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The 5 O’Clock Club: The end of ambivalence

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It’s 5 o’clock somewhere…

NFL: Green Bay Packers at Washington Redskins Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

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.

ambivalence

noun - am·biv·a·lence | \ am-ˈbi-və-lən(t)s \

Definition of ambivalence

1 : simultaneous and contradictory attitudes or feelings (such as attraction and repulsion) toward an object, person, or action

2a : continual fluctuation (as between one thing and its opposite)

b : uncertainty as to which approach to follow

I have strong feelings about a lot of things and about a lot of people, many of them related to football. For example, I really have a strongly negative visceral reaction to Ezekiel Elliott. I don’t like the way he looks; I don’t like the way he acts; I don’t like anything about him — and it has nothing to do with him being a Cowboy. I just don’t like what I see. I don’t like Jerry Jones either. When it comes to TV analysts in the broadcast booth for NFL games, the guy who usually makes me want to rip my ears off is Chris Spielman. I even think most of what he says is right, but I don’t like how he says it; I hate the negative and condescending way he talks about players on the field. If I had a magic wand, I would wish people like Elliott, Jones and Spielman right out of my life.

On the positive side, I really like Ryan Kerrigan. On TV, I truly enjoy Scott Hanson, the longtime host of NFL Redzone (and more recently, Total Access). I’ve always had a warm & fuzzy feeling about Mike Tomlin of the Steelers (though I realize many people won’t share that feeling). Some newer head coaches that I’ve warmed to quickly include Sean McVay and Mike Vrabel.

But there are also things in this world and people in this world about whom I am ambivalent, many of them in the NFL. Some of them connected to the Redskins.

Ambivalence is a strange idea — it is the concept that you can feel both attracted and repulsed at the same time by an idea or a person, or the concept that you can’t really make up your mind, fluctuating from attraction to repulsion and back again.

Over the past few years, probably no one has been the object of my ambivalence to a greater degree than Redskins head coach Jay Gruden. I like him, and I enjoy his humor and positive outlook, but I don’t always see him as a good head coach, and I’m often at odds with his professional philosophies. When his team is winning, I appreciate him as a coach, but when the Redskins lose because they show up flat or looking unprepared, I find myself feeling frustrated with Jay Gruden.

Of course, my opinion doesn’t count for much. Jay doesn’t work for me.

When Jay was hired by the Redskins, I felt a twinge of disappointment. I remember thinking that the Redskins had put on a mummer’s farce of a coaching search, then hired a member of Bruce’s old boy network. But I’ve worked in the professional world long enough that this kind of cronyism isn’t strange or rare, and I’ve seen it work out very well plenty of times. In point of fact, the overall NFL coaching structure is built on this sort of cronyism in 32 teams and is hardly unique to the Redskins. But my mind was open in 2014. Perhaps Jay would be a good decision; after all, Joe Gibbs had once been a young, creative, high energy offensive coordinator hired because of a recommendation from someone that Bobby Beathard knew and trusted.

I was surprised when I saw Jay in press conferences and interviews. He was pleasant, upbeat and loose. He was funny. My image of a head coach was more Vince Lombardi — stern, disciplined, older — but that was probably the Mike Shanahan mold, and that hadn't worked, so maybe this young Gruden was what the franchise needed.

I remember wanting a defensive minded coach for the Redskins. I’m an old-school guy who loves defensive football. Mike Zimmer is the kind of guy i probably had in mind when I thought about who we should be hiring. But Jay had a track record of success in Cincy, and at the time it was clear that the franchise wanted a coach who could come in and build around RG3, who was the future of the franchise. As 2014 progressed (regressed?) and the quarterback position resembled a carnival carousel with 3 different guys playing, then benched, then playing again, I began to question whether Gruden had any clue about what he was doing. As his press conferences became more and more aggressively hostile towards his starting QB, my confidence began to waver.

I felt a lot better in 2015, when I had the sense that Gruden had made a difficult decision to bet his career on Kirk Cousins, and that he had gone ‘all in’ on the former backup. Throughout 2015, I’d say my regard for Gruden increased. I thought I saw a plan coming together.

That confidence has wavered and sputtered at times over the past two seasons, but it’s been reignited at other times. The Week 17 embarrassment against the NY Giants in 2016, when NY had qualified for the playoffs already — that was a real low point in my confidence level. Last year’s gritty win in Seattle when the team — shattered by injuries — rallied together despite some of the players having basically met one another on the plane ride to the left coast was a time when I felt my confidence in Gruden waxing rather than waning.

Here on Hogs Haven there are often two camps on almost any issue regarding players or coaches. That’s not unusual on a sports blog.

When it comes to the head coach, there’s almost always a vocal group of critics who blame Jay Gruden for the team’s failure to achieve more than it has. Jay is a good offensive coordinator, they argue, but he’s not a real head coach. He’s too laid back; he doesn’t get the team prepared; he’s not detail oriented. These thoughts resonate with me, and recall my early misgivings about Jay from the time he was hired, and that first rocky season in 2014.

There’s also a group of fans who stand ready to defend Jay. They point to the fact that he has brought a certain stability to a franchise that had been hot garbage for much of the decade or two that preceded his arrival. They reminded us of the 3 win season that the ‘Skins suffered through in 2013. Jay’s supporters talked about the respectable seasons he put together with a roster that was too thin on talent, and pointed to Jay’s increasingly active role in the personnel side of the franchise, and the steadily improving level of talent on the team. I have easilyacknowledged all of these points as well. The Redskins under Jay Gruden in 2015 and 2016 had been fairly stable, if not wildly successful. The team was over .500 for those two seasons, and there haven’t been many times in recent decades when the team could make that claim.

I was the very definition of ambivalent when it came to Jay. I liked him, but didn’t trust him. I thought he was creative, but not a strong leader. I felt that he could evaluate talent, but not get the most out of it. He knew football very well, but might be overmatched as a head coach.

By the time the 2017 season ended, I was ready to do two things.

First of all, I was prepared to give Jay Gruden a pass on the ‘17 season because of the crazy injuries that the team suffered. In many ways, I bought into the argument that Jay had accomplished more with a roster of walking wounded than could reasonably be expected.

Secondly, I was ready to proclaim the 2018 season an acid test for Jay Gruden. This season, in my mind, was the ‘no excuses’ year. It was playoffs or bust for this coach and his staff. It was, as Ken put it on several occasions, the year of Gruden.

Let me try to clarify what I mean by that. There were (are?) a lot of fans who say that Jay is out of excuses — that it’s time for him to deliver wins at a high standard or be fired. Most of these guys mean that Jay has already been given too much rope. Many of the people who say this expect Jay to fail; they often predict that Jay will fail. They feel he's overdue for replacement already.

I came into the 2018 season with a very different view. I felt it was a ‘no excuses’ year for Jay — an acid test on his tenure — because he had already had 4 years to get his systems and coaches in place, he finally had the chance to pick the quarterback he wanted, and he wasn’t likely to be hobbled by the fluky level of injury that struck the team in 2017. In short, I felt like Jay had everything he could reasonably ask for to succeed, including a roster that he had helped draft and develop, and I expected him to succeed because of all those reasons; I, in fact, predicted his success.

For a franchise that had too often lurched from side to side with no coherent or consistent plan, having Jay Gruden as the head coach for five years offered the Redskins something they had never before had in the Snyder era — some consistency in philosophy and direction. That’s something the franchise has desperately needed.

So, despite four years of ambivalence about Jay Gruden, I was personally prepared to lay aside all my wavering and negative thoughts and simply trust Coach Gruden to win this year.

I trusted his choice of Alex Smith as the new franchise quarterback; in fact, I applauded the decision and unabashedly promoted it as the best thing for the franchise because Alex was the guy Jay wanted and could work with.

As the preseason moved along, I trusted Jay’s decisions about playing time for veterans on offense and defense.

I’ve always listened very carefully to what coaches say in interviews and press conferences. One of the things that has always bothered me about Jay is how he coaches during a game.

I used to think he coached conservatively, but I realized a while back that he actually coaches scared. If Jay gets a lead, he asks the offense and defense to spend the second half nursing the lead so as not to lose it. He doesn’t step on the opponent's neck and pile on the score.

If Jay’s team gets behind, he panics and changes his play calls to reflect desperation -- a fear that his defense can’t get a stop, and his offense can’t score enough.

Jay plays for field position. Jay plays the odds. Jay plays for safety. He’s not a risk-taker.

That’s one of the reasons that I thought he would do well with Alex Smith. It seemed to me that Alex would allow Jay to relax a bit, knowing that the QB on the field was gonna take care of the football. I thought it might free Jay up a bit as a playcaller and head coach.

Prior to the 2017 season, Jay said several times in interviews and press conferences that his message to the team was that they needed to be ready for a dogfight every week. He said that this team would have to win close games every week. I wrote at least one time last year that I thought that was the wrong message. If I were the coach, I opined, I would tell my players that we had to be ready to win the close ones, but we should plan to crush the opponent on the scoreboard, and we should press every advantage every week. We should, in short, seek to dominate every game.

Early this year, Jay said something that bothered me more. He said that this team needed to play with a lead. He suggested that they didn’t play well from behind, and he wasn’t sure why. Here’s what I think — it’s not the team... it’s Jay.

He’s uncomfortable if his team falls more than 3 point behind the opponents. He panics and loses sight of the game plan. Jay is a guy who is only comfortable with a lead, and it’s his personal discomfort that makes the Redskins a team that needs a lead. After all, he’s the playcaller.

Jay, through his comments last year about playing every game close, and his comments this year about being a team that needs to play with a lead is really identifying his own shortcoming as a coach and a playcaller. He coaches scared.

Mike Vrabel and Sean McVay send their offense out on 4th down to win the game.

Jason Garret punts on 4th and 1 in overtime.

Which of those guys is Jay Gruden?

Still, I had put my misgivings away. I’m not an NFL coach — just a fan with a keyboard. Jay was a professional paid millions of dollars a year to do what he does. I was committed to trusting him.

I was committed to trading my ambivalence for faith.

After the Week 1 road victory over the Cardinals — Jay’s first-ever Week 1 win as a head coach — the impressive nature of the win made me feel that my decision to put the ambivalence behind me in order to simply trust Jay... that decision had been justified. I looked forward to Week 2 for its total vindication.

The loss to the Colts at home stunned me. The nature of the loss — an offense that was stymied and could muster only 9 points on the day — was particularly disheartening. Still, there were possible explanations. Maybe the Colts were better than we thought. Maybe that had simply outschemed the ‘Skins for a week — a mere aberration. Perhaps the team had simply had a bad week. Every team does now and then.

The Packers game did a lot to restore my faith, but you probably see already that I was still ambivalent about Jay. In the course of three games I had gone from an incredible confidence after the Week 1 win, to a deep loss of confidence following the Week 2 loss, to a sort of qualified confidence after what appeared to be a quality win over the Packers.

I looked at the schedule and saw what I felt would be a litmus test for the team and its coach. The Redskins would travel to New Orleans on Monday night for a tough game against the NFC South leader, then return six days later to face the Panthers — another one-loss team — at FedEx.

I believed that these two games would define the Redskins season. Honestly, I didn’t feel like the Redskins had to even win both games; a split would be okay if the team played hard and executed well against two potential playoff teams. I wrote, ahead of the Saints game, that the Monday Night Football game was filled with opportunity for the Redskins. This team could bury the ghost of past Monday night failures by going to New Orleans and beating the Saints. A quality win on Monday night would be a defining moment for the franchise and for Jay Gruden.

The moment turned out to be too great for the players, and especially too great for the head coach.

The Redskins went on prime time Monday night and shat the bed in perhaps the most spectacular fashion imaginable. There was a brief moment of hope when the Redskins grabbed a turnover and put up a touchdown before halftime, but it all evaporated in the third quarter when the Redskins were held scoreless, while the Saints moved the ball at will and Alex Smith threw an ugly interception on what should have been a touchdown play. For the first time ever, I wished for a “mercy rule” that would have allowed the officials to just end the game with time left on the clock in the third quarter.

The Saints did the nearly unthinkable by taking their foot off the gas in the 4th quarter. They ran the ball instead of passing; they stayed inbounds; they played as slowly as possible to allow the Redskins to simply get off the field. We were ruining their Drew Brees celebration.

Watching the second half of the Saints game, knowing that the Saints could have run the score up over 50 or 60 points if they’d wanted to, was probably the low point in my experience of being a football fan. I had the distinct feeling that the Saints avoided having Drew Brees pass for his 500th TD because they wanted it to mean something when it happened. Man, that was an ugly game.

And suddenly, I feel less ambivalent about Jay Gruden.

Suddenly, I’m starting to side with his critics.

I could possibly overlook the Colts game as an anomaly. Maybe the players were overconfident from the Cardinals win; maybe any of a dozen things had gone wrong. As I said above, any team can have a bad week.

But I don’t know how it happens again two weeks later. Certainly the team didn’t underestimate the Saints. Coming off the bye week, they couldn’t have been too tired from playing a tough matchup the week before. And the Redskins were no more injured coming into the Saints game than the typical NFL team is in Week 5.

There just weren’t any excuses.

But the Saints looked like they were playing harder. They looked like they were playing faster. New Orleans appeared to have a superior game plan, more energy, higher motivation and superior talent. In short, the Saints appeared to be the better coached team.

I looked at Gruden’s face during his post-game press conference, and I could see that he felt what we all felt. He was embarrassed, disgusted, angry and ashamed. I wouldn’t want him to feel any other way after that kind of ass whipping, but — dude — this is Year 5. This is Gruden’s team. This is his defensive coordinator. This is his coaching staff. These are his draft picks. This is his scheme. This is his quarterback. This is his game plan.

This is his loss.

I’m a Redskins fan, so I’ll be rooting for a victory against the Panthers this Sunday. In an odd way, I almost expect it. Jay’s teams have a way of following up embarrassment with fiery passion, and victory with low energy and lack of execution. After that beatdown on MNF, I pretty much expect Jay to rally the troops to show up and show out on Sunday.

But it’s this very inconsistency that is so maddening. The team swings, seemingly, from passion to complacency and back again.

I’ll be rooting for Jay to get it right, to get us winning. I’ll be cheering the Redskins on in hopes that they can achieve a double-digit win season, capture the division title and win in the playoffs.

But I’m setting up camp in Missouri now. Jay’s gotta show me every week that he deserves to be rooted for, and that he is capable of carrying out the responsibility that he’s been given.

Of course, I have no power to affect Jay Gruden’s future. When I talk about him having to prove himself to me, it only means that, as a fan, I’m saying what I want to see. I can’t give Jay or the players any kind of ultimatum, and — in truth — even if I was in that position, that’s not really my style.

I want Jay to succeed, but as a fan, I’ve lost confidence and I’m out of patience.

I’d like to see Jay’s team look like they are prepared and disciplined. I’d like to see a flexible and successful game plan. I’d like to see relatively mistake free football. I’d like to feel proud of the team I see on the field whether they win or lose. Last year, against Kansas City, the Redskins lost, but they played in a way that made me proud to be a Redskins fan. Watching Jay’s team on Monday night in New Orleans, I felt embarrassed for what my favorite team was doing on the field.

The time is now. The ambivalence is gone. It’s time for Jay to step up and show that he is the right man for the job. I’m rooting for him, but it’s time for his team to execute.

It’s time for his team to win.

Poll

Which offensive player will have the biggest positive impact against the Panthers?

This poll is closed

  • 7%
    Paul Richardson
    (33 votes)
  • 3%
    Maurice Harris
    (16 votes)
  • 44%
    Jordan Reed
    (211 votes)
  • 15%
    Adrian Peterson
    (75 votes)
  • 18%
    Chris Thompson
    (86 votes)
  • 5%
    Jamison Crowder
    (28 votes)
  • 4%
    Vernon Davis
    (22 votes)
471 votes total Vote Now

Poll

Which defensive player will have the biggest positive impact against the Panthers?

This poll is closed

  • 29%
    Daron Payne
    (130 votes)
  • 36%
    Johathan Allen
    (161 votes)
  • 12%
    Ryan Kerrigan
    (56 votes)
  • 2%
    Preston Smith
    (10 votes)
  • 0%
    Pernell McPhee
    (1 vote)
  • 4%
    Josh Norman
    (19 votes)
  • 4%
    Quinton Dunbar
    (19 votes)
  • 6%
    DJ Swearinger
    (29 votes)
  • 2%
    Zach Brown
    (10 votes)
  • 0%
    Mason Foster
    (4 votes)
439 votes total Vote Now