Win or lose, Jay Gruden has changed Washington’s poisonous atmosphere

The Post Sports Live crew tackles Monday night's Redskins-Browns preseason game, and discusses quarterback Robert Griffin III's performance and what he needs to improve on. (Post Sports Live/The Washington Post)
Thomas Boswell
Columnist August 19

Perhaps smiles and relaxed faces aren’t what the NFL is about. Maybe Robert Griffin III hanging around the Washington locker room after an exhibition, just talking football, not measuring every word or wondering if a knife is being thrown at his back, has little bearing on a 3-13 team’s chance to improve.

But it sure was a change on Monday night to hear RGIII laughing. When asked if he’d ever “flipped off the other team’s sideline,” he broke up. Inept Cleveland rookie quarterback Johnny Manziel, perhaps already sensing that his NFL career may be DOA, gave a backhanded bird to D.C.’s team. “I was right there!” grinned Griffin. “Tomorrow it’ll be on ‘First Take.’ Okay, guys, I’m outta here.”

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist. View Archive

In the Washington room, you can feel relief and hope in every corner — perhaps warranted, or maybe not — but certainly refreshing. A team’s tone is never going to be as important as its takeaway differential. But when a franchise’s atmosphere becomes totally poisonous, as it was the last half of last season, then fumigation is job one. Without it, no other tasks can even begin.

The weight of a Shanahan on every shoulder is gone. We’re about to find out exactly how much addition-by-subtraction really matters in the NFL. In sports, one failed regime is routinely replaced by its antithesis, in tactics and temperament. But we’re about to see the most extreme script-flip available.

Mike Shanahan is invisible, for now. Son Kyle, now the Browns’ offensive coordinator, has the migraine of matriculating Manziel. Is this karma or what? Johnny Football is shrimp-sized for the NFL, never had a playbook in his career and couldn’t read a defense with a Kindle. With a beer in one hand and a raised finger on the other, he’s the anti-Shanahan player and person. Should be fun, at least for defenders who stand over him, like Brian Orakpo, and give him back his finger-rubbing “money” sign. To complete the Shanahanity, the Browns just brought in backup QB Rex Grossman, Kyle’s buddy.

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Rookie Coach Jay Gruden’s knack for following serious analysis of his team’s flaws with a quick, candid chuckle isn’t going to erase the issues with a defense that, last season, was the worst in D.C. in points allowed since 1954. But his impact on football climate change in D.C. is warming — to the heart.

Gruden told his team before their sloppy 24-23 win over the Browns “to eliminate penalties and protect the football.” Pause. “So, we didn’t do either.” When listing problems, such as getting stuffed by the Browns’ defense three times at the 1-yard line, Gruden finished the miscreant recitation with “my play-calling.”

Instead of a vengeful edge to his words, and an agenda hidden behind every syllable, Gruden just tells it straight. Griffin still has to learn to be a polished NFL quarterback, and he better learn to “protect himself” or he’s in for more misery. “It’s been a habit in his career [to break off plays too quickly and run],” said Gruden, who knows that when RGIII doesn’t cut toward the sideline, even the Washington Monument flinches. “Here, it’s a 16-game season.” Message: It’d be nice if you stayed alive for all of it.

For five of the last six years Washington has finished last in the NFC East and, for realists, which automatically excludes most of the team’s followers and certainly its owner, last place is the most likely destination again, though it may be with twice as many wins as last season. What now seems possible at FedEx Field is slow improvement and, perhaps, the steady education of a well-intentioned young quarterback who can’t stop saying the word “great” over and over to make other people happy.

Living in a fantasy world of instant gratification dreams has become an intractable disease with this franchise. Changing its nickname might be nice, but changing its hallucinatory habit of mind could be better. When tossed a pregame softball question on TV, Griffin couldn’t resist making an RGIII stump-stop speech. “He expects greatness out of me. Just like everybody else, just like myself,” he said. “We want to go out here and be great. . . . Every time we put a helmet on, it means something. So we just want to go out and be great.”

Oh, great. Stuff a Superman sock in it. Don’t “be great.” Learn how to be an NFL quarterback first. Learn how to slide. Learn to throw the ball away, not heave it into the flat off your back foot for a gift interception when your team is already in field goal range. Learn how to read defenses and audible. Learn to play for the team — really play for it — not treat every snap like a chance for brand building.

Griffin is this team’s greatest long-term asset, at least potentially, as well as one of the city’s most estimable athletic role models. But he’s grown up in America’s biggest era of sports hype. The curse, as other local teams have found in this high-draft-pick, instant-celebrity period in D.C. sports, is that young men with great talent and drive sometimes believe what is said or written about them. (Give me my blindfold and line me up against the wall with the rest.) They mistake “could become” for “already is.” And when they feel insulted, or simply fail, they often respond by trying too hard to “show the world.”

In an almost meaningless exhibition game, Griffin “made a bad attempt at a slide” and fell awkwardly as he was smashed by defenders. He also scrambled, then suddenly realized “I had to put my shoulder down.” Three tacklers delivered hits from the shoulder pads up. A fourth couldn’t quite unleash a full-speed kill shot. One play, four dodged projectiles. After playing only one quarter, Griffin already had acquired a slight limp.

“Bruised thigh. I’ll be okay,” said Griffin.

Washington is about to begin another of its NFL fresh starts. Often, they last for two or three seasons. “Rip it up and start over” is football’s perfect recipe for failure. This team has added talent and found a coach with a decent chance of success. And it has eliminated an era of the most toxic scheming, slandering and undermining that this town has witnessed in a generation — well, outside of Capitol Hill.

However, two more ingredients, rarities with this franchise, are now needed: patience and honesty. With them, rebuilding is possible. Without them, the past will simply repeat, but with new scapegoats.

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