News broke over the weekend that the Redskins have given Jay Gruden a contract extension. His original deal was due to expire at the end of the 2018 season, but the new date is now 2020.
The move has garnered plenty of reaction and, as this is the Washington Redskins, not all of it is positive. The most curious detail you could obsess over here is the timing of the move. It comes a full two months after the end of the regular season – a period which saw the team fill two vacant coordinator positions with, some might say, underwhelming names. It also comes after the team has applied the exclusive rights Franchise Tag to Kirk Cousins and will presumably begin negotiations for a long term contract.
I’ve seen much speculation as to why this move might have taken place, ranging from the very positive – the team like the job Jay is doing and think the continuity will help land Cousins long term, to the very negative – that they need to create the façade there is stability in a period of high volatility (or dare I use the word, turmoil), one that has the high likelihood of Cousins leaving. There are many moving pieces here but instead of covering whether this is necessarily a good or bad move, I’d like to try and identify possible scenarios that might explain the decision.
Scenario 1 – Jay Gruden simply deserved it
One of the quotes I’ve read recently that sticks in my mind is “you can do a lot worse than Jay Gruden”. That feels like something of a backhanded compliment but certainly he stacks up well compared to pretty much any Redskins head coach from the best part of the last two decades. True, his overall win-loss record looks fairly unimpressive at 21-26-1, but while those might be the headline numbers thrown around by the media, they don’t tell the whole truth. Gruden went 4-12 in his debut season as a head coach, but it included the complete debacle of the Quarterback carousel. Gruden’s hand was likely forced into at least starting Robert Griffin, but over 16 games some combination of Griffin, Cousins and Colt McCoy drew straws to see who would start the next game. At least that’s what it felt like anyway.
Fast forward to 2015, and Gruden got his way in having Griffin replaced. 32 regular season games later, all started by Cousins, and Gruden’s win-loss record over that span looks a much healthier 17-14-1.
I understand 2014 happened, but to me it seems extremely unfair to hold it against Gruden when looking at his record. He seems to show a very impressive offensive mind and for the first time in 20 years, the team has looked competitive in back-to-back seasons. Some may see this as setting the bar low, but it’s not. There is no magic wand to fix two decades of losing and turn a team into perennial contenders. This is real progress.
However, there is one notable detractor to this scenario. If Gruden was handed a deal because he truly earned it, why wasn’t he presented with it at the end of the season?
Scenario 2 – Changes are coming, but at least the coach isn’t one of them
It seems every year as Free Agency rolls around, I hear different reasons as to why players in search of a big pay day might not want to sign with a particular team. They lose too often, it’s not a great city, the head coach only has one year left on his deal… Well, at least the latter is no longer true. But it does fit into the whole idea of instability and lack of continuity. There are a lot of people talking up the idea that the Redskins are in seemingly “too much chaos” for teams to take seriously. I have no idea whether this actually puts players off, I tend to think enough numbers on the contract offer will overcome mostly anything in free agency for the majority of players, but could it be something that genuinely scares the team?
The Redskins General Manager isn’t at his post right now. Nobody knows when (or if) he’s coming back to it. The team has several important free agents, including a pair of wide receivers who each eclipsed 1,000 yards last season. Most people seem to think they’re not coming back. They have a defense that just put up the worst 3rd down conversion numbers in modern NFL history, and one of its best players in Chris Baker also heading to free agency. But above all else, the Quarterback who broke franchise record after franchise record, is currently showing little sign of commitment either.
What if the Redskins are bracing for fairly monumental roster changes, and see the optics of a head coach dangling by a thread as simply too catastrophic for anybody to take seriously?
Scenario 3 – It was a pre-requisite for Cousins
Kirk Cousins’ agent has gone on record saying his client isn’t necessarily motivated by the same things as other players. Having listened to the way Kirk talks to people and what he says, I believe him. That’s not to say he’s not seeking a fair market value deal – I’m certain he is, but what’s going to seal the deal isn’t necessarily huge headline numbers. Kirk is very smart and while I’m sure he is confident in his own ability to go somewhere else, learn a new scheme and put up similar numbers, I’m also sure he knows he’s got a good thing in DC. And the primary reason for that is Jay Gruden.
Let’s not forget, for all the talk the franchise has disrespected Kirk, Gruden did stand on the table back in the Summer of 2015 and lobbied hard to install Kirk as the starter. It worked out, and now after just two seasons he’s staring at maybe the richest QB deal in the history of the league. Gruden built his reputation as an innovative passing mind before he arrived with the Redskins, but the numbers suggest his schemes are for real – notably over 9,000 passing yards in two seasons.
If I were Kirk and I enjoyed working under Jay Gruden, you can bet I’d be asking the question over his deal. I might even tell the franchise – don’t even bother sending any contract offers my way until I know I’d be spending the vast majority, if not all of it, playing for the coach I want.
Scenario 4 – A pre-emptive strike from the team
I’d have a hard time stomaching Cousins leaving. Ultimately though, if the team simply isn’t sold on him there’s little point kicking the can down the road. But what if they’re more sold than they let on? In an era of negotiation-by-proxy through the media, you rarely hear either of the sides destined to lock horns in the battle for dollars outwardly express their definitive desires. It hurts their leverage, supposedly.
Perhaps it’s not Cousins pulling the strings after all, maybe the team saw this potential bargaining chip and decided to take it away before talks in earnest begin. Just maybe it’s the kind of good-will gesture that will be looked upon favorably and score a few points when the two sides are at an apparent standstill somewhere between $23m and $24m per year.
Whatever the reason, I’m reminded of the old saying – “it’s never too late to do the right thing”. The timing is undoubtedly questionable, and the motives may even be ulterior in nature, but I’m inclined to think that one way or another the team is doing the right thing here.