Nine months ago, when the Washington Redskins were in self-destruction mode (again), they did what any clueless franchise would do. They panicked, cozied up to the most stable person available and made a questionable commitment to send a message that no one believed.
On March 4, Coach Jay Gruden received a most lucrative 50th birthday present: an agreement on a premature two-year contract extension from team president Bruce Allen. Gruden still had two years remaining on his original five-year deal, but it didn’t matter. Allen was desperate. Washington was being mocked for the NFL Scouting Combine no-show of Scot McCloughan, its soon-to-be-fired general manager. Free agency was about to start. The team needed a symbol of stability, and there was Gruden, the ultimate good soldier, a well-liked team representative who had done solid work coaching around the organization’s dysfunction.
Even though Allen’s motivations were laughably obvious, the franchise was able to get through the offseason by rewarding Gruden and elevating his importance. It was an expensive Band-Aid, but for a poor strategic thinker, indulging in a temporary high is easy.
Nine months later, as the 2017 season drifts toward an upsetting conclusion, as an entire four-year rebuilding process drifts toward worthlessness, Gruden hasn’t been able to motivate his players for two straight miserable weeks. It’s December, and the conversation is about a lack of focus, preparation and effort. Washington has a 5-8 record and will end the year playing three games without any hope of making the playoffs, a predicament it hasn’t faced since Gruden’s first season in 2014.
Nearing the end of his fourth season, Gruden has a 26-34-1 record. He has one postseason appearance and zero playoff wins. Beneath the surface, there are many reasons to support Gruden being the first coach in Daniel Snyder’s 18 years as owner to receive a fifth season: posting back-to-back winning seasons a year ago for the first time in 19 years, developing Kirk Cousins to provide life after Robert Griffin III’s flameout and the reality that, more than anything, injuries have hindered this season.
Still, Gruden should be on the hot seat right now because he is responsible for the team’s inconsistent focus and effort, the sloppy performance of late and the frequent egg-laying throughout his tenure. It’s just standard in professional sports to put Gruden through a complete evaluation at this point. The last three games mean more to him than anyone on this team. He knows to expect it, just as his players know they will be critiqued similarly.
“We’re all getting judged at the end of the day,” left tackle Trent Williams said, shunning the suggestion that the final three games are meaningless. “Everybody’s job is going to be. They’re going to take a closer look at everybody and what everybody puts on film towards the end of the year. So it’s no reason to think that mediocre play is okay. Obviously, when they go into the offseason and make decisions, this part of the year has a lot to do with it.”
Williams speaks like a player who has been here for eight seasons. Washington may have committed to a methodical rebuilding process several years ago, but this is still a year-to-year franchise. This time, with about 40 percent of the team on expiring contracts, Cousins’s future in doubt and no clear evidence of progress, another teardown has to be on the table.
But in the case of Gruden, how can the franchise justify the expense of recommitting to him nine months ago and then firing him with three years and at least $15 million left on his contract?
Allen thought he saved face and buried the “What’s going on with McCloughan?” story by giving Gruden that extension. Smart business would have been to wait until about now before adding years to Gruden’s deal. He could have been patient, learned more about the coach and still been ahead of the curve if Gruden had proved himself further this season. He could have kept options open and avoided making money such a huge part of this decision now.
I’m not sure what the right decision on Gruden is. My sense is that he will get another season because, until recently, he did an underrated job of guiding this team through its injury trauma. But in the NFL, you’re always left to make grand judgments on small sample sizes. The past two weeks, in which Washington has been outscored 68-27, represent just two games. But two games represent 12.5 percent of the season. And the three remaining games — against foes with a combined record of 12-27 — account for nearly 20 percent of the schedule. There isn’t a lot left to accomplish, but there’s plenty to lose.
Gruden can’t have any more games in which he says what he did Sunday: “It’s hard to say if anybody played good or bad or indifferent. I think, as a team, as a coaching staff, we didn’t do anything good enough. Nobody, in any way, shape or form.”
For most of his four years, Gruden has been the franchise’s sanity. He is refreshingly accountable. He is a professional who always tries to make the organization look good, even when its incompetence is apparent. He can manage up and keep together a front office notorious for creating factions. That’s why Allen was so quick to reward Gruden during a difficult time. From a standpoint of off-field credibility, Washington looks better with Gruden serving as a face of the franchise.
But the future involves a complicated question. Which is harder to tolerate: The franchise slogging through some of Gruden’s on-the-job training as a first-time NFL head coach? Or the danger of venturing into the unknown again?
The franchise is less chaotic with Gruden as its coach, and Allen used that to quell controversy in March. But it’s December now, and Gruden just admitted that he has “regressed.” It’s possible that Washington always will be a little disheveled with Gruden in charge. It’s possible that Washington always will be inept on defense while Gruden is busy designing clever offensive plays.
Allen didn’t have clear answers about Gruden nine months ago, but he did what felt right in the moment. That’s a greater offense than anything Gruden has done wrong. Put it with Allen leading the Cousins contract debacle and his shoddy handling of McCloughan’s dismissal, and the team president is on another losing streak. Allen, owner of a .404 winning percentage since his first full season with Washington, should have the hottest seat in the organization.
There’s a chance this month could result in a bloodbath. But this is when Gruden has been a savior during his tenure. Can he be a stabilizing influence again? Is that better than a return to the unknown?
For three bad football games, there’s so much drama.
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.