in a rather pressure-free environment. Cousins was back to being the mid-round draft pick backup that many thought he would always be, and his response to that was to prepare for the upcoming season as if he was going to be the starter. You have to give Cousins credit for that, but I heap the praise on Gruden. Sure, you can say that there was no way that Dan Snyder was ever going to let Griffin dangle all offseason on the precipice of a quarterback competition, but Gruden used it to his advantage. That offseason was so much more important to the growth of Kirk Cousins than most things, because he had had a taste at starter and had pretty much blown it. The way he attacked getting better as a quarterback that summer led to him being named the starter during the preseason--a move that some argued was a "quick hook" for Griffin.
5. Everything seems to be about the quarterback here, and that is just the reality of it all, but of course it goes further than this. Gruden and McLovin came together on the kind of football they wanted the Redskins to play on both sides of the ball. They came together on the kind of players they wanted to bring in to execute those schemes. A new coach and new personnel man have the luxury of committing to draft picks and promoting from within when they both are faced with a deficit of top-end talent and a salary cap penalty box situation. It leads to the emergence of players like Morgan Moses, Preston Smith and even a guy like Spencer Long (cheap add-in for me there, I know). The point is that after an entire span of time where the next great player at a position was more likely to be added as a free agent than as a draft pick, these two men have combined forces to hunt for, bring in and develop young players. Every player has to earn their spot, but they have an actual genuine opportunity to do so, free of the predetermination that seems to accompany so many professional sports decisions (a broader topic for another day, I suppose--I hate to dangle and then just leave a point like this, but maybe you guys can flesh it out a bit in the comments section). Jay Gruden's offense squeaked into the top ten scoring offenses in the league last year (10th in points per game I believe) and the defense rode the performances of players like Mason Foster, Quenton Dunbar and Chris Baker to help the Redskins win the NFC East. In short, after two seasons in the league, Jay Gruden has some results next to his name that are far more likely to buy him additional seasons in his position than they are to cost him his job. In order to get yourself into the conversation of potential "great Redskins coach," you have to be around long enough to build some cred. You will argue it is too soon to say so (and you're not wrong), but I think we have seen enough from the Gruden/McLovin partnership to believe it has a chance to endure.
6. Ultimately, to be considered a great coach in the history of any team, you have to win championships. I don't for one second put Jay Gruden in the same conversation as Joe Gibbs. That would be moronic. In addition to the Lombardi Trophies, Gibbs' teams were the class of the NFL from the 80's into the 90's. This discussion isn't about comparing Gruden to Gibbs or George Allen or even Vince Lombardi (an insanely brief Redskins coaching career, but his cup of coffee here puts him on our map nonetheless). To me, this is just about seeing how a guy got out of the gates, and judging whether or not we think it was good enough to give him the juice necessary to make a run. We get to decide how similar the pairing of Gruden and McLovin is to the pairing of Beathard and Gibbs. We get to decide whether the manner in which Gruden seems to have control of his locker room is anywhere close to the way George Allen commanded his troops. We get to look at the landscape of the league, our division and put a wet finger in the air to gauge which way the wind could be blowing. I do think he has worked to position himself to make that run. I do believe that he has shown he has the mettle to survive in this town and make the kinds of decisions necessary to boldly lead a winner...a champion. Time will continue to tell, and this whole article could look exceptionally stupid in VERY short order (some will say it already does...hahaha), but today, I am feeling pretty optimistic about our young head coach. This will be our first topic on the Sixpack segment for The Audible, and I look forward to hearing from T and Kevin on it.