Jay Gruden, Redskins new coach, faces a tall order fixing a troubled franchise

Keith McMillan explains what the creative play-caller will bring to Washington. (Jayne Orenstein/The Washington Post)
Mike Wise
Columnist January 9

Pssst, Jay. Over here, so the microphone on the dais doesn’t pick this up. This is what Dan and Bruce can’t tell you.

This is what you need to know before the most unpredictable thrill ride of your career begins. Two things:

Mike Wise is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. View Archive

1) Statistically, there is a very good chance you will eventually be fired.

And, 2) Remember in the Ashburn press room Thursday night, before the pizza you so graciously bought the media arrived, when I asked if you had ever watched, “Good Will Hunting”? Yeah? And you replied, “Yes, I have.”

Well, it’s one of my all-time favorites because it distills an unvarnished realness that a man of solid Gruden stock like yourself might appreciate. Especially the scene at the end, when Matt Damon’s character is brought to inconsolable tears by his vulnerable, tough-guy therapist, who finally opens the gusher with four simple words:

It’s not your fault.

In this drama, where you have signed on for five years to boldly go where no coach — not even Joe Gibbs — has gone before under Daniel Snyder, you need to hear those four words. You need to hear them before the cycle begins anew, before unbridled optimism turns to constant concern and constant concern turns to moments of resignation and moments of resignation turn to, “Why did I take this damn job?”

And like Robin Williams in the film, on your most deflating day, I will tell you like I did Thursday night: It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault, Jay.

If you become the eighth straight coach in the Snyder era not to finish your contract, you will not leave Washington a worse coach than you were before you got here. If you don’t hoist the Lombardi Trophy with this franchise, it will likely have nothing to do with your ability to prepare or lead or get the best out of your men. You probably won’t be done in by a better scheme or a more capable coaching staff.

You will simply be caught up in a vortex of an owner and a management structure that really, sincerely wants to win but still hasn’t shown it knows how .

Dan means well; he really does. But almost unconsciously he could soon make you compromise your values and beliefs about this game in ways you can’t imagine.

It might be as simple as you spending an inordinate amount of time in his office each week, explaining every move to him. It might be taking the player’s side in a dispute that undermines your authority. It might be strongly recommending that you and Bruce trade for a player you really have major questions about. He won’t just come out and say, “If you don’t take Albert Haynesworth you’re fired.” No. It’s much more subtle than that. He’ll say, “Look, I’m ready to pony up to get this guy. If we don’t get him, you better hope he doesn’t have an MVP season or that’s going to look real bad on your staff.”

That really happened.

In time, you will learn to pick your battles. But at some juncture you might also look the other way when your authority on a personnel matter is challenged, because that’s what you’ll feel you need to do to survive.

And, one night a couple of years from now, when things are not going well and you can’t tell the world about the way you feel undermined, you will invariably call your brother, Jon, and recall how simple football was when all you had to worry about was game-planning for the monster on the other side of the line each weekend.

But this is a new day, a good day for you and your family.

Your name helped, but your credentials — paying your dues for 17 years in three pro leagues – hopefully got this job more than being the brother of a man who won a Super Bowl 12 years ago.

Being a former quarterback of renown at Louisville and a legend in the Arena League, you still intuitively know what’s going through Robert Griffin III’s mind, based solely on the shared past of being a star at the most important position on the field.

Your first order of business is every new coach’s first order of business in this town — clean up the mess that came before you, bond with the quarterback.

Just remember it’s a foundational issue — deeper and more multi-layered than even the best refurbishing expert can comprehend. It goes back more than a decade. Marty Schottenheimer, Mike Shanahan, Gibbs and others who were very fine coaches tried mightily but simply couldn’t get it done. You’re younger and hungrier than all of them, teeming with the same I-can-be-the-guy belief they had the day they took the job.

I’m rooting for you because I have a hunch you’re the kind of plain-spoken, authentic person needed to make fans believe.

It’s a heck of a task. Not the fixing the roster part. But actually changing a culture, not just saying a culture is changed.

If it happens and you’re the last coach on the field at the end of the season with the confetti coming down, you’ll not only be the man who restored the franchise to prominence; you’ll be the first coach to give Daniel Snyder the one thing money can’t buy: the utter, complete adoration of the fans.

But if it doesn’t happen, chances are forces beyond your control will have been the reason.

Two final things: 1) Good luck. You’ll need it. And 2) It bears repeating: If it doesn’t work out, it’s not your fault.

For more by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.

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