For Jay Gruden, the timing is unfortunate, if not cruel. As the Washington Redskins’ coach toils to fix a struggling offense, look at what he faces this week: former coordinator Sean McVay and the ghost of a good unit past.
It’s a quagmire of perception, really. After one game, it’s laughably early to make any strong statements about Gruden’s return to play-calling or the impact of losing McVay, who is now the Los Angeles Rams’ coach. But the NFL is a weekly, unapologetic festival of overreaction. Right now McVay is hot, Gruden is not, and that has to be a major reason Washington’s formerly proficient offense looks so feeble, right?
Sometimes football is that simple. Most times, however, it isn’t. It would be wise to resist the temptation to elevate McVay’s influence to mythical heights after watching him lead the Rams to a 46-9 victory over Indianapolis in his coaching debut last week. McVay, the 31-year-old wunderkind whose coaching DNA includes Mike Shanahan and both Gruden brothers, is missed. But is he irreplaceable? The answer, again, isn’t simple.
This is another test of what Gruden has built. He promoted McVay to a high-profile job and spurred the development of a quality young coach. Before you can talk about the impact McVay had on Washington, you must remember the impact Washington had on him. From Shanahan to Gruden, he received a PhD in offensive football here. Then he added his creativity to it. Now he runs his own team.
Yes, Gruden must make up for the loss. But McVay is a spoke in a system that has flourished, not the entire wheel. The offense is still creative and flexible, but the team clearly misses McVay’s meticulous, organized approach and his ability to teach and inspire the players.
Gruden, the play-caller, is fine. If you review Sunday’s 30-17 loss to Philadelphia , his plays produced ample opportunity to move the football and score points. But the team was sloppy in just about every area. That’s an indictment of preparation and motivation, which Gruden, offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh and the rest of the offensive coaches must correct. The players must show more pride, too. And that’s where McVay really stood out.
“Sean has presence, and it’s hard to teach presence,” quarterback Kirk Cousins said. “He has charisma. It’s hard to teach. And it’s hard to teach being a good communicator. You kind of either have it or you don’t. You can talk about his age, but he had presence when he was 20 years old. There are a lot of guys who are 65 and don’t have any presence. . . . He has something that doesn’t grow on trees.”
After the Rams hired McVay, Cousins gave him a signed jersey that included the heartfelt words, “I owe you my career.” In the two seasons that McVay called plays, Cousins threw for 9,083 yards, established himself as a solid NFL starter and earned about $44 million off that productivity. Although burdened by red-zone inefficiency, the offense averaged 403.4 yards per game last season, rising to third in the NFL. It was inevitable McVay would be coveted, just as it was inevitable 30-something wide receivers Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson would receive big contract offers that Washington would be reluctant to match.
With three significant pieces gone from last year’s offense, it’s impossible to compare that unit to this one. Oranges have replaced apples, and let’s wait at least until midseason — okay, a month, impatient ones — to judge how they taste. In the meantime, it’s fair to scrutinize whether this team is showing signs of progress in adapting to life without McVay’s organizational gifts.
Ask any person in the Washington locker room, and he will start by mentioning how detailed, energetic and smart the young coach is. He didn’t reinvent Gruden’s system, which is an adaptation of the popular and proven West Coast offense. He just explained it better than anyone. And because McVay is football obsessed by nature, the offense took on his serious approach.
“You sit down and talk to him,” left tackle Trent Williams said. “He knows football inside and out. There’s not a position, there’s not a scheme that he doesn’t know. He can sit up there in the box or on the sideline and tell you what’s happened, what’s going to happen and why it happened. In this game, any time somebody has that type of knowledge of the game, they’re going to be highly sought after.”
Four years ago, Gruden earned this job because of his good work as the Cincinnati offensive coordinator. His style in leading an offense was similarly effective, and it should be again. He’s clever. He relates well with players. But he’s also loose and not as rigid about particulars as McVay. He’s more focused on the big picture than McVay was because, you know, he’s the head coach.
But here’s the biggest difference: As a former quarterback who played professionally for a long time, Gruden coaches on instinct. McVay was a wide receiver who stopped playing upon graduating from Miami (Ohio) and immediately went into coaching. He is an analytical coach.
The game is like a science project to McVay, and he’s an A-plus student. At age 50, Gruden has a feel for the game that McVay may never acquire. There are positives and challenges to both coaching methods. The players are adjusting to the dissimilar styles. Or maybe they just need to suck it up and perform.
“To be honest, man, sometimes it’s splitting hairs,” Williams said. “Sometimes it’s more on the players than it is on the coach. You can have a brilliant scheme to run, but if my players don’t run it the right way or if I have one person missing his assignment and it equates to a loss of five on a play, everybody looks at you, like, ‘You don’t know what you’re doing.’
“It’s a pulley system. We have to depend on them to put us in the right situation, and they have to depend on us to make that right situation better and give them results.”
McVay wasn’t perfect during his two seasons calling plays, but the results were good. After one game and several preseason glimpses, Gruden is straining to live up to an old standard. Never mind that it’s a standard he oversaw.
That’s the burden of mentorship. Raise a prodigy properly, and then people start thinking you have to catch up.
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.