Jay Gruden has a new pet comment that no one will refute: “We have to coach better.”
At 0-1, the Washington Redskins head coach said it several times last week. At 0-2, he volunteered it on four occasions during his Monday postmortem. It’s like he enjoys self-criticism as much as hopeless end zone fade routes.
At least Gruden hasn’t gotten to the Bill Walton level of loathing. Walton, the Hall of Fame center, once declared after a season-opening loss that he was “a disgrace to the game of basketball.” The team he played for then, the 1985-86 Boston Celtics, went on to become one of the greatest in NBA history. Walton had exhibited a comedic mastery of preemptive judgment. When you’re that hard on yourself, it dulls all other knives.
Of course, if Gruden and his coaching staff don’t help Washington avoid an 0-3 start, they won’t be able to control the abuse simply by pointing fingers at themselves. If they understand why they’ve been doing a shoddy job coaching this team, then they need to effect immediate change.
And if they don’t understand, well, that’s why I’m here. You didn’t think a few remorseful Gruden comments would turn this column into a butter knife, did you?
Here’s the problem at its most basic: The coaches got ahead of themselves. They believed the hype more than anyone else. They thought this team was more advanced than it really is, and now that Washington has been exposed as weaker than advertised, their task is to return the players to the roots of last season’s success.
A year ago, this team played simple football with great passion. The coaches emphasized being physical, the most fundamental trait needed to compete. They went to great lengths putting together game plans that made Kirk Cousins look his best, not dumping too much on the quarterback and making sure to highlight his strengths. And they did their best work teaching, focusing on development, helping a constant stream of new players contribute on a fluid roster and leveraging the limited amount of elite talent they had to create a winning situation.
There’s this notion now that Washington has considerably more talent than it did in 2015. But while the 53-man roster is better, it’s not like this team rose to becoming one of the five most gifted teams in the NFL. Last year, Washington was probably near the top of the bottom third of the NFL in talent. For the sake of argument, consider that squad 21st of 32 teams in overall ability. This season, it has climbed to about average, maybe 16th in ability.
Think about it. What’s really different about this team that comes through in a major way on Sundays? Josh Norman is an elite cornerback addition. Josh Doctson, though still recovering from an Achilles’ injury, has added to a top-notch receiving corps. Rookie linebacker/safety Su’a Cravens looks good in a limited role. And the improvement in those areas is tempered by regression on the defensive line and at running back. Consider also that a majority of the best talent is at wide receiver and tight end, which means those players are primarily influencing one area, the passing game, and there is a lot of overlap that restricts what each individual can contribute. Washington has better depth, but in terms of impact players, the main difference is Norman.
It’s not the fault of General Manager Scot McCloughan, and it’s not reason to divert from the overall plan to reconstruct this roster. This is just the inevitable hardship of building in a responsible, incremental manner. There’s only so much you can do from year to year. There’s only so much you should do.
Gruden and his coaches have long understood that this team isn’t where it needs to be. But they hoped they would be starting at a much higher point this season. The players aren’t ready for that, though. So the coaches have to adjust. They have to fall back to the basics. They also must be as clever as they were in 2015 using their personnel.
Interestingly, the same virus presents dissimilar challenges for the offense and defense. Offensive coordinator Sean McVay needs to ease Cousins’s burden, and balance out an offense that has thrown a ludicrous three-fourths of the time, by doing less. On the other hand, defensive coordinator Joe Barry needs to do more, to highlight the few playmakers he has, to minimize holes that he doesn’t have the talent to fix and to make the unit less predictable.
The offensive numbers are mind boggling. In my column off Sunday’s 27-23 loss to Dallas, I told you that Washington has thrown the ball on 89 of 118 plays, which is 75.4 percent of the time. Looking deeper, I was actually being nice. Three of Washington’s 29 rushes this season were scrambles by Cousins, designed pass plays in which the quarterback improvised. Cousins also has been sacked twice. So let’s talk about the pass/run imbalance this way: In 120 plays from scrimmage, Cousins has intended to throw a pass 94 times. That takes the number up to 78.3 percent.
Through two weeks of the 2016 season, the average pass percentage for an NFL team is 59.03. Washington leads the NFL in passing attempts and percentage. New Orleans (71.07 percent) and Jacksonville (70.63) are the only other teams to pass on at least 70 percent of their plays.
Washington has run the ball on consecutive plays on just two occasions in the first two games. And one of those sequences gets thrown out because a Cousins scramble was sandwiched between two runs. So, really, there’s one time in which Washington purposely ran the ball on back-to-back plays. It happened on the first drive of the Dallas game.
In 10 visits to the red zone, the offense has scored just three touchdowns. Washington has run 22 plays inside the 20-yard line. Seventeen of them were passes; five were rushes. Two of those five runs resulted in touchdowns. Meanwhile, Cousins is 5 of 17 for 34 yards with one touchdown pass and two interceptions in the red zone.
“No, we’re not happy with the run-pass balance,” Gruden said. “I think based on the numbers, we’re obviously not a run-first team. I’d be standing up here looking like a fool if I said we’re a pound-the-rock type team right now. We’ve only run the ball a handful of times compared to the amount of times that we’ve thrown it.
“Now, a lot of our quick passes and a lot of our bootlegs are an extension of the running game, which are good, but we have not given the running game really an ample opportunity to flourish. That’s something we have to look at.”
It would be stupid to ask this squad to run too much. The talent is in the passing game. There are too many questions at running back and on the offensive line. The expectation isn’t perfect balance. But how about a 60/40 split? In 2015, the offense dropped back to pass 57.6 percent of the time, and that was enough balance, enough commitment to the run, to assist Cousins during his record-setting season. McVay can’t go from sanity to the NFL equivalent of Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense.
Gruden has to demand that the game slow down. It will help his defense. It will challenge his team to be stout on the offensive and defensive lines. Barry’s defense can’t be on the field for 33 minutes every game. Washington is already allowing opponents to convert 57.7 percent of third downs, worst in the NFL. Barry is already saying silly things about the difficulty of switching corners so that Norman can stalk No. 1 receivers. Gruden has to simplify the game for Cousins and give his defense a better chance to stay fresh.
It’s admirable that Gruden is honest, but repeating the need to coach better is merely a platitude until change occurs. The coaches see it clearly now: Their team is not as good as hoped. So what are they going to do about it?
A season careening toward disappointment is desperate for their answer.
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.