Jay Gruden, after three days of reflection and deliberation, decided on Thursday to fire Joe Barry as Redskins defensive coordinator, and also moved on from three of Barry’s assistants – defensive line coach Rob Akey, defensive backs coach Perry Fewell and strength coach Mike Clark.
Gruden wasn’t ready on Monday to announce a decision on the future of one of his top assistants and long-time friend. But he did say, “We’re going to always look at every staff member in-house and that’ll take some time. That won’t happen overnight. We’re going to go through all that – every member of this building, thorough evaluation – and we’ll go from there.”
Decision time came on Thursday. The call not to retain Barry – who had previously presided over two struggling units in Detroit, and otherwise had worked as a position coach (both in Tampa Bay with Gruden, and in San Diego) – hardly came as a surprise.
The Redskins’ defense struggled in nearly every key statistical category the last two seasons. In 2016, the unit was 28th in total yards, 24th in rushing yards allowed, 25th in passing yards allowed, 19th in points, 32nd on third downs, 17th in takeaways and 26th in red zone touchdowns.
Washington’s defense had real talent deficiencies. Outside of Chris Baker, the other defensive linemen were best suited as rotational players, not in full-time difference-maker roles. The unit needed more speed and versatility at inside linebacker, and the Redskins also lacked proven players at safety. Most NFL insiders, former players and executives contacted about Washington’s unit agreed that outside of Baker, Ryan Kerrigan, Josh Norman and Bashaud Breeland, Washington’s defensive players would have trouble earning starting jobs on other winning teams.
But Redskins officials knew all about their deficiencies, and they chose the last two years to fill their unit with a conservative approach in free agency – primarily inking Band-aid players rather than spending more on proven commodities – and in the draft.
The Redskins brass, according to people familiar with the deliberations, plans this offseason to invest more aggressively in the defense, both in free agency and the draft. However, they still concluded that talent wasn’t the only problem, and that Barry hadn’t done enough to earn himself a third season as defensive coordinator.
Barry’s bosses questioned his decision-making at times, team insiders said. His reluctance to have Norman regularly line up against the top opposing wide receiver, his use of Su’a Cravens as a situational inside linebacker rather than a full-time player (either at linebacker or safety) and his late-game strategies all raised eyebrows within the organization.
Players also questioned Barry’s philosophies privately and publicly. Barry did give players the freedom to speak their minds and offer input, but the second-guessing extended to post-game interviews when they didn’t like a decision not to blitz (particularly after the Detroit loss) or to play a certain coverage.
Players did respect that Barry never made excuses. At the podium for his weekly news conferences, he always took the blame for the shortcomings of his unit. And even after the season ended, the coordinator did have supporters within the locker room, even if some of them thought his philosophies needed modifying. Veterans like Kerrigan, Will Compton and DeAngelo Hall all said that it ultimately didn’t matter what calls were made. Players’ jobs called for them to make the the calls right, and they had come up short.
But support from some players and the recognized talent deficiencies weren’t enough to save Barry’s job.
Now, Gruden, team president Bruce Allen and general manager Scot McCloughan must find a candidate that can not only get more out of the remaining talent, but also develop the promising but struggling young players already in Washington, help blend those players with new additions and give the team a defense that can better support an offense that ranks among the league leaders.
Gruden has to get this hire right. Two years ago, he had the opportunity to hire long-time defensive guru Wade Phillips, but chose Barry instead because he liked his energy and passion more than what he observed in Phillips. Of course, Phillips went on to get the defensive coordinator job at Denver and directed a unit that almost single-handedly won the Super Bowl for the Broncos.
Now, entering Year 4 of a five-year contract, Gruden and the Redskins need dramatic improvement from their defense and a return to the playoffs.