RICHMOND — On the eve of his first training camp leading an NFL team, Washington Redskins Coach Jay Gruden appeared upbeat and ready for work Wednesday. He’ll have many duties, but none more important than his efforts to try to get quarterback Robert Griffin III back on track.
Gruden was hired in large part because of his ability to help young quarterbacks improve, and Griffin, the 2012 NFL offensive rookie of the year, still has much to prove as a pocket passer after a 2013 season that was a nightmare on and off the field. And Gruden, the Redskins’ third head coach since 2008, must simultaneously oversee an entire roster for the first time in his career.
Gruden has a lot on his shoulders. He also seems to have a good head on them. Gruden comes across as a what-you-see-is-what-you-get coach. The former coaching regime wasn’t noted for its straight-shooting approach. Griffin definitely appears to prefer Gruden’s approach.
It got so bad last season between Griffin and then-coach Mike Shanahan, team officials say, that the only thing they agreed on was their contempt for each other. Gruden entered with a clean slate and a rock-solid reputation after getting a lot out of Bengals signal-caller Andy Dalton.
From the moment he agreed to rejoin Redskins President and General Manager Bruce Allen, with whom he worked in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers organization, Gruden steadily has built a solid relationship with Griffin. They already have good rapport, Redskins sources say, so much so that Griffin was receptive to Gruden’s criticism at times during closed offseason practices. Often, Griffin didn’t take kindly to direction by Shanahan and his son, Kyle, Washington’s former play-caller.
Gruden hasn’t encountered the stubbornness Griffin displayed while battling the Shanahans on the direction of the offense before and during last season’s 3-13 debacle. Griffin quickly proved “he knows what has to go into the making of a great quarterback,” Gruden said. “He’s got a long way to go. He understands.
“The preparation, both physical and mental, he has a great understanding, a great feel, for that already as a young guy. In the maturation process that he has to have, he has the ability to make mistakes, learn from his mistakes [and] take criticism. It makes you a better person and a stronger man. He’s realizing that.”
Of course, the Redskins haven’t faced adversity. Bumps are coming, though. They always do.
“Happiness comes with wins,” Gruden said. “Nobody is going to be happy if we’re 2-14.”
That’s why Gruden and offensive coordinator Sean McVay, who coached Washington’s tight ends for three-plus seasons under Shanahan, are doing everything they can to “make [Griffin] as comfortable as possible with this system,” Gruden continued. “If we can make him feel comfortable, put him in a place where he can succeed, I feel like we’ll have a much better chance with this franchise to be successful.”
And that’s the key. Allen turned to Gruden to rebuild Griffin. Gruden views that aspect of his job with the appropriate importance. Remember: The Redskins traded four high-round picks for the No. 2 overall pick that landed Griffin in 2012. When a team pays the largest draft price in history to move up and pick a potential franchise quarterback, it expects a huge return on the investment. For the Griffin move to truly pay off, he has to lead Washington to a Super Bowl title.
Although Gruden would be the first to acknowledge Griffin hasn’t reached that point yet, Gruden believes he can get there. Shanahan wasn’t so sure.
“He’s in great shape. He ran excellent today. Physical condition, not an issue,” Gruden said. “Mental condition, we feel excellent [about it]. Sean has done an excellent job with him. Above-the-neck plays? He’s doing a great job with the command of the game.
“The huddle, his progressions in the passing game, his audibles in the running game . . . excellent. We just continue to build. He’s in his third year. He’s still going to make mistakes here and there. But the key for him is to learn from those mistakes and not make the same mistakes over and over.”
The same could be said of Gruden, who will be learning on the job in a fishbowl. In most workplaces, that’s not the ideal way for a new employee to build confidence. By nature, however, NFL head coaches are confident. When you lead Alpha males in professional sports’ most powerful league, uncertainty isn’t an option.
A student of history, Gruden has learned from mistakes made by former Redskins coaches and coaches in “every other franchise in the NFL,” he said. “I learned [from] what we did in Cincinnati; what we did right and what I think we did wrong. But ultimately it’s your team and your stamp. You have to do it your way.”
Under Gruden, the Redskins have a new way. Ultimately, he’ll be judged by how it benefits Griffin and the win-loss record.