Jay Gruden now is the dependable one. In a Washington Redskins franchise with a default setting of disorder and upheaval, the coach has survived three seasons and made good progress, using his relaxed demeanor, creative offensive mind and high tolerance for nutty management to prosper in the NFL’s most capricious environment.
For his solid work, Gruden celebrated his 50th birthday Saturday night by receiving a two-year contract extension, a first in Daniel Snyder’s coach-eating ownership tenure. If Gruden has had a more lucrative birthday, then we all should wish to be adopted by his family. It was a reward he earned, for certain, even though he’s not as appreciated publicly as he should be for inheriting a mess and producing a competitive team that has posted back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in two decades. It also was a positive public-relations maneuver at the end of a terrible week of controversy and confusion surrounding the future of General Manager Scot McCloughan.
Stability, at last.
But how long will it last?
In Washington’s bizarre state, even the right thing comes with an asterisk. The extension isn’t just about merit. It’s about security, too. It’s about giving Gruden extra money and perhaps time to help the organization endure what might go down with McCloughan and quarterback Kirk Cousins.
The appearance of stability might help Washington get through free agency and make a more persuasive argument for Cousins to agree to a long-term deal. But there are clouds still hovering if you care to look up, and it makes sense to recommit to Gruden before bracing for what’s next.
It would be occupational torture to make Gruden endure lame-duck innuendo after an offseason of dramatic change. Gruden already has lost his offensive coordinator, Sean McVay, who is the new Los Angeles Rams head coach. He fired defensive coordinator Joe Barry and replaced him with Greg Manusky. Now his general manager has an uncertain status after missing the NFL Scouting Combine. And the offense that Gruden spent three years developing into the league’s third-ranked unit could lose its top two wide receivers, Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson, in free agency as well as Cousins, the prolific quarterback who could still be traded despite Washington placing the franchise tag on him.
It seems unlikely that all of these things will happen, but Washington specializes in negative surprises. And there’s a high probability that most of them will happen, which means that Gruden will have to guide his team through heavy transition, if not a deserted island.
You want Gruden on board and motivated for such an assignment? It’s only fair to give him the financial security of an extension. Now he doesn’t enter Year 4 of his current five-year deal feeling like a dead coach walking. In reality, there’s not as much job security as it seems. Snyder would have no problem firing a coach with three years left on a contract, and Washington has a history of making faux commitments as a smokescreen or for the sake of good publicity and then going in another direction. But at least Gruden isn’t venturing into this unknown without compensation.
Beyond security, the deal figures to add responsibility. Gruden’s job title hasn’t changed, but with McCloughan at odds with President Bruce Allen, the coach is the person whose vision should be followed as Washington tries to determine how to improve from just above average to consistently good. It’s still possible, even with the turmoil.
It’s possible because the trio of Gruden, McCloughan and Allen — despite the current drama — already have the franchise on the verge of sustainable success. McCloughan has been a part of forming the offseason plan, and whether he is allowed to execute it, Washington figures to follow it. The remainder of the front office that spent months contributing to the plan remains in place. As free agency begins this week, the team’s needs are clear: maintain or replenish the receiving corps and get as many quality defensive players as the budget will allow. Then trust McCloughan’s draft insights.
And, finally, the hardest part will be to sign Cousins. It would be much easier if Allen and Snyder just made a strong and reasonable offer and stopped trying to invent a no-risk solution. Cousins’s contract situation is only a conundrum because they want to guarantee that they make the right move. They know better. Nothing is guaranteed in sports. But the sensible move, no matter how pricey for a quarterback who may never be hailed as elite, remains to invest in quality continuity. Cousins has done his job, and he keeps improving. He’s better in Gruden’s system than he is in a vacuum, but guess what? You just committed to that system for two additional years.
So much of the NFL is about putting good players in the right system. It’s foolish to value one more than the other. No system thrives without good players. Few good players thrive if their coach can’t accentuate their strengths. It’s the marriage of Gruden and Cousins that Washington should find confidence in, not the mind-numbing back and forth about whether $20 million or $22 million or $24 million a year represents decent value.
However, it would be typical for Washington to go middle of the road, extend Gruden and give him incentive to find and develop another quarterback. That’s not a way to get ahead, though. That’s merely doing something. And Washington has done quiet a few illogical somethings under Snyder.
Whatever happens, Gruden will be the one in charge of making the decisions look better. He’s good at that. He’s the boyfriend who has managed to create a good relationship with a partner whom everyone told him not to date. Too crazy, people said. But Gruden fosters sanity in a special way. He doesn’t take himself too seriously. He’s loyal, but he’s not deferential; remember how he stood up and convinced Allen and Snyder that the Robert Griffin III reclamation project needed to end in favor of Cousins. And when he doesn’t get what he wants, Gruden has the creativity to work around the disappointment, refraining from moping, holding grudges and complaining to the media.
So far, Gruden has been the rare coach who can accept Washington for it what is and make the best of it. But can he continue to do so? This extension only puts him deeper into the chaotic system. Is there really a way to work around possibly losing McCloughan and Cousins during the “Win Now” portion of this rebuilding?
As Gruden celebrates the security of an extension, he must prepare for what comes attached: burden. A big and inescapable burden.
For more by Jerry Brewer. visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.