Sometime around midnight he drove to the team’s practice facility in Ashburn, Va., and began packing his office. Best to stash the last 5½ years of his life into boxes rather than let someone do it for him. Around 3 a.m., he took a nap in his office then rose a little before 5, took a shower and walked to Snyder’s office, where the owner and team president Bruce Allen waited.
The conversation was brief. They fired Gruden quickly. He said “thank you for the opportunity” and drove out of the parking lot, past the giant Redskins flag flapping over the great white practice bubble, down the drive, past the pond with the geese and away from his first NFL head coaching job. The sun had yet to rise, but his time with the Redskins was over.
Not long after, the team named offensive line coach Bill Callahan as Gruden’s interim replacement.
Hours later, Gruden, 52, sighed into the phone.
“I’m not bitter,” he said.
He was given a chance after being hired in 2014, he said, a great chance to coach an NFL team after years in the Arena Football League and three seasons as the Cincinnati Bengals’ offensive coordinator. He was more disappointed. He imagined bigger success than the 35-49-1 mark that will be his record in Washington. He thought about all the injuries, the 20-plus players who finished the previous two seasons on injured reserve, the 10 more on the list this season and the others still on the roster whose seasons have yet to be declared over.
“This is a production-based business, and I didn’t get it done,” he said.
But there was something that gnawed at the now former Redskins coach, something that had been implied an hour before when Allen, at a news conference, said, “Under Bill’s leadership and the programs he’s going to put in and the discipline and execution, we believe we’re giving it the best opportunity to beat the Miami Dolphins and for the rest of the year.”
To Gruden, the suggestion was that he didn’t work hard enough, that somehow his practices and preparation were a lark.
“I want to make sure that everybody knows that I actually did work,” he said.
Most days he was the first coach in the building, he said, preferring to arrive early when he could get things done. He was never one to stay past midnight the way many coaches do, and his easygoing approach and reputation as a players’ coach occasionally invited criticism, but his life these past few years had been football, he said. The fact that he was no longer coaching the Redskins made him sad.
Still, this was football, and a few miles away from Gruden’s house, his former team was preparing for a new coach. Callahan, who had been the Oakland Raiders offensive coordinator when Allen was an executive in Oakland, was asked to meet with Snyder and Allen that night, and they asked Callahan to replace Gruden.
Callahan said he thought for a long time about whether he should take the job. He had been a head coach before, with the Raiders and later at the University of Nebraska. He took the Raiders to the Super Bowl but went 4-12 the next season. At Nebraska he had two losing seasons in four years. He was blamed for the losing at both those places.
Gruden was going to be fired, Callahan ultimately decided, meaning the job was going to have to be filled. When he got to the office in the morning and was asked to take over, “I willingly took the spot,” he said.
The rest of the day was chaotic. There were meetings and discussions about different practice schedules and routines. Callahan talked about wanting to push the power running game more with the Redskins. He handed Gruden’s play-calling responsibility to offensive coordinator Kevin O’Connell. He started a game plan for the Dolphins this week that would not include starting Dwayne Haskins at quarterback, later saying he is not yet ready to start the rookie.
Around 1 p.m., Allen walked into the team’s news conference room, tucked behind the weight room. He wore a white Redskins golf shirt and squinted into the television lights. He looked tired, as if he hadn’t slept, and sometimes stumbled as he tried to answer a barrage of questions from reporters asking him to explain a culture around the team that many critics say is negative and Allen’s creation.
“We’re all involved in this,” he said at one point. “I don’t ever want to hide from our record.”
“You know, I don’t necessarily agree with the premise that it’s never,” he said when asked why the team, which is 59-89-1 in his decade with the team, can’t seem to win.
“You know, the culture is actually damn good,” he declared at one point.
When someone asked why Snyder wasn’t there to make the announcement, Allen said curtly, “Because I am.”
By late afternoon, Gruden was trying to figure out what to do with the rest of his day. His phone had been filled with calls and texts from players wishing him well. He had talked to his now former assistant coaches. He didn’t plan on working again this season. Allen said the firing was for the team’s on-field performance, so Gruden will get the roughly $8 million left on the two-year contract extension he signed in 2017.
He leaves as the longest-tenured coach in Snyder’s 20 years as owner. Snyder decided to keep Gruden in January after the team finished 7-9 for a second straight season, but he told associates he would make a change if Washington lost four games early in the season. He chose not to fire Gruden after a Week 4 road defeat to the New York Giants but decided to make the move after the Patriots loss dropped Washington to 0-5.
But that longevity didn’t seem to console Gruden. He thought again about all of the injured players, such as tight end Jordan Reed (out with a concussion), quarterback Alex Smith (who will probably never play again after breaking his leg last year) and running back Derrius Guice (who missed all of last year with a torn ACL and has been out since the first game of this season with another knee injury).
“I just wish I could have had all of our offensive players,” he said. “We never got to flex our offensive muscle.”