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The Alex Smith injury has guaranteed Jay Gruden’s job through 2020

The day Alex Smith’s leg was broken, the ‘Skins 2018 season was over. With medical complications, the team’s fortunes went on a 2-year hold and Jay Gruden became irreplaceable for all the wrong reasons.

Philadelphia Eagles v Washington Redskins Photo by Will Newton/Getty Images

The Redskins salary cap position was deeply compromised by the Alex Smith injury

The team is hamstrung by the Alex Smith contract and its injury guarantee. No head coaching candidate with other options would want to take over the situation that the Redskins currently find themselves in.

The Alex Smith contract is a pretty standard NFL starting quarterback contract, and it would not have caused any grief for the Redskins — as long as Alex stayed healthy and able to play. But with the serious injury and reported complications, there are doubts about whether Alex Smith will ever play again.

Whether he does or not, the Redskins are on the hook for $71m, a reality that hamstrings the team’s salary cap position. In other words, with around $23m per year devoted to Alex’s contract, the Redskins have enough to pay the other 52 players, but not enough to do that and sign a second legitimate, proven NFL veteran starting quarterback at market rates. Aso, it would be unwise to sign a guy like that to a long-term deal where the franchise could potentially have two high priced signal callers on the roster together for a season or two, wasting valuable resources.

Compounding the issue is the fact that nobody seems to know whether Alex will be able to play again in 2019, 2020, or ever again. I’m not sure if Alex or his doctors even know yet, and it’s possible that we may not know until the 2020 season is over, or nearly so.

That makes the Redskins roster and salary cap situation a problem, a puzzle and an ongoing mystery that will continue until the end of the 2020 season, when the Redskins will (finally) be in a position to move on from the Alex Smith contract.

The 2019 quarterback conundrum

To insure that the team will be able to field a competitive offense in 2019, the Redskins will be forced to either draft a quarterback capable of playing this season, rely on an unproven veteran NFL signal caller that can be acquired cheaply such as A.J. McCarron or Nick Mullens, or ride with the current guys on the roster, namely, Josh Johnson and Colt McCoy (no, I’m not counting Mark Sanchez).

Whatever they do, the Redskins will not be in a position to sit Alex Smith if he is healthy enough to play in 2020, and will not be able to trade him without eating the balance of his guaranteed money (even if they could find a partner willing to trade for him following the injury). That means that the 2019 quarterback, whoever he is, has to be ready to start in 2020 if Smith isn’t yet able to play, or sit in 2020 if Smith returns healthy.

That’s an ugly situation that — again — no coach head coaching candidate with options is going to want to step into.

That means that Jay Gruden is almost certainly going to be the Head Coach of the Redskins in ‘19 and ‘20. The ugliness of the Redskins quarterback and salary cap situation won’t disappear at the end of the ‘19 season, meaning that Dan Snyder won’t have a chance to hire quality GM or head coaching candidates any time soon.

Strap in boys and girls — Club Jay will be playing in DC for at least two more seasons. The quarterback situation will make sure of that.

A new beginning

The Alex Smith injury and contract situation may have put the head coaching situation on hold for the next two seasons, but it also means that 2021 should be a fresh start for the Redskins, with a new coaching staff, a new starting quarterback, and a lot of experienced veteran players gone from the roster.

Look for 2021, a year in which there may be labor action as the old Collective Bargaining Agreement expires, to be a total re-boot for the Redskins roster and coaching staff following 7 years of Gruden. Only a division championship and playoff success will be able to forestall that new beginning.

The coach

Jay Gruden is woven into the fabric of the Redskins at the moment. Somehow, he has built working relationships with the owner and key executives. He’s done just enough to avoid total on-field embarrassment, but not enough to make him the unquestioned leader that the franchise needs.

Two years of injuries — especially to the offensive line in both ‘17 and ‘18, as well as at the QB position this season — have provided Jay with all the cover needed to avoid total blame for back-to-back losing seasons.

Jay has not been bad enough for it to be absolutely clear that he has to go, but he hasn’t been good enough to make it clear that the franchise has to keep him around. He’s been providing the owner and fans with ‘almost-there’ 7-9 seasons, with flashes of promise combined with excuses in the form of injury and bad luck to explain why the team hasn’t taken the next step.

The franchise is stuck in neutral at the moment, and Jay is probably the perfect placeholder coach for the Redskins. With him in place, nothing else has to change. Bruce Allen, Eric Schaffer, Doug Williams and the personnel group can all stay in place. Jay will make things work, and will coax 7 or 8 wins out of whatever roster he is given for the next two seasons. Like a car with an oil leak, a faulty transmission and a dying engine, Jay will be able to nurse the franchise far enough to get it into a garage where the engine can be rebuilt or replaced.

Jay Gruden is here to stay... through 2020 anyway.

The quarterback

Alex Smith is the huge question mark.

He’s not going to be ready this off-season. He probably won’t be ready to begin the 2019 season.

He might be ready to return at some point in 2019 or 2020, but unless he comes back and lights it up, he’s unlikely to finish out the final two years of his contract in Washington. The team will be moving on in 2021. After all, the new coach is going to want to choose his own quarterback.

That means that the guy the Redskins choose for 2019 — be it A.J. McCarron, Teddy Bridgewater, Josh Johnson, or Kyler Murray — that QB is going to be in a tough spot. He’ll need to carry the water in 2019, and then he’ll need to be ready to back up Alex in 2020 if Smith is healthy, or start another sixteen games if Alex isn’t.

But by 2021, the 2019 starting quarterback, whoever he is, will likely have all the appeal of yesterday’s newspaper. Traded, or more likely relegated to backup duty behind the new coach’s shiny new toy, the 2019 starter/placeholder will be the Ford Edsel of NFL quarterbacks in year 3 with the Redskins. He’ll be the 2021 version of a 2015 RGIII.

Consider this from Peter Hailey:

The truly elite talents, such as Cam Newton, Andrew Luck, Carson Wentz and Jared Goff, are snatched up immediately. The QBs who are found in the mid- to late rounds, meanwhile, are given more time to develop and/or find themselves on rosters that have been built up more.

Those non-elite first-rounders, on the other hand, are generally caught in between: not skilled enough to help turn around a team singlehandedly but, because they’re high investments, they’re forced into those tough situations and end up floundering.

There’s no doubt that the ‘Skins need a new hope under center. Where they should commit to that hope, though, is something that must be considered.

This week, the Panthers owner said that it’s possible that Cam Newton could miss the ‘20 season with shoulder problems. If that comes to fruition, it could put the Panthers in a similar position to the Redskins with regard to their quarterback needs, putting them in competition for the same solutions.

In some ways, Josh Johnson may be the perfect answer to that difficult scenario; he’d be cheap, capable of starting or backing up as needed, and probably just happy to have an opportunity to play in the NFL. He’s currently on the roster, and wouldn’t require the team to spend a draft pick, meaning that valuable draft capital could be used elsewhere on the roster. All we know right now is that the Redskins have a problem at quarterback that is shrouded in uncertainty and constrained by salary cap issues.

Again, all this makes for a crappy situation for any coach looking at the Redskins in 2019 and 2020, meaning that Jay Gruden ain’t goin’ nowhere until Alex is gone along with him. In 2021.

The roster

Here’s a non-comprehensive list of current core players that will be free agents in 2021:

  • Trent Williams
  • Josh Norman
  • Ryan Kerrigan
  • Quinton Dunbar
  • Jonathan Allen

While it’s likely that the team will exercise the 5th year option on Jon Allen, the fact is that, in addition to moving on from Alex Smith, the team’s starting left tackle, premier cornerback, and premier pass rusher will all be aging, at the end of their contracts, and likely facing retirement in 2021.

This will be the time to remake the team; to create a new core and institute new philosophies on offense and defense.

Sure, there will be new leaders who step up in the meantime, but the four key positions (QB, LT, edge, CB) all reaching this point at the same time will bring about seismic change to the roster, creating natural timing for a head coaching change.

Jay can ride out two years with these team leaders that he has worked with, then the new man can start building a new kind of roster in 2021.

The salary cap

Nothing can be done about it now. The Redskins will pay Alex Smith $71m whether he plays again or not. He won’t be playing in the short term, and there’s a real possibility that the Redskins are going to want to move on from him at the earliest opportunity.

The earliest opportunity is going to come at the end of the 2020 season, when the Redskins can part ways with the Alex Smith contract without having to pay another penny. Absent some sort of glorious comeback year in 2020 that endears Alex and Jay to the front office and the fans, I see Eric Schaffer unwinding his investment in Alex Smith after 2020, unlocking $40m in cap space that can be used by the new head coach to get his new starting quarterback or replace the other key positions (LT, edge rusher, CB) that will be vacated that season.


The Alex Smith injury was the catalyst, but the salary cap, the roster, and the problematic quarterback situation that will exist in ‘19 and ‘20 will all combine to make the Redskins head coaching job too poisonous for anyone but Jay Gruden, whose contract reportedly runs through 2020.

Jay will not be leaving at the end of this season. He is here until the end of 2020, when the Redskins can jettison the Alex Smith contract, and say goodbye to the current core team leaders, who will make way for the next head coach, next quarterback, and next generation of team leaders like Brandon Scherff, Jonathan Allen and Derrius Guice.

The Redskins have already fallen off the surfboard. The toothpaste can’t be put back in the tube. The milk is gone, crying is pointless. Decisions were made that didn’t work out. Shit happens.

All Dan Snyder can do right now is hold his breath, and ride out the wave until it reaches the shore. That’ll take two years.

It provides great job security for Jay Gruden - the only man in the world qualified to be coach of the Redskins that wants the job right now.

I know that many of you have been looking forward to Dan pulling the trigger at the end of the coming season, but the confluence of too many factors will keep the bullet in the Gun. Jay is here for the duration.

The Alex Smith injury has guaranteed Jay Gruden’s job through 2020.


What will happen with Jay Gruden?

This poll is closed

  • 33%
    2019 will be his last season with the Redskins
    (175 votes)
  • 42%
    The article is spot on... 2020 will be Jay’s last season with the Redskins
    (224 votes)
  • 12%
    Dan Snyder will extend Jay, who will remain the head coach beyond 2020
    (66 votes)
  • 11%
    Jay will get ‘promoted’ to an executive position in the Redskins front office as a ‘thank you’ for all he has done for the franchise, and will stay win the organization indefinitely
    (58 votes)
523 votes total Vote Now