With his team stuck in a winless morass and his job in jeopardy, Washington Redskins Coach Jay Gruden went to space.
Gruden laughed, but he wasn’t really laughing.
His Redskins allowed at least 31 points each week as they lost their first three games. Two people with knowledge of the situation said Gruden could be fired if Washington doesn’t beat the New York Giants on Sunday. Earlier this week, the betting site Bovada.com updated its odds on the NFL coach likeliest to be fired first this year, making Gruden its top choice.
Many national commentators are calling for Gruden to give up on the season and start rookie quarterback Dwayne Haskins and have plenty of ammunition for their arguments. Trent Williams, the team’s seven-time Pro Bowl left tackle, is holding out. Jordan Reed, the top playmaking tight end, has a concussion that he suffered in the third preseason game, and no one knows when he might return. Injured running back Derrius Guice isn’t expected to return for at least another six games, and rookie wide receiver Terry McLaurin, the team’s best offensive threat, has a sore hamstring. The defense that was supposed to be the Redskins’ strength is last or close to last in the NFL in most significant categories.
Maybe it seems misguided, but in this dire predicament there burns a strange optimism at the Redskins’ facility. Most around the team are stunned by their slow start. Yes, they knew they were playing three of the league’s better teams the first three weeks of the season, yet they see hope in the way they led the Eagles 20-7 in their opening game and fought back in the second half against Chicago. Several Redskins have used the word “excited” to describe their feelings.
Even Gruden, who has been uncharacteristically uptight in recent weeks, seemed more at ease this past week, chuckling at news conferences and cracking jokes.
“It’s the first quarter of the season, man,” cornerback Josh Norman said. “I mean, shoot, if they said you win trophies in September, we’d be in trouble. But trophies are not won at this time. Trophies are won in December-January.”
And while Norman, who has played in the Super Bowl, might have temporarily forgotten that biggest trophy is actually presented on the first Sunday in February, his point resonated around the locker room, where most players seem to view the season’s dreadful start the same way.
When Norman was reminded about how much he believed before the season in a defense that is now allowing an average of 402 yards per game, he glared at his questioner.
“Yeah. So what, you think that’s changed?” he replied.
Mostly, the Redskins say they are a just couple of plays away from saving the season.
“We’ve just got to make sure that we just continue to focus on what we’re supposed to do out on the practice field, in the meetings, and we’ll be good,” embattled defensive coordinator Greg Manusky said.
Former Pro Bowl linebacker Chris Spielman, who will broadcast Sunday’s Redskins-Giants game for Fox, has a theory about football teams. It’s one he says is not talked about enough publicly and yet something players and coaches know well. Confidence matters in the locker room. If a few things go wrong, such as a few key players getting hurt or opposing teams breaking some big plays, the feeling of frustration will spill down through the team.
That feeling of frustration sticks until a break comes along, maybe a sack or an interception or an opponent’s penalty, and suddenly the losing will stop.
“They need to have a couple of things happen for them,” Spielman said in a phone interview.
Then he stopped.
“But you can’t have the breakdowns,” he said.
Like many in the Redskins’ locker room and around the league, Spielman sees nothing structurally wrong with Washington’s defense. He believes there is talent. The thing that jumps out at him when he watches the video are so many little things — miscommunication between a safety and a cornerback that leads to a big touchdown pass, an offside penalty that negates a big defensive play, a 15-yard pass play against a zone defense that should have allowed only five or six yards.
All little things. All fixable things.
All offseason, Gruden had an idea for how this season was going to go down.
“The identity I thought we were going to have was the recipe that we had last year at the beginning of the year,” he said. “We ran the ball and controlled the clock and won close games, 20-17.”
It was a formula that worked particularly well because the quarterback, Alex Smith, was adept at leading the offense to early touchdowns or field goals and moving the ball enough to let the defense win a field position battle. Running back Adrian Peterson would run out the game in the second half.
Then Smith went down with a broken leg that is almost certainly career-ending and Williams started his holdout in the spring, leaving the Redskins with a new quarterback and a hastily rebuilt left side of the offensive line. The defense hasn’t been nearly as resilient, and Gruden’s plan has crumbled in each of the season’s first three weeks.
“Moving forward, we’ve got to get back to that way of playing football,” he said.
But is that possible? This is a team that has allowed 32, 31 and 31 points in the first three weeks. It has yet to establish a running game. Case Keenum, the team’s fifth quarterback in its past nine games, is sixth in the league with 933 passing yards, but he had five turnovers against the Bears on Monday night and could have had more.
“Oh, yeah, it can work … if the defense is playing good,” Gruden said.
He started to walk through the Chicago game in his mind. The defense stopped the Bears on their first drive but then Keenum threw a pass that former Redskins defensive back Ha Ha Clinton-Dix intercepted and ran back for a touchdown. The Redskins were down, 7-0, and then came a fumble and a missed field goal and more Chicago touchdowns, and suddenly it was 28-0.
“And everybody’s in a tailspin frenzy,” Gruden said.
What encourages Gruden is the way the team didn’t give up in the second half against Chicago. He likes the way his defensive players seemed to play harder at just a time when they should feel like quitting. He likes that the offense scrapped its way back into the game against one of the league’s best defenses.
Gruden points out that the Redskins were on the Chicago 16 with seven minutes left in the game and had a chance to cut the lead to six points when Keenum tried to dive over the top of the offensive line on a quarterback sneak on fourth and one, only to have the ball knocked from his hands. Gruden shakes his head at the memory. He has no idea why Keenum tried to jump on a play on which the quarterback was supposed to push forward and hopefully fall ahead one yard. But he can’t hate the play, either. It showed Keenum was trying to fight, no matter how poorly things turned out.
“I think we’ve done a pretty good job of getting people in this building who can handle adversity,” he said. “That’s a part of why you draft who you draft and who you go after in free agency because when you have a quarterback shuffle you aren’t going to be 16-0 every year and you’re going to have some adversity throughout the course of the season.
“And we knew and I knew that was going to happen and want the right types of guys in this locker room who can help carry you through this.”
Then Gruden stood up. He shrugged.
“I still feel there is so much football to be played,” he said. “I’ve seen teams start out 3-0 and finish 5-11.”
He is sure the big turnaround is around the corner.