Jay Gruden is running out of fall guys.
His first season in Washington was a disappointing circus, thanks to that kooky quarterback merry-go-round. But by last August, Gruden had installed his preferred starter in Kirk Cousins.
His second and third seasons in Washington were moderate successes, with record-setting offenses held back by sub-par defenses. Now the coordinator who ran those bad defenses, plus two of his assistants, are gone — “will not be retained,” in the team’s delicate euphemism.
So when Gruden begins the fourth season of his five-year deal next fall — the one that should determine whether he receives a contract extension and becomes Washington’s first long-term coach since Norv Turner — there will be one main target if things go poorly. And no, it’s not the guy running special teams.
This is about Gruden now. He has been here longer than the general manager. He’s about to hire a second defensive coordinator in three years. He will, remarkably, be in the top half of longest-tenured NFL coaches by the start of next season. If this season were an exam for Cousins (pass) and Barry (fail), next year is shaping up as a referendum on the head coach.
Gruden thus far has managed to avoid the limelight, thanks in part to Washington’s more blatant defensive weaknesses. When your right arm is snapped in half, you can ignore a couple of flesh wounds on your head. And there’s no question this defense was busted: 28th in total yards, 32nd in third-down percentage, the team’s worst third-and-long defense in more than 20 years. These were season-long handicaps, and they weren’t on Gruden’s side of the ball.
But look at the things Gruden is responsible for. His offense had possibly its two worst games of the season in Washington’s two costliest losses. The offense scored 15 points at home against the Panthers — the second-fewest Carolina allowed all season — when a win would have kept Washington on track for a playoff berth. And that record-setting offense scored 10 points against the Giants, when a win would have virtually clinched a postseason berth. Those losses sunk this season, and good luck holding Barry primarily responsible for either.
Then look at clock management, one of the few parts of a football game that rests almost entirely in the head coach’s hands. The Redskins thoroughly bungled the last few seconds of the first half in that final loss, failing to call a timeout after a first-down completion, which eventually forced them to try (and miss) a 57-yard field goal as time expired. Did I mention they went to the locker room with an unused timeout? When was the last time a Washington franchise left something so valuable completely unused? (Not counting those recalled Jayson Werth bobbleheads.)
And this has become something of a pattern. Gruden let valuable time fritter away before halftime in Dallas, made a mess of the last few seconds before halftime in the Meadowlands, inexplicably didn’t even try to score before halftime in Chicago, and made questionable timeout decisions before halftime against Cleveland, and near the two-minute warning in Arizona.
Some of these might be nitpicky complaints about split-second decisions that could have gone either way. The end-of-half clock mistakes against the Giants, though, were obvious and crushing. If Andy Reid had been roaming the Washington sideline, his decisions would have attracted national ridicule. Gruden mostly skated.
Then consider the larger issue of preparation. Is Gruden on the hook if players repeatedly come out sluggish? Well, if he’s not, then who is? The Redskins didn’t score in the first quarter of four of their last six games. They were behind at halftime in five of them. And Gruden too often spent his post-game news conferences apologizing for what had just happened.
“I don’t like the way we came out,” he said after the loss in Arizona. “I don’t like the way they had a 16-play drive right down our throat to start the game. I don’t like the way our offense answered with two penalties on the first drive and having to punt.”
“First off, we were out-coached today, there’s no question about that,” he said after the Carolina loss. “It’s my responsibility to get these guys ready to play, and we weren’t as ready as we’d liked to have been.”
“We feel like we have personnel good enough to win the game,” he said after the New York loss. “I take responsibility for us having our season over. It’s on my shoulders. We’ve got to do a better job as coaches.”
Finally, don’t overlook Barry’s hiring itself, which Gruden helped orchestrate. From the moment it was announced, this decision was reviled by the fanbase. “You botched it,” one critic wrote to the team on Twitter. “Horrible hire,” another wrote. The first response on the team’s Facebook page called the hire “abhorrent,” “revolting” and “Just God awful,” among other things.
Barry’s track record as a defensive coordinator was like a Mariah Carey lip sync: brief and awful. But Gruden said he valued Barry’s verve over the experience of more senior candidates; he praised Barry’s energy and his “commitment to being great.” Those are fantastic attributes for the spirit squad, but perhaps less important qualifications for a defensive coordinator. Gruden also said Barry would get the most out of his players. Think about the seasons just turned in by young prospects such as Preston Smith and Bashaud Breeland, and ask yourself if that happened.
Having said all that, I still think Gruden has done quite a bit more good than bad in Washington. He created a relatively calm environment, avoided the petty dramas that sabotaged previous Redskins coaches, won over the locker room, crafted back-to-back winning seasons, and helped turn Cousins into a $20 million quarterback. His record through three years is mediocre, but it’s better than Joe Gibbs (Part II), Mike Shanahan or Norv Turner managed in their first three seasons.
But the charm of mediocrity won’t last forever. The team is expected to invest heavily in its defense this offseason. It almost certainly will have an experienced coordinator running the defense. And let’s assume Cousins returns for at least a third season as the starter, giving the offense the continuity Gruden so often mentions.
If that 2017 season still goes badly, who will be held accountable? Here’s a guess: If the head coach says we should blame him after another season-ending disappointment, there’s a decent chance his audience will comply.