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The 5 O’Clock Club: Eleven months that will make or break Gruden in DC

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It’s 5 o’clock somewhere…

Washington Redskins v New York Giants Photo by Al Pereira/Getty Images

The 5 o’clock club aims to provide a forum for reader-driven discussion at a time of day when there isn’t much NFL news being published. Feel free to introduce topics that interest you in the comments below.

Looking ahead

The year ahead of us will be crucial for Jay Gruden, and is likely to define his future, if any, with the Washington Redskins.

From February to December, Jay will likely be in the most crucial 11 months of his tenure as head coach of the Redskins.

At the end of those eleven months, he will likely either be fired, or he will have earned the trust and support of Dan Snyder and Bruce Allen, and will be secure in his job for at least a couple of more years.

Looking back

Jay’s 4-year tenure in Washington has been a mixed bag, but he is about to do something that no other human has ever achieved. He has just completed four years as a head coach under Dan Snyder, and when the 1st of February arrives, he will still be the Head Coach of the Redskins. That’s new ground... we’re talking a Neil Armstrong one small step-level achievement.

But Jay hasn’t been wildly successful. His first season (2014) was not good, with a 4-12 finish. Probably the only positive thing to say about it, is that it was better than the Redskins’ 2013 campaign that ended with 3 wins and the firing of Mike Shanahan.

Still, if we use 2013-14 as the benchmark, what followed in the next three seasons was a level of relative success. Jay’s last three squads (‘14-’17) have amassed a combined regular season record of 24-23-1.

That may not sound like an achievement, but it is the best 3-season record that the Redskins have compiled since going 26-22 from 1999 to 2001 — seventeen years ago!

The fact is, Jay Gruden, over the past three years, may not have brought excellence to the organization, but he has brought a certain level of stability and consistency — even if it has been consistent mediocrity.

Mitigating factors

Jay has a lot of excuses available to him if he really wants them.

First of all, he had to sort through all the RG3 bullshit that he inherited; and make no mistake — that had as much to do with internal team politics as it did with on-field performance. In the end, Gruden seems to have prevailed with the best outcome possible — Griffin gone from the Redskins (and now out of the league) while Kirk Cousins developed into a statistically superior (if not consistently winning) quarterback.

In 2017 the team suffered incredible personnel losses due to injury. Even national journalists and analysts talked pointedly about the devastating injuries, and how no team could be expected to overcome them.

Results

But with only a single division championship, one playoff appearance, no playoff wins and no seasons with double-digits in the win column, the excuses available to Jay Gruden are wearing thin.

The fans, players, the front office and the owner — who were happy to achieve consistent mediocrity in 2015 and perhaps even 2016 — now want more. The team has shown it can compete, now everyone wants to see them win.

Season records of 8-8 or 9-7 aren’t going to be enough to keep Jay employed going forward.

I’d say that he has to achieve at least 10 wins in 2018 to keep his job.

If the team isn’t in the playoffs, it’s hard to see Gruden returning as the head coach in 2019.

If the team gets to the postseason but can’t win a playoff game in 2018, then Jay — if he’s back at all in 2019 — will probably begin the season on a very hot seat with a very short leash.

In short, it’s time to produce.

Watershed year at quarterback

I’m not sure if even Kirk Cousins knows whether he will return to Washington for the ‘18 season.

But it really doesn’t matter who the quarterback is this season — no matter who it is, Jay Gruden needs to deliver in a big way with the signal caller.

If it’s Kirk, he’ll almost certainly be on a long-term-contract that will be eating up more than 10% of the Redskins salary cap. Gruden will have to get him to produce at a level equivalent to that kind of remuneration.

The team may opt to draft a first-round quarterback in April. Gruden will need to get the kind of results that Houston saw from Deshaun Watson before his injury, or Jay risks spending the year developing the new rookie for the next head coach.

If the Redskins go with a veteran quarterback as a bridge to the future, then Jay is going to need to coax ten wins out of the arrangement or he’ll likely never get see the other side of the ‘bridge’.

Whether it’s Kirk Cousins, a veteran free agent, or a rookie first-rounder, Jay has to get leadership and offensive results out of the quarterback in 2018.

He just has to.

Managing the entire team — not just the offense

Jay has made steps in his 4 years as head coach, but the progress has too often felt like baby steps.

Jay still gives off the impression of a guy who really only cares about one side of the ball. He seems to be hands off of the defense and almost indifferent to the struggles of the special teams units.

Reports from a wide range of journalists and team sources (including Jay himself) have indicated that he not only enjoys the personnel evaluation aspects of his job, but that he is now enjoying increased influence over personnel decisions in Ashburn.

If that’s true, then 2018 is a season where that influence needs to show up on the field. The team needs to show up with top-line talent and good depth. After suffering through the trials and tribulations of the past year with the Scot McCloughan drama, Jay needs to work hand-in-glove with the personnel people to build a solid roster. The franchise needs to show strong and unmistakable signs of stability.

It’s time for Jay to get exactly the team he wants to win with. Let him ‘buy the groceries’, or at least help write up the shopping list.

And it’s time for Jay to start taking responsibility for the defense and special teams as well as ‘his’ offense. Yes — he used to be an offensive coordinator. Yes — he likes calling plays. Yes — that’s where his comfort level is, but if that’s all he really wants to do, Jay should go back to being an offensive coordinator, and make room for a real head coach to come in an take the team to the next level.

Jay has to grow faster.

Discipline

Words in the English language often come with connotations, either positive or negative.

Discipline is a word that often gets a bad rap.

I spent most of my working life as a business manager and owner, and the past dozen years as a teacher. I have often said to anyone who would sit still long enough to listen to me prattle on that people want and appreciate discipline in an organization.

Too many people hear the word, ‘discipline’ and think, “punishment”. That’s not at all what I mean when I use the word.

Discipline means that we have a way of doing things that is the right way.

That way is explained clearly, and constantly reinforced.

There are rewards when the correct way of doing things is adhered to, and consequences when it is not.

Winners and people with great attitudes love discipline, because expectations are clear, and the rules are applied evenly and fairly. People who do things the right way are rewarded. People who make mistakes are positively corrected. People who don’t want to be part of the program will be pushed (usually by their peers) to either get with the program or leave the organization.

Discipline is a great thing.

The anecdotal evidence has been building for years now. Jay Gruden is not really a guy who focuses on discipline. He seems to be a man who prioritizes relationships and ‘energy’ over rules and expectations.

I think it’s time for Jay to try something new. That doesn’t mean that he should stop being who he is; rather, it means that it’s time for Jay to add to his tool box. It’s time to bring a new level of discipline to the organization he is in charge of. It’s time to set higher expectations and demand more from everyone.

Jay needs to establish more of “the Gruden Way” and have less reliance on 25-year-olds to ‘be professionals’ and take responsibility for themselves.

Jay needs to run a tighter, tougher ship.

Expect to dominate

One thing I don’t like (and have never liked) about Jay as a head coach is that he talks about how the Redskins have to expect to be in close games every week.

I get it -- he wants the team to be mentally tough and to respect every opponent. But I think he’s delivering the wrong message.

If I was a head coach, I’d be telling my players that we have to be ready to play hard and win the tough ones, but that we plan to go out and dominate the other team.

I think that Jay is by nature a conservative coach. He plays to protect a lead. He plays to improve field position. He plays not to lose.

But his personnel isn’t designed for that kind of game.

If you wanna play field position, kick field goals and play the percentages, you need to have a dominating defense. Until the Redskins have one, Jay needs to be ready to put his foot on the accelerator and try to dishearten Redskin opponents. His aim shouldn’t be to grind out a close win every week; it should be to shatter the soul of the players and coaches on the opposing sideline.

He needs to have the killer instinct, and unleash it in his team.

Jay needs to build, not a culture where we go out every week and compete, but where we go out every week and dominate.

If he can’t, he’s likely to continue to field an 8-8 team, and that just won’t be good enough.

Mature roster

There are a few key positions that define a team’s ability to win: Quarterback, left tackle, inside linebacker, pass rusher, cornerback, safety.

When these positions are manned with talented veterans it provides the basic structure that the rest of the team is built around.

Quarterback may be in limbo at the moment, but the team has Trent Williams, Ryan Kerrigan, Josh Norman, DJ Swearinger. That’s actually a pretty damned good core.

But these core players that the team is built around are reaching the critical age range of 29-30 years old. This team needs to make the playoffs in 2018 and 2019, because beyond that, the players that fill those cornerstone positions will start to hit 31-32 years of age. At that point, the roster will need to be re-shaped. High dollar veterans will need to go in favor of youth and lower cap hits.

The time is now for the roster that the Redskins have been building since 2011, when Kerrigan was drafted.

If the Redskins make the playoffs in 2018, then it’s reasonable to ‘keep the band together’, but if the team can’t get to the postseason then Jay won’t be the only casualty. The front office will have to start questioning the huge cap hits for some of these players.

Several years of roster-building are at the point where it’s time to get the payoff.

What will Jay’s future be if he gets fired?

Jay hasn’t shown himself to be a great head coach (yet), but I have to think that Jay Gruden would be in demand as an offensive coordinator in the NFL. He wouldn’t be unemployed when February rolled around.

Of course, as long as Jon has that 10-year contract in Las Vegas, you can bet that Jay will never lack for a landing spot if no one else wants him.

Nepotism is alive and well in the NFL.

So, what does Jay need to do?

  • start fast - win in Week 1
  • finish strong - win in Week 17
  • beat some teams with winning records
  • have a winning record inside the division
  • stop talking about ‘expecting’ to be in close games; start preparing to dominate other teams and put your foot on their necks
  • establish greater discipline; more of “the Gruden Way” and less reliance on 25 year olds to ‘be professionals’ and take responsibility for themselves.

The bottom line

Jay Gruden has done good in his four years here; he helped the franchise step forward from where it was mired for about 15 years. We’re not one of the worst franchises in the NFL anymore.

But now it’s time to take the next step forward... or get pushed out of the way.

Jay needs to get his team to win.

Poll

Jay Gruden has already completed 4 seasons as head coach of the Redskins. How long do you think his total tenure as Washington’s head coach will turn out to be?

This poll is closed

  • 45%
    5 seasons
    (219 votes)
  • 22%
    6 seasons
    (106 votes)
  • 11%
    7 seasons
    (53 votes)
  • 6%
    8 seasons
    (30 votes)
  • 15%
    9 seasons or more
    (72 votes)
480 votes total Vote Now