It was mid-December, and the head coach of the Washington Redskins stood behind a podium to address the latest humbling-if-not-humiliating loss, and he actually said, with some emphasis: “I just feel like the worst coach in America to have to lose the way we’re losing.”
Careful about that word choice, Coach, because it turns out you’re just a couple of swinging gates away from being the undisputed owner of that title.
We mention this mid-December development from nine years ago because it applies to mid-December right now, because the current head coach of the Redskins is saying, quite plainly: “I’ve regressed. I’ve not gotten this team ready to play. So it’s on me.”
Now, Jay Gruden, who said Sunday that he had gone backward, isn’t Jim Zorn, who uttered those worst-coach-in-America words in 2008. And really, the situations can’t be the same, because when Zorn said what he said after a humiliating loss to the one-win Cincinnati Bengals, Chris Cooley was a Washington tight end and not a Washington radio analyst, Kirk Cousins was a backup quarterback for Michigan State and not the most interesting potential free agent in the NFL, and Gruden was finishing his final season as an offensive assistant with Tampa Bay and not the head coach for a once-proud NFL pillar.
The deck chairs have been rearranged. That low-slung strip mall of a headquarters in Ashburn is still the same building, but just about every office — save one — has had at least one new occupant since then, some several.
Still, bringing up the Zorn era — 2008 to 2009, and man, those were heady times, R.I.P. — still kind of represents, at least viscerally, the low point in modern Washington football history. When people start to talk about how insane it was that Mike Shanahan threw Robert Griffin III back out there in the Seattle playoff game, or that the team borderline-slandered the outgoing GM because of substance abuse, just counter with, “They once hired a bingo caller to be the offensive coordinator with a week’s preparation,” and that usually ends the argument as to which seasons brought the most chaos.
So we mention Zorn here not as a direct comparison but to get your attention. Because even if Washington couldn’t get your attention during its dismal 30-13 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday — be honest, who didn’t switch over to Eagles-Rams at some point in the second half? — Gruden’s words are worthy of your time.
To start, immediately after the game, facing reporters in Carson, Calif.
“We have not been competitive, and we weren’t ready to play . . . today,” Gruden said. “And that’s on me and the staff. We have to do a better job of getting these guys ready to play.”
Now, let’s not dismiss the admirable elements here. This is a coach playing with an offense that has lost its starting center, one guard, its playmaking running back, its best-in-the-league-when-healthy tight end and one key free agent wide receiver. He could put his team’s struggles — a cumulative score of 68-27 over the past two weeks, including the loss to the Chargers for which he had 10 days to prepare — on the injuries, and there would be truth in that. He does not hang his players on a clothes line and say, “See, look what he did wrong.” He stands there and takes his lumps. Bravo.
But we’re at a worrisome point now because Gruden pointing his index finger directly at himself isn’t a new development. It’s beyond a trend, even. It’s something of a character trait. Take a listen.
“They just outcoached and outplayed us.”
“We were flat outcoached, there’s no question about that. We weren’t as ready as I would have liked to have been. We didn’t execute like I would like to have seen. That falls on my shoulders.”
“I feel like we underachieved today, and that’s very frustrating.”
And, when asked whether his team was ready to compete: “I’d like to think so, but obviously the results say otherwise, so what can you say?”
What can you say? Well, one reasonable response could be: Get better. Fix it. Have you not grown, yourself, as a coach?
Each one of these quotes is from last season. In your match-the-words-to-the-game contest, they came, in order, after the season-opening loss to Pittsburgh; a crucial loss to Carolina in December; a loss to Arizona that was part of a 2-4 finish; and, finally, the season-ending 19-10 loss to the New York Giants, when a victory would have put Washington in the playoffs.
There is accountability, and the coach should be commended for being forthright. But when thinking about Gruden’s current situation — with three games to play in what will be the eighth season in the past 10 without a playoff berth — it’s instructive to think back on the chaotic seasons under Zorn.
Let’s be clear: Vinny Cerrato isn’t the general manager, and the current GM doesn’t have a radio show on which he can express his vision. (Man, those were the days.)
But that day Zorn walked in front of the cameras at Redskins Park and outlined a process in which he would turn the spotlight on himself, he did so because owner Daniel Snyder wanted him to. He needed Zorn to fall on the sword because any other assessment would have meant a more thorough examination of the roster Cerrato and Snyder had assembled — not to mention further wondering why they had hired this guy as head coach in the first place.
We can tell ourselves that the structure in Ashburn is more stable now, more normal, and that might be the case. Maybe Scot McCloughan’s ouster was really about his personal problems, and maybe Doug Williams is the perfect person to guide the personnel department in evaluation and acquisition. And, given Gruden’s penchant for blaming himself — and, therefore admirably taking blame off his players — this doesn’t feel like an ownership-ordered edict for public humiliation. It feels like a coach taking the heat, of which there’s plenty.
But what we have here is the same tired franchise, all these seasons later with more questions than hope.
“To me, it’s all about me,” Zorn said all those years ago.
The truth is, it wasn’t all about Zorn back then, and it’s not all about Gruden now. But those words, the phrases in which the coach blames himself time and again, they can’t go unnoticed. They might not represent the whole truth of why this season will end with three meaningless games, and they might not indicate that the franchise is in the complete disarray it once was. But they can’t be dismissed either. The head coach is not only responsible for assigning blame to himself when it’s due, but he’s responsible for fixing it, too, and that hasn’t happened.
For more by Barry Svrluga, visit washingtonpost.com/svrluga.