Then, without missing a beat, he divulged the origin of his quip. “I actually stole that from Jon,” Gruden joked, referring to his older brother, the new head coach of the Oakland Raiders.
Since Gruden’s arrival in January 2014, the Redskins have remained decent but unremarkable, talented yet limited. And since the team’s brief postseason run in the 2015 season, which ended with a 35-18 loss to the Green Bay Packers in an NFC wild-card game, the Redskins have managed to consistently toe the line between good and not quite good enough.
Asked at the end of last season to evaluate quarterback Kirk Cousins, Gruden offered what many took to be a tepid endorsement. “When you’re 7-9, it’s hard to say, ‘Wow, this guy was really outstanding,’” he said in early January, before highlighting Pro Bowl honorees Ryan Kerrigan, Trent Williams and Brandon Scherff. “ … He’s a very, very good quarterback, without a doubt. But as far as getting us over the hump from 7-9 to winning the division with all the injuries we had, I think he competed and did some good things.”
In the same way Washington’s 2017 record reflects on Cousins, it also says a lot about Gruden. So does his 28-35-1 career record as Redskins head coach.
A slew of injuries at key positions last season sent him scrambling to make do with a depleted roster each week. But this offseason has brought new pieces — namely, a new quarterback in Alex Smith — and even loftier expectations. And Gruden is well aware of the questions facing him as he heads into Year 5.
“Yeah, there is pressure,” he acknowledged in Orlando. “There has always been pressure. I think any time you don’t make the playoffs in this league, there’s obviously pressure. It’s well documented that of these 32 tables right here, there’s probably eight or nine [coaches] new every year. For a reason. They probably didn’t make the playoffs. Not all of them retire …
“So there’s always going to be pressure. It’s why I got into the business. It’s why I love the job and what I respect about the job and continue to try to take this team where we need to.”
Washington believes it has upgraded its quarterback position by adding Smith, the 33-year-old signal-caller the Redskins coveted above Cousins and every available free agent option. And now with Smith in the fold, the organization believes it’s poised for success in 2018.
While Gruden may be feeling the pressure, he is also confident his team is close to where it needs to be. “There are a lot of guys on our roster that I feel good about it,” he said. “A core group of guys on our team that I feel that can compete.”
But only time will tell if these new-look Redskins are any closer to being legitimate playoff contenders — and therein lies the rub. Washington can’t afford to hover near mediocrity, not with the defending Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles in their division and NFC teams reloading (i.e., the Los Angeles Rams and the Minnesota Vikings, who signed Cousins to a fully guaranteed three-year deal).
The Redskins got the quarterback they wanted and assured themselves stability at the position for several more years. Now it’s up to Gruden and his coaching staff to handle the rest.