Jay Gruden is three games away from tying the Redskins record for coaching longevity in the Dan Snyder era. And with that two-year contract extension in his back pocket and two straight winning seasons, setting the record next fall felt like a formality. Maybe it still is.
But Gruden awoke to a Monday morning in which both local sports-radio stations were asking whether he should feel safe in his job, a morning in which many fans were buried in the sort of apathy that has prompted other Redskins upheavals in the recent past, and a morning in which a former player such as Santana Moss was openly speculating that Gruden is now on the hot seat.
“Because when you look at everything and how everything is panning out, you have to look at the coach first,” Moss said on NBC Sports Washington. “I know the players have to play the game. And as a player, I always said we have to play the game; we have control of what happens on that field. But you also have to be coached by that guy. And not to say he’s not doing a good job in my eyes. I just feel like, from ownership, they have to look at that coach and see if he’s the right one for the future.”
Moss ultimately said he would stick with Gruden, and so would I. The revolving door hasn’t worked. Gruden’s offense has been terrific. He’s likable and respected and has navigated Washington’s turbulence as well as anyone. You can’t ignore the plague of injuries, even if they’re not an excuse. And until the past two weeks, this was a competitive and resilient team playing pretty dang well against the league’s gnarliest schedule.
But based on the questions Monday morning, there’s already at least a perception problem. And when an ESPN 980 host is saying he changed the channel to watch Rams-Eagles on Sunday because “I wanted to see real football,” that’s a problem, too. Whatever happens next, these past two weeks did not look good for Gruden.
The postgame news conference
Did you watch the postgame news conference? Did you listen to it? Gruden appeared sad, near-hopeless, unsure what to say, without answers. Maybe that’s how he felt in the moments immediately after a crushing loss, and maybe his message will change Monday, but it just didn’t look good. Some of the lowlights:
“We have not been competitive, and we weren’t ready to play today, and that’s on me, the staff,” Gruden said. “We’ve got to do a better job to get these guys ready.”
“It’s hard to say if anybody played good or bad or indifferent,” Gruden said. “I think as a team, as a coaching staff, we didn’t do anything good enough. Nobody, in any way shape or form.”
“I’m at a loss for words, quite honestly,” Gruden said. “I never thought we’d get beat like this two weeks in a row, one week, at all.”
“Well, we haven’t gotten better — offense, defense or special teams,” Gruden said when asked whether the defense has regressed. “You know, I’ve regressed. I’ve not gotten this team ready to play. So it’s on me.”
There’s honor in this approach, and ESPN 980’s Chris Cooley reported Monday morning that Gruden told his team directly he was taking responsibility for this loss.
“Jay asked his team and his staff in his postgame talk to put it on him,” said Cooley, who was there for the talk. “He said, ‘I’ll take this. I’ll put it on me if you want to put it on someone.’ “
But when you’re publicly saying that not only has your team regressed, but that you have regressed as a coach … people might start to wonder how and why that process will be reversed.
The two-point conversion
It didn’t look good when Gruden quit on the game late in the fourth quarter. Bashaud Breeland’s miracle interception return for a touchdown drew the Redskins within 18, at which point you go for two to make it a two-possession game. And if you convert that, you try an onside kick. You do that a thousand times out of a thousand, because the alternative is saying, “Nah, we’re just going to give up.”
Were the Redskins going to come back from down 16 with just 2 minutes 36 seconds left? Obviously the chances were beyond remote. But they would have had the ball near midfield, in a situation not horribly unlike the one the Saints faced last month, when every single thing went right and they rallied from 15 points down to beat the Redskins in overtime. Kirk Cousins isn’t Drew Brees, and the Redskins aren’t the Saints (and the Chargers aren’t the Redskins), but what’s the harm in trying? What’s the benefit in giving up?
“Never say never,” Fred Smoot said on the team’s official postgame radio show. “Never say never. … I know it’s only two minutes left in the game, but if you go for two, this game maybe changes at that point. And I think it sends a message that trickles down to the team, too. Like, basically this game is over, and we’ve given up.”
The only justification I’ve seen for not trying the two-point conversion is that this team is too injured to take that risk. If that’s the case, just stop playing the games. And if Gruden didn’t realize a conversion could make it a two-possession game, that’s just as bad as giving up.
Washington has now given up the most points in the NFL this season. The Redskins have given up at least 30 points in six of their past eight games. They’ve given up at least 30 points seven times in total, something that had happened in just three previous seasons in the history of the franchise. The Browns (six), Cardinals (six) and Bucs (five) are the only other teams that have allowed 30 points more than four times this season — and, again, the Skins have done it six times in eight games.
Points allowed is an inefficient way to measure a defense, but no one who has watched the past two months can think that this defense is anything but poor. And Greg Manusky is already Gruden’s third defensive coordinator in four seasons. At some point, you can’t just keep firing people without the results reflecting badly on the people doing the hiring and firing. (Hey, that sentence might have a deeper meaning, now that I think of it.)
The fact is, Gruden isn’t just the team’s offensive coordinator. At some point, if the defense never gets right, that’s on the head coach.
The sideline shots
I noticed this during the Cowboys game, and maybe I’m too obsessed. But the camera seems to find Gruden an awful lot when things are going poorly, and his look often conveys … dispassion? Silent angst? I don’t know how a coach should look when things are going poorly. But Gruden seems almost emotionless during these on-field fiascos.
Maybe this is the right approach, to prevent a death spiral. Maybe he rages on the inside, or in private. Maybe writing about this is silly. But here are eight times the camera found him Sunday, two in each quarter. He just seems more sad than angry on the sideline, and I’m surely not the only one to have noticed this.
Washington’s former offensive coordinator has the Rams leading their division at 9-4, with an offense that ranks in the top 10 in yards and points. Washington is 5-8, with an offense that ranks in the top 10 in neither of those categories. Gruden, of course, replaced his former pupil as Washington’s play caller this season, and the Redskins are on pace to finish with fewer yards, fewer points and fewer wins.
This roster, it goes without saying, has no Pierre Garcon and no DeSean Jackson, plus Jordan Reed has been hurt, plus Terrelle Pryor was a bust, plus they’re on their 17th-string running back and have used enough offensive line combinations to create a wonderful middle-school logic puzzle. But that just doesn’t look good for Gruden, either.
D.J. Swearinger said the team’s practices last week were blah, that he wasn’t surprised by the blowout, that “we’re not prepared — all of us, players and coaches.”
Junior Galette broke out the “I just work here” line.
Josh Norman questioned his role, saying, “Everything they ask me to do, that’s what I’m doing, but there’s more that you can get out of me.”
None of these comments looks good.
The Redskins ended their 2016 campaign with a 2-4 finish, missing the playoffs after disastrous home losses to the Panthers and Giants in which the team appeared entirely out of sync.
The Redskins are currently on a 1-4 skid and have looked entirely out of sync two or possibly three weeks in a row.
Maybe they will get things turned around and avoid a similarly poor finish. But if they don’t, it sure wouldn’t look good for the head coach.
More from D.C. Sports Bog: