At the end of practice Thursday, Coach Jay Gruden gathered his players at midfield, as he customarily does to give closing thoughts, and told them he’d been looking that morning at the 2014 Washington Redskins team photo.
What jumped out, as he scanned the 60-odd faces and jersey numbers (including practice-squad guys), was that half were out of the NFL. They weren’t simply off the Redskins’ roster two seasons later, Gruden noted; they were out of the league.
“So enjoy your time together,” Gruden told his players. “And make sure you take advantage of the opportunity. Don’t squander it.”
It was a small glimpse into Gruden’s approach as a third-year NFL coach.
Rather than resorting to threats or red-faced rages, Gruden, 49, motivates in subtler ways. He expects players to be professionals, responsible for themselves and accountable to one another.
Off to a 1-2 start that threatens to wipe out the success of last season’s NFC East championship, the stakes for the Redskins are obvious heading into Sunday’s game against Cleveland (0-3). So is the harsh subtext of Gruden’s post-practice anecdote: If you don’t get the job done, the Redskins will find someone who will.
“That’s one thing I preach every day,” Gruden said during an interview this past week. “There’s somebody that wants your job, whether he’s in this room or not in this room. If you’re not performing, if you’re not getting better and helping this team win, we’re going to look for somebody else.”
That message applies to Gruden as well, who is 14-21 with one NFL playoff appearance nearing the midpoint of the five-year, guaranteed contract.
NFL coaches must be many things to be effective: strategist, disciplinarian, motivator, authority figure, psychologist, among them. Above all, convention holds, they must be feared by players. Picture the veins popping out of Bill Cowher’s neck. Recall the rasp of Bill Parcells’s voice amid a tirade. The great Vince Lombardi never stopped railing.
Gruden isn’t convinced that’s the only route.
Though old school in many ways — son of a former college and NFL assistant coach and scout, schooled under veteran coach Howard Schnellenberger and younger brother of Super Bowl champion coach-turned ESPN “Monday Night Football” analyst Jon Gruden — Jay Gruden has developed his own voice as an NFL coach. And it’s often punctuated by laughter, leavened with self-deprecation and spiced by wisecracks that amuse no one quite so much as himself.
At times, he has been faulted for not “looking the part” or not approaching the job with sufficient gravitas.
Gruden wears a whistle around his neck at practice, as head coaches do, but blends in so easily among his assistants he can be difficult to spot. There’s no swagger, no preening, no pomposity that sets him apart.
At times, he taps into his quarterback roots and throws to receivers. Or he will masquerade as a defensive back, albeit one with very little explosion, and launch himself into receivers’ routes.
“That’s him probably thinking he could have played DB,” said wide receiver DeSean Jackson. “It’s good to have kind of a young coach like that, who can relate to his players.”
Asked last season about media criticism, Gruden said he had no issue with it, adding, “I really dislike the guy who called me a fat ass. I don’t mind you critiquing my coaching style, but to make fun of my weight, that’s unfair. I’m only 225. Jesus.”
Yet he has earned the respect of his players for attributes that, in many respects, depart from the classic NFL head coach — by listening to veterans’ concerns, giving blunt feedback (though his pointed public criticism of Robert Griffin III crossed a line, in the view of many), treating practice-squad players with the same dignity he accords Pro Bowl starters and, most unusually, calling himself out for coaching blunders before enumerating ways in which players need to be better.
This season alone, Gruden has punted on fourth and one, gone for it on fourth and six, and regretted both failed calls.
“It’s important to let everybody know that I am accountable, and I expect them to be accountable,” Gruden said. “There are plays I wish I had back as a play caller; there are decisions I wish I had back. I make sure they understand that I’m not perfect, nor will I ever be. I expect them to make up for my issues.”
Then he chuckles.
“Ultimately, a coach has to be themselves,” he said. “I can’t pretend to be Bill Parcells. I can’t pretend to do Howard Schnellenberger or Jon Gruden. I’ve got to be myself. Nor do I want to be them. I just thought it was very important if I got a chance of being a head coach for the National Football League for one of the best franchises in the league, I’ve got to do it my way. I just try to get the best out of the players, the best out of the staff I work with.”
Gruden’s peculiar duality, as a coach who sees the game with a player’s eyes, is rooted in the years that he served as both quarterback and coach of the Arena Football League’s Orlando Predators. In the twin roles, he scouted players, designed plays, ran the offense, supervised the defense, made midgame adjustments and issued corrections afterward.
Former Predators defensive back Kenny McEntyre, whose interception skills earned him the nickname “The Glove,” said the Predators respected Gruden because he studied the game, was intensely competitive and knew what he was talking about.
“We were lucky because he’s smart as hell,” McEntyre said in a telephone interview. According to McEntyre, Gruden didn’t need yelling or cussing to get his point across. He could correct teammates with a glare that said, “What in the hell are you doing?”
And though they were best friends for years, Gruden traded McEntyre to Kansas City when his production dropped. “When he gets fed up with you as a player, he’ll let you know,” McEntyre said.
Former safety John Lynch, a nine-time Pro Bowl honoree, played for a succession of exceptional coaches — Dennis Green and Bill Walsh at Stanford; Sam Wyche, Tony Dungy, Jon Gruden and Mike Shanahan in the NFL — and is convinced that a wide range of styles can get the job done.
Dungy and Jon Gruden were “polar opposites,” Lynch said, in terms of “vocabulary that my mom wouldn’t appreciate very much,” alluding to Gruden’s amped-up profanity. But both were highly respected and loved by their players, he said.
“That’s ultimately what it comes down to: Does the player believe that this guys has the goods to help them either become a better player, win championships or whatever their goals are?” said Lynch, now an NFL color commentator for Fox. “It comes down to passion, smarts, respect and belief that they can helped them achieve their goal.”
Instilling fear wasn’t part of Dungy’s repertoire, Lynch said. It wasn’t needed. Players respected him so much, they didn’t want to let him down.
“It was like coming home to your parents with a bad grade,” Lynch said. “You felt worse if they were disappointed than mad. When [Dungy] would come in and shake his head and say, ‘I’m disappointed,’ that would really sting you.”
Former NFL coach Steve Mariucci thought a lot about authenticity in preparing his first address to the San Francisco 49ers after succeeding George Seifert in 1997. It was a daunting task, following Seifert, who’d followed Walsh — coaches who’d won five Super Bowl championships between them.
So Mariucci, now an NFL Network analyst, began this way, looking out at future Hall of Famers Steve Young and Jerry Rice: “I expect everybody in this room — coaches and players — to be themselves. By that I mean, I am not Bill Walsh and don’t intend to be. I’m not George Seifert. I have to do things my own way. Much of what I’m going to do on offense will be familiar to you, but you have to allow me to be myself and add my twist. Allow me 15 percent with my own way.”
What Mariucci was acknowledging was that NFL players have listened to coaches since childhood and can easily spot phonies and poseurs.
“Vince Lombardi quotes are good and motivational when you put them on a wall,” Mariucci explains. “But I really think players are very good at determining if you’re real or not.”
In Gruden, what Redskins left tackle Trent Williams sees is a players’ coach, which is also how he characterizes Shanahan, Gruden’s predecessor.
“They take their time to listen to their players,” said Williams, a four-time Pro Bowl honoree and co-captain of the offense. “If a whole locker room is feeling a certain way, it’s smart to try to cater to what they’re feeling.”
That might mean tweaking the script in practice or canceling a second practice on a sweltering August day at training camp.
Williams also sees an NFL coach who doesn’t ignore the player at the bottom of the depth chart, as head coaches often do.
“There’s no one player on the team that he doesn’t relate to or go out of his way to speak to and build a relationship with,” Williams said. “We’re all grown men in here, but you appreciate a coach who’d get to know a guy who might only be here two or three weeks, to take the time to tell him how well he’s doing in practice or what he should be doing better or should be doing more.”
Gruden explains: “If you go in with the approach that you’re only going to be here one year, then it’s, ‘Forget those guys! Let’s coach the guys that are playing!’ My approach is that I want to be here for a long time. And if you’re going to be here for a long time, you have to develop young players, and you have to treat everybody equally.”
That doesn’t mean treating everyone the same, however.
That difference — knowing what buttons to push to motivate particular players — has earned Gruden criticism from some who accuse him of a double standard in defending the sketchy play of quarterback Kirk Cousins this season and publicly enumerating Griffin’s failings in 2014.
Gruden is loath to revisit the news conference in which he called out Griffin after the quarterback faulted teammates for a loss to Tampa Bay. He knows he overstepped and has not done so since. But it’s also true that Griffin and Cousins have totally different personalities and, like all players, respond to criticism in their own way.
Three years into the job, Gruden has learned that his penchant for explaining can only lead to trouble. “That’s probably a fault of mine,” he said. “I think I probably need to taper back on honesty.”