INDIANAPOLIS — Forty-three days into his tenure as head coach of the Washington Redskins, Jay Gruden expressed optimism by the progress he and his staff have made as they lay the groundwork for the coming season.
In the past month and a half, Gruden has assembled a staff that features a blend of familiar faces and new additions. He and offensive coordinator Sean McVay and offensive line coach Chris Foerster have melded what they think are the best elements of the previous offensive schemes with Gruden’s own playbook. He and his coaches have engineered schedules for offseason workouts, practices and training camp.
The coaches have watched every 2013 practice from training camp on, plus every preseason and regular season game, to learn about their current players. Along with Washington’s talent evaluators, the coaches have begun initial meetings to plan for free agency.
Now attention shifts to the mining of college talent at the NFL Scouting Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium. Entering his 11th season as an NFL coach, this doesn’t represent Gruden’s first combine.
But Gruden, a longtime offensive coach, must expand his focus to include the evaluation of defense and special teams as well.
“I still feel like I’m always going to be playing catch-up, but it’s going good,” Gruden said. “We’re working on the schedules for minicamps and phase one and two and three, and training camp and all that good stuff and evaluating the free agents and our guys and now obviously working on the draft.
“You feel like there’s so much work to do, but I feel like we’re taking care of the important issues.”
One of Gruden’s biggest tasks will involve helping quarterback Robert Griffin III rebound from a trying second season to recapture the magic from his record-setting rookie campaign. NFL rules prohibit coaches and players from talking X’s and O’s until April 7 — the start of offseason the workout program — but Gruden and Griffin have begun cultivating their relationship.
Gruden named ball security as one of the top areas upon which Griffin needs to improve. (Griffin had 16 turnovers in 2013 after recording only seven as a rookie.) Field vision and decision-making also rank high on the list. The coach believes the quarterback can rebound.
“Last year was a tough year, it was a humbling year for a lot of people, especially for [Griffin],” Gruden said. “He’s eager to get back into shape. He’s eager to work. He’s got great work ethic already. I can see that. He’s excited to get the new playbook. We can’t give it out to him yet. . . .
“I think the one thing about him is he’s a very fiery competitor. You can see that. He’s a good, solid leader, and he’s excited to get to work. Obviously, he has a ton of talent that we have to mold and get him comfortable in the offense.”
The Redskins must upgrade many of the pieces in Gruden’s offense. Wide receiver and offensive line rank among the need areas. Pierre Garcon, whom Gruden praised, is back. But the team lacks consistent secondary receivers. Gruden said he likes the skill set of second-year tight end Jordan Reed and speed of third-year wideout Aldrick Robinson. But health (for Reed) and consistency (for Robinson) are reasons for concern.
Meanwhile, an offensive line that allowed 43 sacks also figures to require an overhaul. Gruden sees other problem areas on the roster as well.
“We have a lot of holes everywhere. Not just on offense, but special teams, defense and we’re going to have to address all those,” he said. “There’s really not a position we’re not looking to get better at whether it’s in-house — getting the player we have in place, get him to play better — or looking to the draft or free agency. So, any time we’re 3-13, there’s a lot of needs.”
The Redskins are expected to have between $25 million and $30 million in cap space to work in free agency, but 21 players on the roster have expiring contracts.
The Redskins don’t have a first-round pick in this year’s draft (the final installment of the trade with St. Louis that brought them Griffin). But Washington does have six additional picks — the second overall selections of rounds two through seven. This week — while watching physical evaluations and conducting interviews with prospects — Gruden and his staff aim to find the best fits.
“You have to be right with your picks. There’s no doubt about it, and there’s no exact science,” he said. “Otherwise it’d be easy for everybody. But there is a lot of pressure on us to be right with the second-, third-, fourth-, fifth-, sixth- and seventh-round picks.”