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Do we really think Jay Gruden will be the first head coach to lose his job in 2019?

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The team would have to be a horror show, wouldn’t it?

NFL: Preseason-Cincinnati Bengals at Washington Redskins Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Forbes Magazine recently ran an article that talked about the Vegas odds on which head coach would get fired first.

Washington Redskins head coach Jay Gruden unsurprisingly tops the chart after generally failing to impress or advance the program much during his five years at the helm. The 52-year-old has compiled a 35-44-1 record since taking over in 2014, making the playoffs just once—resulting in a loss to the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Wild Card Game—after a 9-7 run in 2015. Washington is coming off back-to-back 7-9 campaigns that likely have Gruden on thin ice and needing to display rapid improvement keep his job. ESPN noted that the coach was firmly on the hot seat, even if there hasn’t been an official mandate from Redskins brass to make the playoffs this year due to the importance of developing quarterback Dwayne Haskins, the No. 15 pick in April’s draft:

The organization hasn’t issued a “playoffs-or-out” demand on Gruden. But after three straight non-playoff seasons and only one appearance in his first five years (with no wins), it should be obvious. However, the nuance comes in this: What if they go 8-8 or 7-9, but finish strong and rookie quarterback Dwayne Haskins develops? Do you still fire Gruden (the issues in Washington are far from his alone)? Short of that, it should be playoffs or done.

Gruden has been given 3/1 or +300—odds that would return $3 for every $1 risked—to become the first head coach fired this season, slightly ahead of New York Giants head coach Pat Shurmur at 5/1. Shurmur is fresh off an ugly first season with the G-Men, in which the team compiled a 5-11 record and fell well short of lofty expectations. Big Blue notably parted ways with Odell Beckham Jr. during the offseason, part of an attempt to change the culture in a locker room that is now looking towards a future built around second-year running back Saquon Barkley—one of the lone bright spots for New York last year—and rookie quarterback Daniel Jones, who displayed plenty of promise in his preseason debut this past week. Still, Shurmur hasn’t proven he can win as a head coach in the NFL yet. He went a meager 9-23 during his two seasons at the reins of the Browns in 2011-12 and the odds are indicating he could be seeking a new job sooner than later if the Giants don’t at least show some flashes of what the future could hold for their promising young core.

Let’s be clear about one thing: being the first coach fired means being fired mid-season, before the full 16-game schedule has been played.

For that to happen, there needs to be a huge disconnect between the head coach and the owner, fueled by losing football and a high level of fan discontent.

Let’s look back at mid-season firings for the NFL in recent years

2018

Hue Jackson - Cleveland Browns

Cleveland Browns v Cincinnati Bengals Photo by John Grieshop/Getty Images

Jackson’s position in Cleveland was completely untenable. He’d had one of only two winless seasons in NFL history, and actually won only a single game in a two-season stretch. Hard Knocks had exposed his lack of control over the team and coaching staff. He seemed to have a toxic relationship with #1 overall draft pick, quarterback Baker Mayfield. The only mystery was why Hue lasted as long as he did.

Mike McCarthy - Green Bay Packers

Green Bay Packers v Minnesota Vikings Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

McCarthy and Aaron Rodgers were publicly spatting and the fan base had been discontent for years with the coach. Recent changes in the front office eroded McCarthy’s support and the writing was on the wall as his possible firing was openly discussed by TV analysts in the middle of Packer games.

2017

Ben McAdoo - NY Giants

NFL: New York Giants-Ben McAdoo Press Conference Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

McAdoo was probably one of the worst hiring “fits” in the history of the NFL. He didn’t really present well on TV in his oversized suits and bad haircut. After failing to create any kind of winning culture in NY, McAdoo proceeded to embarrass the organization with his hamfisted benching of Eli Manning. It didn’t take long after that for the Maras to publicly admit their mistake and dump McAdoo.

2016

Rex Ryan - Buffalo Bills

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Buffalo Bills Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

Ryan had used up most of his credibility before he ever arrived in Buffalo. In his second year he promised playoffs he couldn’t deliver, hired his brother to help with the defense, and had players openly complaining about his schemes. He was a sterling example of the “overpromise and under-deliver” philosophy.

Gus Bradley - Jacksonville Jaguars

Minnesota Vikings v Jacksonville Jaguars Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

The Jags had done a lot in free agency. The fans and front office thought they had a Super Bowl team. Expectations never met reality with Bradley at the helm and he was identified as the reason.

Jeff Fisher - Rams

Atlanta Falcons v Los Angeles Rams Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images

Fisher was fired after going 4–9 through the first 13 games of the 2016 season, and 31–45–1 (.414) in his five-year tenure in St. Louis and Los Angeles. Under his tenure, the Rams never finished better than 7–8–1 and never reached the playoffs. Another Hard Knocks moment when Fisher stated that he was tired of the “7-9 bullshit” may have helped seal his fate when the team lost its 9th game of the season.

From 2000 to 2015

What does this tell us about the Redskins and Jay Gruden?

There are indications that Jay — while he might be a candidate to lose his job on “Black Monday” at the end of the NFL season — isn’t a good candidate to be fired mid-season.

Unmet expectations
No one in the NFL world seems to have high expectations for the Redskins team; in fact, just the opposite is true. Most 3rd party observers seem to expect the Redskins to be in the bottom-third of the league, and some see the team competing with Miami for the top pick in next year’s draft. These low expectations seem to be driven less by a lack of faith in Gruden, and more by the thought of Case Keenum at quarterback, unprotected by Trent Williams, and throwing to a corps of receivers that have career NFL stats (collectively) of 124 receptions for 1,639 yards.

Certainly Jay Gruden is not a Rex Ryan type, publicly proclaiming that he and his guys will bring a championship to Washington. Jay simply talks about “competing” every week, and “putting the players and team in a position to win”.

Fractured relationship with the owner
It’s hard to know exactly what Jay Gruden’s relationship is with Dan Snyder, but Dan’s history may act to mitigate the risk of Jay facing a mid-season firing. Snyder rightfully developed a reputation in previous years of having a quick trigger-finger. Jay is the first head coach to get through 5 seasons with Dan, and he is the first to be rewarded with a contract extension.

NFL-Washington Redskins at Atlanta Falcons Photo by Jonathan Newton / The Washington Post via Getty Images

While it’s not hard to imagine Dan Snyder firing Jay at the end of the season, there’s a very real chance that Dan would be hesitant to dump Gruden before he finishes his 16-game season. Jay is unlikely to create a McAdoo-like embarrassment for the organization, so the only likely reason for Dan to consider firing Jay early would be a failure to win games. By the time the losses have piled up that high, Dan would have to weigh the potential reinforcement of his reputation as a “bad” owner against the possibility that the season could be salvaged. It seems to me that Dan would just grit his teeth, wait until Black Monday, and fire Jay after 6 seasons, one playoff appearance, and no playoff wins with Snyder’s own reputation no more sullied than it already is.

Feuding with his players
We’ve seen a certain amount of ‘Skins players speaking out in public, but they have mostly targeted coordinators, position coaches or the Redskins organization more generally. Jay Gruden seems to be immune to this sort of public criticism; most beat reporters consistently say that he is popular with players.

There have been a number of people saying that Jay seems a bit more business-like than usual this season, and that the ‘discipline’ seems to have been taken up a notch. We may find 2019 Jay Gruden a bit less sanguine about the kind of public outbursts we saw on Twitter and other social media in the past from players like Zach Brown, Mason Foster and D.J. Swearinger, all of whom, I note, are no longer with the team.

NFL: OCT 23 Redskins at Eagles Photo by Kyle Ross/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Rookie Dwayne Haskins Jr. has publicly accepted his role as a student and backup, saying that a similar situation worked for him at Ohio State. Future Hall of Fame running back Adrian Peterson this week expressed support for Derrius Guice as the lead running back on the roster and said that he is just grateful to still have a chance to play in the NFL at the moment. I don’t get the sense that player revolt will cost Jay Gruden his job.

Jeff Fisher as a cautionary tale

The only precedent I see in recent years that might give an observer reason to think Jay could be in jeopardy prior to kickoff of the Week 17 game is the story of Jeff Fisher and the Rams. Fisher wasn’t horrible as the Rams coach; he just wasn’t good enough. Fisher was the poster boy for 7-9 teams. The end appeared to come for Jeff when the Rams drafted their quarterback of the future in Jared Goff, and the quarterback seemed to flounder in his rookie year under Fisher’s guidance.

There are certainly a lot of parallels between Fisher and Gruden that start with a string of 7 or 8 win seasons. With Dwayne Haskins now on the team, the parallel seems even stronger — especially with the decision to sit him for the opening week game.

But Jay is insulated a bit from his last two 7-9 campaigns by the 54 players that landed on IR in those two seasons, and the organizational befuddlement in the face of third-party analysis that can't pin blame for these injuries on any specific failure. Certainly no one seems to be pinning the blame on Jay.

It remains to be seen how Dwayne Haskins will develop, but Jay’s history with Andy Dalton and Kirk Cousins in particular suggests that he is good at developing quarterbacks who have skill, though that development takes time because his offensive schemes and systems are highly complex. Haskins seemed to develop rapidly during the four-game pre-season, and, in my view, the chances are good that he will continue to develop under Jay, whether he is playing on Sundays or not.

The only way I see Jay putting his job at risk during the season is if he insists on playing Colt McCoy ahead of the rookie, or if, after putting Haskins on the field to play, Jay decides to bench him in favor of one of his veterans. We saw Jay struggle with this as a rookie head coach in 2014, and I imagine he learned a lot from that. I don’t expect him to bungle the starting quarterback decisions in 2019.

Baltimore Ravens v Washington Redskins Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

So, while I recognize the similarities of Jeff FIsher and the 2016 Rams with Jay Gruden and the 2019 Redskins, I think that the circumstances are different enough that Jay is likely to avoid the Jeff Fisher fate.

Do teams often benefit from firing head coaches?

ESPN wrote about the results of a study showing that firing the head coach doesn’t really change the direction of a team:

It might surprise you that, since 1978, teams with below .500 records who fire their coaches tend to rebound less compared to teams below .500 that don’t fire their coaches. Although both group of teams improve by an average of 1.6 games, that average doesn’t account for the fact that teams who fire their coaches tend to have slightly worse records and should be expected to rebound by that much more. Team records can be estimated as a function of prior-season records from year to year, which measures how much teams tend to rebound from poor seasons. There are many different ways to model how teams rebound, but one straightforward method is a regression. This method has the benefit of “holding equal” prior-season records rather than simply comparing the average improvements of each group of teams, and allows us to compare apples to apples. Win-loss records of teams that don’t fire coaches rebound about 6 percent better than those that do, given their prior records.

Applying that same analysis in the salary-cap era exclusively (since 1994) produces the same pattern of results. When we look at team performance two years following each losing season, again, teams that did not fire their coaches tend to outperform those that did by 6 percent.

While I’m not about to suggest that these two paragraphs make the case that no losing team should ever fire its coach, I did find the article interesting.

NFL teams lose for a number of reasons that can include poor scouting and drafting, injuries, poor coaching, bad luck, and bad team culture, among many others. While the head coach is an easy target and the easiest single change to make, this article suggests that making the relatively easy decision to blame the coach and his staff is often misguided.

Jay Gruden is 31-32--1 over the past four seasons. His teams have been the very definition of mediocrity. Yet, since Dan Snyder bought the team in 1999, Jay Gruden is the only Redskins head coach to have produced at least 7 wins for four consecutive seasons. And he did it despite the injuries that plagued the team in 2017 and 2018, the loss of Kirk Cousins to free agency at the end of the ‘17 season and the loss of his only two quarterbacks to injury during the ‘18 season.

I recall reading comments on Hogs Haven in past years that suggested that Redskins fans should hope that the team could simply become a .500 team that didn’t disgrace itself in free agency every year, and showed itself capable of running a draft.

There’s a fair bit of evidence that the Jay Gruden era has brought this level of stability to the organization, and that the (nearly) .500 record and relative stability of the Redskins as an ‘average’ team over the past four years is one of Jays accomplishments, not an indictment of his coaching.

Would firing Jay Gruden midseason actually accomplish anything?

In my mind, the answer to that question is that — unless the season falls apart in a way that I simply don’t anticipate right now — firing Jay midseason could only be counter-productive.

I simply don’t see any circumstance where Dan Snyder sees his own best interests and the interests of the franchise being served by dumping Jay Gruden before he finishes 16-games.

Is Jay in danger of losing his job at all?

If the Redskins post another losing season, I don’t see any way the organization can avoid firing him. He will have only a year remaining on his contract, so it won’t be a costly move, and Dan Snyder can reasonably say that he gave Gruden six years but the coach failed to produce anything beyond a division title in 2015.

If, however, the Redskins defy everyone’s expectations and win 9 or more games, then I think Dan Snyder would find it hard to fire Jay at the end of the season given the abysmal expectations that exist for this team right now.

Some factors that are likely to be considered if the team has another 7, 8 or 9-win season:

  • Dwayne Haskins - Did the rookie show development during the regular season, and is he likely to be positively or negatively affected by a head coaching change?
  • Alternatives - The Redskins don’t have the best reputation in the NFL, making it harder (not impossible) to attract a superior replacement. Until the reputation of the owner and franchise are rehabilitated, Dan Snyder will probably have to be a bit more circumspect than most other owners in making firing decisions — especially mid-season firing decisions.
  • Relationships - By all public accounts I have seen, Jay is closely aligned with Kyle Smith, who is regularly given credit for the improved Redskins player evaluation and drafting. Does Dan risk losing Kyle Smith to a GM offer at another franchise if Smith sees the Redskins at the start of a new “5-year plan” with a freshly hired head coach?
  • Contracts - I mentioned above that it has been reported that Jay’s current contract expires in 2020. If Jay doesn’t get fired at the end of 2019, then the franchise either needs to extend his contract again or they need to go into a ‘lame duck’ year with Jay. From this standpoint, 2019 seems like the right time to make a change - especially if most of the other coaching staff contracts are aligned with Jay’s.
  • The Fans - If Dan Snyder and Bruce Allen were listening to fans, this would be a very different franchise today, but the reality is that the Redskins have been playing in front of more and more empty seats in recent seasons and a lot of fans are pointing at Jay and calling for him to be sacrificed. The Redskins drafted a first round quarterback in April, and Jay benched him. Starting 2020 with Haskins on the field playing for a new head coach could be seen as a way of ‘giving the fans what they want’ and re-energizing the fan base.

The Bottom Line

Personally, I don’t see any set of circumstances that is likely to arise that would result in Dan Snyder firing Jay Gruden mid-season. Betting on Jay to be the first head coach fired in 2019 seems to me to be a fool’s wager.

NFL: Preseason-Washington Redskins at Cleveland Browns Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

I feel very differently about the likelihood of Dan pulling the trigger on Jay on “Black Monday”. A losing season gets Jay a pink slip, in my opinion.

But I don’t think a losing season is a foregone conclusion.

People point to the Redskins as having a lot of question marks — at QB, at RB, at WR, at TE, at OL — and say that this team is doomed to lose, and lose a lot.

But one man’s question marks are another man’s unlimited potential. Critics will say you have to line up a lot of “ifs” to get to a scenario where the Redskins win this year, but I don’t believe that’s necessarily such a bad bet.

Case Keenum may be a career backup, but he showed in 2017 that he is capable of leading a team to a division title and playoff wins. Dwayne Haskins, who could be called upon as the starter at any time, has shown the ability to win on the biggest college football stages.

The Redskins may be relying on five unproven receivers to give them what they need to win, but the reality is that, in addition to Paul Richardson, only two of the five have to succeed to make the passing attack go — especially given the Redskins integration of tight ends and running backs into the offense.

Jordan Reed may be a question mark based on his health history, but reports from journalists throughout camp indicated that he looked better than ever in 2019 following concerning reports from camp in ‘17 and ‘18. Yes, he got concussed in preseason, but that was from an immensely dirty hit that would have concussed most players. If Reed can’t go, Vernon Davis is capable of playing at the level the Redskins need to win.

At running back, Derrius Guice may be unproven in the NFL, but he is backed up by Adrian Peterson, who put up 1,000 yards last season and is currently trying to pad his stats on his way to the Hall of Fame.

Donald Penn isn’t Trent Williams, but not many people are. NFL teams not based in Washington win games all the time with only average LT play. Penn is a former pro-bowler who played out of position on the right side for the Raiders last season before getting injured. He’s back on the left with the Redskins and working with Bill Callahan, who should get Penn sorted out quickly. Ereck Flowers has shown the ability to run block from the RG position; he only has to be adequate in pass protection for the Redskins not to take a step back from where they’ve been at this position for the past several years. In the meantime, Wes Martin is learning every week.

Jay Gruden is realistic about what his team has to do to win.

Defensively, I think we have a chance to be special, really. So we’re very encouraged by them. Obviously, our kicking game is intact with Tress [Way], Hop [Dustin Hopkins] and [Nate] Sundberg and the rest of the guys. Offensively, we just have to find a way to mesh, find a way to hit some big plays, protect the football and do some things. Might be a little different here or there. If we have to win 17-13, we’ll win 17-13 with a great defense.

Washington Redskins v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

Jay showed last year that he can adapt to his personnel offensively and win with defense. If he can get through 16 games without his Week 1 roster turning into a list of the walking wounded, I give Jay a puncher’s chance of finishing above .500, and that would make it very hard for Dan Snyder to end Jay’s tenure.

Minnesota Vikings v Washington Redskins Photo by Rob Tringali/SportsChrome/Getty Images

The real issue would come with an 8-8 season, especially one that starts out rough (say, 2-3 or 1-4) and ends with the Redskins looking like an improving team. If that happens, then Dan Snyder has to weigh the future of the team very carefully, considering all the factors listed earlier, and more.

Poll

What will happen to Jay Gruden?

This poll is closed

  • 9%
    fired mid-season
    (38 votes)
  • 37%
    fired on "Black Monday" or soon after
    (157 votes)
  • 53%
    returns as the head coach of the Washington Redskins in 2020
    (227 votes)
422 votes total Vote Now