Most NFL coaches are impossible to miss.
Jay Gruden has a way of blending in. Even in his NFL head coaching debut Thursday, he could have been mistaken for any one of his assistants.
Dressed exactly like his staff in a team-issue burgundy-striped polo, Gruden lacked the imperious bearing, the ‘look-at-me flourishes,’ whether hoodie or coat-and-tie, that characterize many of his new peer group.
As NFL coaches go, Gruden is the very definition of everyman.
And though the Redskins front office has bestowed him with an arsenal of splashy weapons, such as Pro Bowl wide receiver DeSean Jackson and pass-rushing specialist Jason Hatcher, Gruden knows that football is won on fundamentals. It’s won on basics, such as securing strong field position, eliminating turnovers, minimizing sacks and tackling without mercy.
Those were the qualities that stood out among the Redskins starters, reserves and roster hopefuls who took FedEx Field — everymen, much like their coach — in a 23-6 win over the New England Patriots in the preseason opener for both teams.
Against future NFL Hall of Fame coach Bill Belichick, Gruden’s Redskins piled up 387 yards to New England’s 270.
They finished with 26 first downs to the Patriots’ 15.
They came away with points on five of eight drives, while allowing New England just one scoring drive in the last two minutes.
And they dominated the time of possession, hogging the ball for nearly 40 minutes.
To be fair, Belichick was competing without Tom Brady, the future Hall of Fame quarterback with whom he has won three Super Bowls.
But Gruden lacked the services of his vaunted new weapons, starting receivers Jackson (ankle) and Pierre Garcon (hamstring) as well as Hatcher, who’s recovering from knee surgery.
It was an impressive debut for a coach who has been on the job just eight months, showing improvement in all the areas that undercut the Redskins’ campaign. But Gruden insisted there were no broad truths to be gleaned. It was one step in what will be a long process, he said in multiple ways.
“All I take from it is how our players did and how we can improve on our performance moving forward. That’s it,” said Gruden. “That’s what the preseason is about. We’re trying to evaluate players; build off what we’re doing and continue to teach our concepts, teach our fundamentals.
“As far as wins or losses, obviously you want to win. But we’re trying to evaluate people, more so than anything else.”
Gruden had said he expected his starters would play eight to 10 snaps. And a conservative game plan held to that script.
No one had a bigger point to prove Thursday than Robert Griffin III, who had gone 242 days without playing a game.
Never fully fit during his second season following reconstructive surgery on his right knee, Griffin was benched for the final three games in a defining last act by former coach Mike Shanahan.
And though Washington’s legions of fans want nothing more than for Griffin to bounce back to the explosiveness that defined his rookie season, Gruden has made clear throughout training camp that it’s not as simple as surrounding Griffin with a new set of speedy receivers.
In Griffin’s return, Gruden limited the pressure on his quarterback, dialing up runs for Alfred Morris on four of the first five plays. Griffin threw just four times in the 10-snap drive, completing two passes for nine yards.
“Overall he managed the game. Got in and out of the huddle,” Gruden said, summing up Griffin’s outing as “something to build off of.”
Meanwhile, the Redskins pass rushers exerted good pressure on backup quarterback Ryan Mallett, who was sacked once and connected on just five throws in three quarters of work.
While the final margin was impressive, Gruden noted more than once that it didn’t count for anything. Perhaps he was aware that last season’s Redskins won more games during the preseason (four) than they did in the regular season (three).
But on this night — Gruden’s debut as an NFL head coach — his players delivered on the effort and fundamentals he has been preaching,
“He’s unwavering in his leadership,” said rookie lineman Spencer Long, a third-round draft pick from Nebraska. “You could sense he has been here before in these types of situations. He really did a good job getting us ready and prepared. It’s a reflection of how we come out in practice.”