Every Sunday or Monday, it seems, a plainspoken, slightly disheveled man in a ballcap steps up to a microphone and does something often foreign in the NFL’s spin-doctor universe: The guy who lost tells the “Looks-like-we-were-sleepwalkin’-out-of-the-huddle” truth.
“Right now — yesterday — we took a major step backwards towards regression.”
Sometimes the answers are so blunt and authentic, you half-expect Jay Gruden to end his postgame news conferences with, “Live from New York . . . ” or find out it’s really comedian Frank Caliendo doing the impression of Gruden’s kinetic-energy broadcasting brother Jon.
In his maiden voyage commanding the Starship Armageddon, Jay Gruden doesn’t spare the rod on anyone — especially himself.
When he was asked, for example, why he went for it on fourth and inches on Washington’s side of the field during a pivotal moment of what would become another blowout loss Sunday, Gruden admitted he “got a little greedy.” He explained he first wanted to run the ball, but after he saw how the Indianapolis Colts lined up defensively, something about DeSean Jackson in one-on-one coverage on the outside made his brain go to play-action.
The result was a missed block by the tight end, Colt McCoy fumbling and the Colts returning it for a decisive touchdown.
Ballgame — 3-9 assured.
“Big play in the game,” Gruden said. “Should have run it. Should have punted it. Should have done anything other than what I did.”
By default, Jay Gruden is the MVP of another clogged commode of an NFL season in Washington.
He’s the only guy with the gumption to say in training camp he liked a lot of things about Jackson as a wide receiver but sometimes D-Jax thinks “he’s too cool for school.”
He’s the only person in the organization to publicly acknowledge Robert Griffin III is not a good quarterback right now, and back it up by benching the very player whose career he was partly paid to resurrect.
He’s the only transparent decision-maker in the star chamber to have enough confidence in what he believes wins in this league to already have answered the most important question left this season:
Does Washington have a face-of-the-franchise quarterback right now able to take this team to a conference championship game in the next two to three years?
No, Gruden said, by benching Kirk Cousins, then Griffin and settling on McCoy, the third-stringer now charged with getting Gruden and this beaten-down, beleaguered roster to Dec. 28 with a modicum of respectability.
Maybe he knows it doesn’t matter who’s in there — the QB will be sacked, the defense will surrender the land mass of Montana and it’s all about trying to keep a disbelieving locker room together at the moment.
Either way, this is Gruden’s mulligan. He was smart enough to get a five-year guaranteed deal and in no way does it financially or psychologically make sense to get rid of him after just one season. In no way should most of the problems of this organization be laid at his feet.
But there are a few questions left for this franchise the last four games.
Has Washington hit rock bottom yet? Really, can this reeling group win another game this season? And, related to the prior two and most important:
Is Jay Gruden really head-coaching material or is he just another, tell-it-like-it-is guy helplessly swirling in this cesspool of an organization?
Gruden is not Jim Zorn II. In gruffness and preparation, he’s more of a coach’s coach, whose players respond well to his realness, however brutally honest he often is. He’s also a former quarterback himself and made his bones in professional football knowing how quarterbacks think. He made Andy Dalton, a guy who is closer to a game manager than a perennial Pro Bowler, filthy rich in Cincinnati.
Jay Gruden has decided 12 games in that there is not a great quarterback on this roster. The good news is, the scouting department can add QB to the evaluation list, along with offensive lineman and defensive backs. The bad news is, less than a year after Mike Shanahan left, this franchise is actually worse off at 3-9 than it appeared to be a year ago.
We all were led to believe backstabbing and internal politics and that tag team death match featuring Robert, Bruce and Dan vs. Mike and Kyle was hugely responsible for 3-13. Maybe we should have known better, given Mike Shanahan, a man seemingly bound for Canton, was willing to submarine his own reputation to get away from Snyder and Ashburn.
Not even Gruden could have foreseen things being this bad when, after his introductory news conference, I half-jokingly told him to remember the line from the film “Good Will Hunting” whenever things got really bad in Washington: “It’s not your fault.”
(It’s not all Jim Haslett’s fault either, no matter how many people want him gone. He’s playing with kids and a guy who should be retired in the secondary. Under Shanahan, he endured years of most of the team’s free agent funds going to the offense instead of the defense.)
The corrosion is systemic, the top-down management and institutional arrogance that’s ruined so many seasons.
Gruden knows it, just as he knew Cousins and McCoy ran his offense better than Griffin, even though both players don’t have the game-changing abilities Griffin has.
He’s going to coach this team his way, whether his employers like it or not.
The only hope here is that he doesn’t hit the point Shanahan and other coaches over the years have hit, the moment they realize they are better off fired or coaching somewhere else because the man upstairs just doesn’t understand boundaries when it comes to giving people freedom to do their jobs.
He probably did go too far taking apart Griffin’s game a couple of weeks ago, for which he apologized. But when Gruden becomes a full-time puppet on the lectern and the authenticity ceases, that’s when you’ll know they got to him.
This season isn’t on him. Again, this is his mulligan. But next year, Jay Gruden knows he has to win some games and look like the head coach of a possible playoff team. It would be a shame if he became another two-and-out like Steve Spurrier or Zorn. He’s too original, candid and knowledgeable for that.