At 5am on Monday 7th October, Jay Gruden was fired from his position as Head Coach of the Washington Redskins. His final record with the team was 35-49-1.
In the annals of Redskins time, Jay Gruden will not be remembered as a great Redskins coach.
However, looks can be deceiving, and the 41.8% win percentage will never tell the whole story of a tumultuous fiver-year ride with the most dysfunctional organisation in the NFL.
Let’s first consider the conditions under which he was first appointed to the team. Gruden was a luke-warm co-ordinator prospect lured away from a Cincinnati team that offensively had produced mixed results. It is assume one condition of taking the head coaching job with the Redskins, was correcting a career-trajectory of one Robert Griffin III that had looked to be going serious awry under the stewardship of Mike Shanahan, after a blistering and record setting rookie season in 2012. What was apparent, however, was that this was a task more impossible than keeping the Titanic afloat after an unfortunate encounter with a large block of ice. Griffin, fully empowered by owner Daniel Snyder at this point, appeared entirely arrogant, completely uncoachable, and utterly incapable of succeeding on the field. Truth be told, the damage here was done long before Gruden arrived. These pieces could not be picked up. The relationship between the two looked damaged beyond all repair when after a 20-point loss at home to Tampa Bay in November 2014, Gruden offered up a publicly scathing critique of Griffin, the likes of which are rarely heard of by a coach in his position.
Sufficed to say, 2014 turned out to be another disastrous season for the franchise, just like 2013 before it. But many critics of the team were and still are willing to treat this year as a write-off for Gruden.
And so here beginneth the “Jay & Kirk” years. A three-year stretch between 2015 and 2017 where the team was reasonably competitive – compiling a 24-23-1 record and managing its first playoff appearance since the aforementioned 2012 season. Without debate, these were the years that reflect best on Gruden’s head coaching résumé, although of course it comes as no coincidence he had stability at the QB position with a capable starter. During this time Gruden had the Redskins as a credible offensive threat much more often than not, and it could easily be argued the team underachieved in 2015 owing to a horrendous defensive unit – something that would remain a constant problem Gruden was unable to adequately fix at any point throughout his entire stint.
2018 saw the return on the QB carousel, though of course, through no fault of Gruden’s own this time. A devastating injury to Alex Smith at a point when the team was 6-3 derailed the season. It is however, fair to point out this Redskins team appeared to be punching well above its weight with an inflated record that seemed destined to pop at any point. And pop it did, leading to a second consecutive 7-9 record.
For as much of a mess as the franchise is currently in – and it is a big mess – it’s unfair to pin much of this on Gruden. There were aspects of his coaching pedigree that should indeed be praised. His ability to scheme an effective passing game is something that will certainly catch the eye of teams thinking about making a change at their Offensive Coordinator position, a role he should be able to walk into pretty quickly should he choose to do so. He was a coach the players, by most accounts, liked to play for. He was probably the best person on the entire team when placed in front of a camera – maybe the most likeable leader during Dan Snyder’s ownership, save for Coach Joe, he maintained good relationships with the media, and could fend off difficult questions that those above him were either unwilling or incapable of doing themselves, often with brutal honesty (perhaps too much for his own good).
But there were holes in the fabric of Gruden’s leadership that came at great detriment to the team. From the beginning, he was unable to fix the defense, despite having multiple different coordinators. He never managed to produce a consistent and productive running game. His clock management/tactics were often abysmal and costly. The culture he oversaw in practice has often been described as too lax; leading to far too many penalties on the field, and players feeling empowered to bad-mouth coaches and their methods publicly. His persona has been seen as too laid-back and “go along to get along” to be an effective leader of men.
Despite this, there seems to be some recognition nationally of the adverse working conditions Gruden served under, and rightly so. It is entirely fair to wonder whether he could have achieved more had he been given the appropriate support to do so. For this reason, it’s not out of the question other teams talk to him about head coaching vacancies in the future. For now though, it must come as a strange kind of relief that the inevitable outcome has finally occurred for him. Surely, nobody would begrudge Gruden some time away from the game to recover from the inevitable stress this role had put him under, even for somebody as relaxed and easy going as he.
I would personally like to offer thanks to Jay Gruden. He delivered, by relative standards, a product during the Dan Snyder era that all-told turned out to be a decent one – it can’t really be overstated how difficult a task that is.
And he always did it with a smile on his face and a quip in his heart.