For once, whenever owner Daniel Snyder chooses to fire Gruden — this week, bye week or any goodbye week — he actually will be making a standard NFL decision. The abnormal and disappointing part is the manner in which Washington arrived here. And the concern, if not the outright fear, is what lies on the other side of this inevitable firing.
Why is Gruden still here? You can ask that question in an accusatory tone, or you can ask it with reflective intentions. Let’s ponder for a second.
His longevity, despite a 35-48-1 record, is a testament to his unique ability to hold this wacky franchise together. Since his hiring in January 2014, Gruden has been the glue for Washington. He has helped it aspire to be, and sometimes resemble, a functional outfit. On a rudimentary level, at least. Because of his easygoing personality and knack for moving on quickly from disappointment (losses or wonky front-office decisions), he is a connector and quite good at minimizing a potential crisis. Those skills seem more like superpowers when navigating the toxic culture in Ashburn.
Gruden is still here because the ship hasn’t sunk, despite the many reasons it should have, until now. Think about it. Scot McCloughan, who once seemed like a team-building savior, lasted two years. Brian Lafemina, who once seemed like a business operations savior, didn’t last a full season. Three coordinators have tried and failed to fix the defense. Two quarterbacks believed to be the future, Robert Griffin III and Kirk Cousins, didn’t pan out for vastly different reasons, but there was still hope until a third, Alex Smith, suffered a career-threatening broken leg. Oh, and Bruce Allen has been the team president the whole time.
There is even more to consider, but let’s stop reading the list. Here’s the larger point: Gruden has made it longer than anyone in Snyder’s collection of head coaches because he managed to remain on task and keep dropping hints of progress even as dysfunction continued to swirl. Gruden is also fortunate that Snyder, after years of burdening the franchise with his impulsivity, has been in a patient mood. But the coach inspired that mood with his talent for managing up. Gruden made it work with Allen for as long as any human could. The few times Snyder interfered, Gruden resisted being offended. When Gruden messed up, he admitted his mistakes and evolved as a first-time NFL head coach. Quite often, Gruden made the Redskins feel as though they could do something special. He was good for their ego. That’s why he staved off joining Snyder’s morgue of head coaches.
Gruden also showed glimpses of coaching brilliance, from his handling of quarterbacks to his stabilizing of the locker room during difficult situations. But ultimately, the bad stuff will define his tenure: the inconsistency, embarrassing losses in big games and continual resurfacing of a disturbing level of sloppiness in the Redskins’ preparation and execution.
Gruden will pay for those coaching sins. And so be it. This is the nature of his profession. He has had enough time to produce better, but this looks to be his worst team. There aren’t enough excuses to justify the poor results, even though the catastrophic injury to Smith and holdout of star left tackle Trent Williams are major factors.
For those of us who have dealt with Gruden regularly, we respect that there’s a decency to him that makes him enjoyable to work with daily. There also are a passion and a pragmatism to Gruden that remain admirable even at the end. When his time is up, he won’t whine. He is unlikely to air any grievances. He will cite his record, acknowledge he was lucky to get a sixth season and move on with class.
There’s no great failure in failing to revive this franchise. If Mike Shanahan and Joe Gibbs couldn’t build a sustainable winner under Snyder, I’m not certain who can. Snyder will keep getting in his own way. Allen — whose record as team president is 59-88-1, by the way — has become a mesmerizingly feckless top executive. He continues to destroy the organization’s credibility and operate with a stunning lack of accountability, yet it seems as though he holds more power than ever.
The eradication of Allen’s influence is the most urgent and potentially transformative matter facing Washington. To Snyder, however, Allen is a confidant and a shield. So he stays, and instead of a significant front-office overhaul, Gruden and the coaching staff will take the hit.
They will take it because Allen breathlessly declared the franchise is “close” to realizing its dreams. I’ve mocked that before and will do so again: Just because the Redskins hovered at .500 for Years 2-5 of Gruden, just because they were 6-3 last season before Smith went down, just because they’ve drafted a few good young men, it doesn’t mean that they are on the verge of perennial contention. That lie has been exposed the first month of the 2019 season.
Now, with so much uncertainty in the air, they must make a difficult choice at quarterback: Go back to Case Keenum, who was pulled in Sunday’s loss to the New York Giants. Hand the lost season over to Dwayne Haskins, whose three interceptions in 17 passes against the Giants indicate he needs the slow and methodical development Gruden prefers. Or turn to Colt McCoy, who has a dubious history of injury misfortune.
Whatever they decide, they’ll do it in classic Redskins fashion, with limited input from a coach who has no future and maximum pressure from a front office that has no vision.
No one will be writing a book about Gruden’s tenure. He could only lift the franchise to mediocrity, and at the end, even that work is being undone. Overall, it hasn’t been impressive. Yet he was the only coach in Snyder’s 20 seasons to post back-to-back winning seasons. Gruden and Gibbs are the only Snyder coaches to have two winning seasons during their tenure, period.
There is evidence to suggest Gruden’s tenure represents close to the best that Washington can be with Snyder and Allen living in their aloof bubble. That sounds ludicrous at first, then sobering, then mortifying.
A firing is supposed to be an opportunity to foster new hope. Good luck with that. The Redskins figure to dismiss Gruden soon, but the organizational stench shall remain.
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