Early each Monday morning, as the sun’s first rays hit Ashburn and darkness still has its hold on northern California, Redskins Coach Jay Gruden picks up his phone and calls his brother. If there is one thing Jay Gruden knows, it’s that Jon Gruden, once again coach of the Oakland Raiders, will be awake at 3:30 a.m.
The only brothers who are currently NFL head coaches do not talk long, usually about five minutes. The topic is their previous day’s game and involves each man saying “congratulations” or “keep your head up,” depending on the outcome the afternoon before.
Somewhere in their brief chat, Jon — who at 55 is four years older than Jay — might call his little brother “Slappy,” a nickname born 16 years ago in Tampa. Back then Jon was the famous coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, known as “Chucky” for his resemblance to the demonic doll of the Child’s Play movies, and Jay was a little-known Arena Football League quarterback working as a glorified intern on Jon’s staff.
A “slappy,” in football parlance.
When they finish talking, the two Grudens hang up and start thinking again about their teams — Jay’s, which is 5-3 and clinging to first place in the NFC East, and Jon’s, which is tied for the NFL’s worst record at 1-7. Over the next few days they text, mostly providing updates, such as Jay suddenly losing up to four-fifths of his offensive line to injury or Jon announcing he is trading away star pass rusher Khalil Mack for draft picks — igniting another torrent of outrage from the nation’s football press and fans.
One will console the other, and then it’s back to practice and game planning.
“I don’t think either of us has time to be philosophical about it,” Jon Gruden says.
The only person in America who can understand exactly what the other is enduring is too preoccupied with his own calamity to offer more than a reassuring sentence. Empathy comes from a childhood of scraps on the couch and backyard tussles in South Bend, Ind., or Dayton, Ohio, or whatever college town’s home school employed their father, Jim, as an assistant football coach and a respect that only two brothers can have.
“I know what he’s going through,” Jay says.
“There’s been some tough days to swallow this year,” Jon says, referring to the Redskins’ and Raiders’ seasons. “That’s why we lean on our mom and dad.”
This weekend, the Redskins play the Buccaneers in Tampa, which is probably the closest thing to a center for both Jay and Jon. Tampa and nearby Orlando are where Jay spent much of his arena career. Tampa is where Jay was Jon’s trusted Bucs assistant for seven years. Tampa is also where Jim Gruden and his wife, Kathy, settled many years ago, and the place the whole family essentially considers home.
And the family home is where Jim Gruden will stay on Sunday. The old coach adores his boys. He is thrilled each is a head coach in the NFL at the same time, not because he’s a football lifer but because each is doing what he loves. He has a third son, also named Jim, who is a doctor in New York and enjoys his job too, the father says.
No, the reason Jim Sr. won’t be at the stadium in Tampa is the same reason he always turns down Jay’s offer to come to a Redskins game: He can’t bear to watch.
Sundays were once his life, after he left college coaching and became an NFL assistant and later a pro scout. But this inside understanding means he knows too well what happens when a football team loses, how the coach is always to blame and the next week will be filled with ceaseless attacks on television talk shows, sports radio and news sites.
When it’s time for Redskins or Raiders games, he leaves Kathy in front of the television and goes outside. He will tinker in the yard or stroll the neighborhood, anything to keep him from thinking about the potential disaster glowing from the screen inside. But eventually he can’t stand not knowing what is happening, so he will sneak inside, peek around the corner and ask:
“How are we doing?”
If the score is close or one of his son’s teams is losing, he quickly scurries outside. It’s best to not know what is happening.
“We’ve had eight-hour days when the Redskins play at 1 and the Raiders play at 4,” Jim says. “I don’t look forward to those days.”
Eventually, he does watch the games: dissecting each play like a coach, studying the formations, determining who played well and who didn’t. He might pass along these observations in his brief twice-weekly calls with each of his boys. But mostly he asks the same questions most adult fathers pose to their sons, wondering about the wives and grandchildren, seeing how everybody is getting along.
“I’m sure it’s hard for both of them,” he says. “Jon is just trying to win a game, and Jay is trying to keep it going in Washington.”
Jay Gruden was 35 and a legend in the Arena Football League when Jon finally convinced him to join his Tampa Bay staff in 2002. Jon had just been traded to the Bucs in an unusual move by Oakland owner Al Davis, and Jay was an MVP quarterback in the arena league who had won four championships as a player and another two as head coach of the Orlando Predators. Jon had always believed Jay would make a great coach and had pushed for him to give up the indoor game and join him with the Raiders, but Jay didn’t want to quit playing.
Jon’s arrival at Tampa Bay brought an opportunity. Jay could continue to be the Predators coach and quarterback during the arena league’s April-to-August season, then join the Bucs for training camp and the regular season.
“I didn’t want to be known as an eight-man guy, so I had to start with the 11-man stuff,” Jay says. “I knew I had to make that move soon, the Arena League wasn’t going to be around forever and it was time for me to start learning.”
Each Monday during football season, Jay slipped out of his home in Orlando, around 3:30 a.m., leaving his wife and children behind, and drove to Tampa, where he worked in the Buccaneers headquarters — sleeping at his parents’ house — until Thursday afternoon, when he’d drive back to Orlando, only to return to Tampa early the next morning.
"The Brickyard 500,” he’d call those pre-dawn rushes across Interstate 4.
He was a 35-year-old grunt, doing the same menial office tasks as the other grunts, such as future Redskins offensive coordinators and eventual head coaches Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay — all of them Jon’s slappys — and he found he loved it.
The first big task Jon assigned Jay was to study the red-zone offenses and defenses of each week’s opponent. Jay spent hours examining the way the other team’s coordinators attacked and defended inside the 20-yard line, emerging late that week with a tape filled with examples from not only the coming opponent’s recent games but going back to the coordinators' previous coaching stops.
“Jay went over and above the amount of research coaches normally do,” recalls Bill Muir, the team’s offensive line coach and a mentor to Jay in those days. “Jay would walk in and say, ‘I know it’s late in the week, but I have 150 snaps in the red zone to look at.' … He’d be apologetic for having so many, but we all knew we had to do what was necessary to be done.”
After that first year, Jon gave Jay bigger tasks, primarily helping to develop the Bucs’ passing offense. During games, Jay sat in the coaches’ box and spoke directly to Jon. Jay’s understanding of quick, fast-paced offenses developed from having to imagine plays in the tiny arena fields proved valuable. For the seven years they were together, until Jon’s firing in 2008, Jay’s influence on Jon’s staff grew.
“Jon certainly didn’t treat Jay like a slappy,” Muir says. “He had great, great respect for him. That’s a very close, tightknit family. There’s no way you are going to penetrate the Gruden bond.”
Standing in the weight room at the Redskins facility one recent day, Jay Gruden thinks about those Tampa days and how life has changed, how he has become a head coach, too, one with his own slappys, finally an equal to his big brother …
He shakes his head.
“I’m always the other Gruden,” he says.
Then he smiles.
“It’s all right,” he continues. “I’m proud of all his accomplishments and what he’s done for the game — learned a lot from him the seven years I was with him in Tampa Bay, and I wouldn’t be here without the knowledge I garnered from working with him. Always pulling for him.”
But something has changed in the brother dynamic. Jay has gone from being Jon’s grunt in Tampa to offensive coordinator with the Cincinnati Bengals to head coach of the Redskins. Neither will talk about it much, but Jay was the established NFL coach when Jon came back this year. Jon was the relative outsider from the “Monday Night Football” booth who hadn’t worn a headset in years.
And while Jon spent many of those Mondays playing the role of the big brother defending Jay’s early years in Washington, it is Jay who now tries to protect Jon, who has been criticized in the media and portrayed as out of touch for his trades of Mack and wide receiver Amari Cooper for draft picks amid the team’s rough start.
“They’re doing it the right way,” Jay says. “They’re grabbing as many draft picks as they can. It’s the best way to build your team. You can’t do it through free agency."
From the house in Tampa, Jim Gruden sighs. Jon wasn’t ready to give up coaching when he got fired by the Bucs in 2008, he says. And while many offers came to coach other places, there was only one team that interested Jon. “He never wanted to leave the Raiders,” Jim says. Coming back “wasn’t about the money,” he continues, “it was about the Raiders.”
Just like the father can’t stand watching the games, he hates hearing the criticisms of Jon.
“They expect him to move a magic wand, like it’s not hard,” Jim says of the media attacks Jon has taken.
Jay Gruden is used to the fire of today’s NFL. Jon, having been part of the media at ESPN, is finding out just how hard it is to be a head coach in 2018.
“When Jay came from the arena league and Jon already having had his career as a coach in the NFL, there was a lot of mentoring going on between them, with Jon helping Jay adjust to the NFL,” Muir says. “Now with Jon being out eight years, I’m sure much of the landscape has changed in eight years and how Jay is probably helping Jon along.”
That’s how those two always were, those who have known them say, intensely loyal to each other no matter who had the bigger name or fancier title.
“Jay was a much better athlete than I was,” Jon says. “You can see he is a better coach, too.”
Both face challenges in the season’s second half, with Jay trying to hold the Redskins' division lead and Jon trying to salvage some optimism from a very challenging campaign. Perhaps when the season is over they can text each other about it, maybe even talk on the phone for more than five minutes.
“It’s great for a head coach in the NFL to have a confidant, someone who can help him and not compromise him,” Muir says. “With someone else, you can never be 100 percent sure about the information you get.”
That’s one thing Jay and Jon probably can expect from the other: a confidence the other is there for him in this strange year when each has one of the most coveted jobs in sports. That’s the bond of the two brothers with the father who can’t bear to watch them coach.
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