“The team is built, and he has to lead it, like, right now,” Jay Gruden says of quarterback Alex Smith. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
Columnist

Jay Gruden is just getting started: For the first time in five seasons, he gets to coach a quarterback the organization universally trusts, and he has a defense that shouldn’t get pushed around all the time.

Jay Gruden is running out of time: In his four seasons leading the Washington Redskins, he has produced one playoff appearance, no postseason victories and lifted the franchise only to mediocrity. While he is the first coach to reach a fifth year under owner Daniel Snyder, that fact vacillates between indicating stability and inspiring speculation that Gruden’s tenure has reached a critical overtime period.

The Gruden dichotomy focuses the major conflict and curiosity of the 2018 season, and in a broader sense, the future of the franchise’s slow and arduous attempt to build a sustainable winner around the clever, offensive-minded head coach. On the surface, Gruden seems to finally have his best chance to win — not a perfect one, but far better than past seasons. But it also could be his last chance.

Is Gruden on the hot seat? Undoubtedly. Is that fair? If you truly understand Washington’s complicated journey under Gruden — from Robert Griffin III to Kirk Cousins to Alex Smith at quarterback, from Bruce Allen to Scot McCloughan to Doug Williams (with Allen as overlord) in the front office, from Jim Haslett to Joe Barry to Greg Manusky as the defensive coordinator — it’s a borderline miracle and a credit to the coach that the team has progressed even to a level that now disappoints the fan base. But this is sports, pro sports at that. And this vicious profession dictates a 28-35-1 record doesn’t buy security.

Gruden knows the deal. As a member of a football family, he accepts it. His seat isn’t blistering yet, so he can compartmentalize it and label it as urgency right now, which is a feeling he constantly experiences anyway. In June, he made his most telling and agenda-setting comment about this season’s importance when I asked him to give a realistic timeline for when Smith will master his offense. Gruden chose to minimize the time and patience required for Smith to be completely comfortable and turned the question into a directive: Must win now.

“He has got to get it down by the first game,” Gruden said.

He added: “We are not in here to build the team around him. The team is built, and he has to lead it, like, right now. This isn’t a two- or three-year process. This is a one-year process, and we have got to win right away.”

They were strong words, no matter how obvious. So, yes, Gruden knows the deal. Then again, such offseason statements are becoming the norm. Compare that quote to what Gruden said in May 2017 about the process of improving the defense after he promoted Manusky to be its new coordinator.

“I don’t think patience is in the dictionary here in D.C.,” Gruden said. “I think we have to be good now. We were 9-7 two years ago, 8-7-1 last year. I think the expectations are high. They’re always going to be high in this area, and we have to perform.”

And what happened last season? The team finished 7-9, and the defense gave up the most rushing yards in the NFL.

Gruden survived, however. Considering that injuries ruined the 2017 season more than anything, the front office made the proper and nuanced evaluation that, despite some low moments, the coach did a solid job of keeping the team together. The record could have been much worse than 7-9. Gruden didn’t just keep the team competitive through all the personnel attrition. It has also become clear that he deftly navigated Cousins’s uncertain future and kept it from being a divisive issue in the locker room.

“Jay held a lot of things together last season,” running back Chris Thompson said. “It’s probably more than people will ever realize, because issues never bubbled to the surface. There was no drama, and he deserves a lot of credit for that.”

Thompson referred mostly to how adaptable Gruden was forced to be, especially on offense, where injuries changed just about every position group. But the team also had to manage the Cousins issue, according to other team leaders and members of the organization. The whispers about Cousins playing too conservative and seeming too focused on his future alluded to a significant locker room problem. It was more about trust than dislike. Some players never trusted Cousins was all-in, and it mirrored the trust issues between Cousins and the front office. But for all the scrutiny of Cousins’s future, Gruden worked through the insecurities of the quarterback and the rest of the team, and on most Sundays you saw resilience, not hostility.

As a communicator, Gruden has been valuable during those dicey situations. He is great at providing levity. He doesn’t take himself too seriously, and he is consistent in relaying a sincere desire to do what’s best for the team at all times. He also might be the greatest pragmatist at Redskins Park. Put all of these traits together, and he is able to manage up and down the organization effectively. It’s hard to turn on Gruden, to lose faith in him, because he has such a clear, simple and egoless approach.

Gruden doesn’t grate on nerves, and he is more problem-solver than complainer. You can last a long time being so pleasant to work with, and that’s how he survives, along with the potential he shows as a young coach who continues to get better. His teams are starting to play with greater consistency. They are playing better when the lights are bright. They are defying the same-ol’-Washington stigma and winning a few more games as underdogs, such as the road victories against the Los Angeles Rams and Seattle Seahawks last season.

Gruden is under contract for two more seasons after this one, thanks to a two-year extension Allen gave him on March 4, 2017, his 50th birthday. But that’s just monetary security. To actually keep his job for the life of the deal, Gruden needs to inspire more than resiliency and potential from his team. The offense must stay healthy, and the defense must get significantly better now that it has two young, Alabama-groomed, first-round draft picks at tackle in Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne. But more than that, the team has to stop laying eggs two or three times a season.

A year ago, it happened during late-season road losses to the Dallas Cowboys and Los Angeles Chargers. In those games, Washington was outscored 68-27. The team was 5-8, and Gruden appeared close to losing his job before back-to-back home victories over Arizona and Denver lowered the temperature. With Gruden’s teams, flashes of greatness have been diminished by periods of utter embarrassment. He needs to show he can keep a squad focused for 16 games.

For now, Gruden seems to have as many fans as he does detractors. He is as inconclusive as his NFL record suggests. The key question with him: Has the team been mediocre for three straight seasons (24-23-1 record) because Gruden is nothing more than a mediocre coach? Or do we not give him enough credit for elevating the franchise above its fall-through-the-floor tendencies with his knack for keeping teams together?

Perhaps this season will provide clarity. But when you look at Gruden’s first four seasons and consider all the ifs and fragile hopes upon which this new year rests, it’s hard to envision 2018 offering reason to make a definitive judgment.

So Gruden stands at the beginning, unless it’s the end. The only certainty is that, somehow, fair or not, the idling must stop soon.