But not this time. Gruden was still on edge by the end of the session, barking his anger without any sugarcoating. Chris Thompson had seen his coach angry plenty of times since Gruden took over in 2014, but never quite like this. Thompson’s reaction?
“I like that,” the running back said with a smile and a nod. “I like that.”
Players throughout the Redskins’ locker room have said that they’ve seen a subtle change in Gruden this season, bringing more urgency to practices, film sessions and games. While the sixth-year coach, who acknowledged that he’s on the hot seat this season well before the team’s 0-2 start, insists nothing is different in his approach, players say that Gruden has been emphasizing details more and tolerating mistakes less. Some have said his demeanor is more intense. Safety Deshazor Everett described him as acting a “little more aggressive” and holding players accountable more than ever.
From quieter music at training camp to a stricter application of fines, Gruden has seemed a bit more serious this season, although he says nothing has changed.
“I can get on [the players] a little bit, too, contrary to belief,” said Gruden, who is the longest-tenured coach during Daniel Snyder’s ownership of the team. “We’re going to continue the same grind. For me to say I’m going to work harder this year because a job might be on the line — my job’s been on the line every year I walked in this building, and that’s just a fact. That’s every coach in the NFL. So every year, treat it as, ‘Man, this is it.’ ”
Gruden made the point that if a coach or player suddenly has to push harder because of circumstances, he probably wasn’t working hard enough in the first place. But even if there hasn’t been any change in his effort level or overall coaching philosophy, the decision to make running back Adrian Peterson inactive for Week 1, and his postgame response to it, was interpreted by some as a change in attitude for a coach who usually has a way of softening criticism with a bit of playfulness.
He had felt that sitting Peterson in favor of a running back and extra linebacker who could help out on special teams, with Peterson largely duplicating the skill set of starting runner Derrius Guice, gave the Redskins the better chance to win. And he stood by his decision postgame, saying with sarcasm that he would only play Guice and Peterson together if “we think we can run the ball 55 times in a game in I-formation.”
Gruden spent the next few days softening his response, perhaps in part because Guice was injured, forcing Peterson back into the lineup. But the implications of the episode were clear: In this pivotal season, which could very well see him get fired if he can’t lead the team into playoff contention, the head coach has decided that he is going to do things his way.
It’s an understandable approach from the coach, who has dealt with many things outside his control during his tenure. Just within the past calendar year, he has lost two quarterbacks to season-ending injuries; dealt with the absence of Pro Bowl left tackle Trent Williams, who is holding out amid discontent with the organization; and seen 24 players go on injured reserve in 2018, after 23 landed there the season before. The Redskins already have 10 players on injured reserve this year, through just two games.
“Yeah, it gets frustrating at times,” Gruden said of some of the issues he’s dealt with, particularly the injuries, “because you’re talking about Week 9 or 10 and you’re teaching your quarterback two-minute drill and the linemen the cadence. It’s hard. It’s just something we had to go through, but ideally you have all your bullets in your gun and you can go out and compete and let these guys play.”
Players in the locker room continue to support Gruden, who they say still likes to kid around, whether joking with injured backup quarterback Colt McCoy over breakfast or calling offensive lineman Brandon Scherff a “slappy” as he walks down the hallway. But his tolerance for mistakes seems to be diminishing.
“If anything, this year, he’s even more clear about his expectations for us,” longtime punter Tress Way said. “…There’s no mistaking about what he’s happy with, what he’s unhappy with.”
“He’s still a player’s coach, [but he’s] holding guys more accountable,” veteran tight end Vernon Davis said. “Even coaches grow and progress year to year.”
One element of Gruden’s progress, according to the coach, is that he has grown more comfortable in trusting his assistants. In filling out his staff for this season, he sought out specific traits. He added former coordinators Rob Ryan and Ray Horton as position coaches on defense, and he elevated Kevin O’Connell, a former quarterback, to offensive coordinator and brought in another former quarterback, Tim Rattay, as quarterbacks coach. Defensive coordinator Greg Manusky and Matt Cavanaugh, now a senior offensive assistant, were retained despite pressure from the outside.
That pressure could grow in the coming weeks, specifically with Manusky. Washington’s defense has struggled in losses to the Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys, and while Gruden said after the Dallas game that it was too soon to hit the “panic button” and that he didn’t plan to make any changes to his coaching staff, he was seen having a heated discussion with Manusky near the end of the game. Animated sideline exchanges are common in the NFL, but they take on a different level of significance when it involves a coach on the hot seat.
Fox commentator Charles Davis joked with Gruden in preparation for the Cowboys game, asking him how the team’s Monday meetings were after the loss to the Eagles.
“I’m not always the nice guy, you know,” Davis described Gruden as saying.
“What the players are seeing, yeah, it’s real,” Davis said. “You’re 0-2 within a season, you’ve got to have it. I wouldn’t expect anything less from any coach, no matter what their personality. ... I’d put up with a lot less, too.”
The team has the chance to straighten things out with back-to-back winnable games against the Chicago Bears and the New York Giants, but will that plus Gruden’s more urgent approach be enough?
“When you lose a home game and two division games, you’ve got to have some understanding of a sense of urgency,” Gruden said this week. “I believe [the players] know. ... They’ll be told again. They were told before the Dallas game. They were told before the Philly game. They’re told before every game, really.”