Despite bursts of brilliance the past four years, Jay Gruden has yet to coach his ideal offense. Complication keeps ruining invention. Kirk Cousins, the quarterback Gruden helped mold into a star, didn’t want to be here. Jordan Reed, the tight end Gruden helped unleash, can’t stay healthy. Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson, the eccentric 1,000-yard wide receivers Gruden allowed to be different, left for millions elsewhere.
The coach has tried to create a stable and potent offense with pieces that are fragile or fleeting. Unlucky, too. Don’t forget unlucky. The latest victim of misfortune, 21-year-old rookie running back Derrius Guice, will miss the entire season after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee Thursday night. So Gruden will enter his fifth season — probably his judgment season — without the team’s most exciting offensive addition. It will be another year of recalibrating, masking and, ultimately, hoping for another chance next season to have it his way.
Just when optimism felt okay tiptoeing into this preseason, pessimism overtook the Washington Redskins again.
Gruden won’t complain, though. He never does. He knows to expect setbacks in this sport of attrition. He’s also one of those offensive wizards who thinks he can succeed as long as he has a quarterback willing to listen and a few fast skill players capable of executing his pretty plays exactly as designed.
Remember late last season? Gruden was missing most of his offensive line, his top two running backs, a starting wide receiver and Reed. The offense had no chance. Still, Gruden persisted.
“I don’t think we’re that limited,” he insisted in late November, even though the team was that limited. “I really don’t.”
Later, he added: “Overall, I think we haven’t been that handcuffed. We’ve just got to go out and continue to do what we do and go attack.”
His determination was admirable, and it was refreshing that Gruden rarely even referenced the negatives of the injury plague that burdened Washington’s 2017 season. And for the most part, despite some late-season slippage and inconsistency, the players competed to the end of the year because Gruden never relented. That’s probably why he still has a job now.
But you have to wonder if Gruden will ever exit the survival phase in Washington. He has been able to grind, make do and stay afloat better than any coach that Daniel Snyder has employed. But what about thriving? What about sustaining success? Heck, what about simply having a season in which things go mostly according to plan?
Gruden has been a solid Plan B coach. But he’s about to go five years without truly being able to implement Plan A. Even the decision that jump-started his tenure — benching Robert Griffin III in favor of Cousins in 2015 — was an off-script maneuver.
You can look at the 2016 season as Gruden’s best year of stability. Cousins had established himself as a viable starter. Reed played 12 games and made the Pro Bowl. Garcon and Jackson each surpassed 1,000 yards, and six players caught between 44 and 79 passes. Cousins threw for a ridiculous 4,917 yards.
Washington had one of the league’s most explosive offenses that year, but it struggled in the red zone. And that was also the season in which Matt Jones couldn’t hack it as the starting running back, and Rob Kelley emerged. The cobbled-together run game was too spotty to complement the passing game; for all the yards Washington gained, the offense still left something to be desired. Still, many were looking forward to continuity, but what happened? The team didn’t re-sign Garcon and Jackson. Offensive coordinator Sean McVay took the Los Angeles Rams’ coaching job. The Cousins contract saga drifted into a second franchise-tag year. And by the 2017 season, the offense barely resembled itself.
As the head coach, Gruden deserves some blame for the offense’s lack of continuity. He could have pushed harder to retain some players. He could have avoided the failed Terrelle Pryor Sr. experiment by realizing that the wide receiver could struggle in his structured offensive system. But mostly, Gruden has been hindered by problems out of his control. It’s unfortunate, because he has provided many glimpses that his clever and multifaceted system could be something special.
This season looked to be a promising one for the offense. The new quarterback, Alex Smith, fits Gruden well. Josh Doctson is a year older. Paul Richardson Jr. is the kind of speedy wide receiver the unit needs. Reed and running back Chris Thompson are on the mend from season-ending injuries. The offensive line is getting healthy. The offense doesn’t have a single, Julio Jones-like game changer (Reed would be the closest), but it has several good players who can combine to be dangerous if Smith distributes the football equally. But the resurrection of the run game, led by Guice, was perhaps the key to the offense functioning properly.
Now, Washington has several running backs who can do a little, but they are merely appetizers. Guice was supposed to be the main course. Thompson and others had talked openly about Guice running for 1,200 yards as a rookie. Just last week, Gruden talked like Harry Caray when referring to Guice’s confidence as a young tailback.
“I mean, holy cow,” Gruden said.
Guice was giving the offense its vitality. He was on the verge of becoming a focal point. Now, that plan must be scrapped for a year.
“He’s a guy that is just born with a gift of having great energy on a daily basis,” Gruden said. “He wakes up in the morning with a great bounce in his step, and every day is the same with him. I have not seen a down day from him.”
Friday was a down day for Guice, and for the hopes of an offense that could have been dynamic. Gruden will figure out something to make the offense functional, at least. But now he’s even more dependent on Reed making it through the season and performing at a Pro Bowl level. Now he’s back to working around a subpar run game.
Gruden won’t mope. He will still trust that, with his imagination and his players’ talent, the team can manage. But once again, he won’t have the ideal. At this point, the concept must seem like a priceless luxury.