The morning jogs have become his meditation, the music his escape from outside noise. Jay Gruden welcomes the rare chance to be alone with his thoughts, his headphones, and hypnotic guitar riffs or bass-thumping hip-hop.
Those minutes spent running from the team hotel in Richmond to their training camp facility have become sacred. As the songs shuffle, so do his feet, his steps keeping pace with country songs that eventually give way to hard rock and rap. Gruden’s musical tastes are wide-ranging, his favorites as divergent as the individuals he coaches. He loves the “ King” George Strait as much as he adores AC/DC and Gucci Mane.
The morning jogs give him time for introspection and self-reflection.
“That’s my alone time,” said Gruden, as he leaned back, legs crossed, on a leather couch outside the weight room at Redskins Park.
With the organized team activity and minicamp phases of the Redskins’ offseason schedule now complete, Gruden is shifting his focus to a much-needed respite — the six weeks of downtime for him and his players — between now and the start of training camp.
Those dog days of summer are fast-approaching for the fifth-year head coach, who enters the 2018 season with a new franchise quarterback (Alex Smith), a new No. 1 wide receiver (Paul Richardson Jr.), a new running back (Derrius Guice), and much higher expectations for the organization. Gruden, who is 28-35 in his career, having won nine games only once in a single season and earning only one playoff appearance, confesses he “didn’t do a good enough job” last season. But the ever-optimistic coach believes this year’s roster is special.
“I believe that we have more firepower than ever,” he said following the team’s final mandatory minicamp practice. (In keeping with tradition, Gruden ended veteran minicamp a day early and gave players Thursday off.) “Not to say that the teams in the past didn’t have any. I just feel good about our depth and the weapons that we have once they become healthy.”
He is acutely aware of the pressure to produce. The two-year extension he signed in March 2017, which keeps under contract through the 2020 season, is by no means a safety net for Gruden, one of 32 NFL head coaches who lose sleep over win-loss records. As excited as he is for this upcoming season, Gruden matter-of-factly admits his own failings, sometimes as a play-caller, other times as a clock-manager.
“I’ve got to do a much better job,” he said, before rattling off his missteps in rapid succession. “I could’ve called better games. Maybe used a timeout here or there. There’s a lot of things I could have done. You always second-guess yourself. Throw the ball when you ran it. Gone for it on fourth down against the Saints. Call a better play on third and 1 so they don’t get the ball back to [Drew] Brees, where he goes down and goes for two. That’s the game right there.”
In Week 11, New Orleans rallied from a 15-point deficit in the final six minutes (courtesy of two touchdown passes by Brees on the Saints’ final two possessions of regulation) before defeating the Redskins, 34-31, on a field goal in overtime.
“You go over and over it in your head,” Gruden said. “The last game [an 18-10 loss at the New York Giants on Dec. 31], we could have done a better job as coaches of getting our team ready to play that game. Both Eagles games we had opportunities to win, and there’s a play here or there that you have regrets about. Some of them may be clock management at the end of the half, decisions at the end of the half to try to get some more points or just go into halftime and call it a day, where things happened and they scored and got the ball, scored in the third quarter and the game could have been different. So there’s a lot of regrets.
“If your coach isn’t accountable,” he asked, “how do you get our players to be accountable?”
Gruden insisted he “felt good” about his roster during his first season as head coach in 2014. That group, which featured Robert Griffin III, Kirk Cousins and Colt McCoy each getting a turn as the starting quarterback, finished 4-12. Gruden also had high hopes for last year’s squad, which was decimated by injuries and limped to a 7-9 record. But he sees “a little bit of difference” with the 2018 Redskins “obviously with the talent that we have.”
The additions of Smith, Richardson, Guice and first-round defensive tackle Daron Payne are just as critical to the team’s success as the return of Trent Williams, Morgan Moses, Jordan Reed, Chris Thompson and Ty Nsekhe, who have missed offseason practices due to past injuries. Once they’re back for training camp, “it’ll make a major difference,” Gruden said. “The big thing is, let these guys play, see what they can do and adjust our plan accordingly.”
Before the Redskins fled the facility this week, he preached to his players the importance of continued progress. But he also stressed the benefits of a well-earned vacation. These six weeks are a chance for him to “get the hell out of here,” just like his players, he joked. “Really, this is a time for us to just kind of get away. And it’s very necessary, I think, for everybody to get away from each other because once we come back, we’re together.”
But Gruden can’t escape the facility for very long. After “a week or two” off, he’ll be back in his office watching tape of players in preparation for the supplemental draft in July. He also will use his time to devise practice scripts for training camp, ensure the staff has video cut-ups from practices and to study some other teams.
“Once you take a week-or-two vacation you’ve still got a little bit of time to do that,” Gruden said. “Come in for an hour or two in the morning, get out of the house. If it’s raining, you can’t play golf, so you come out here. What else would I do if it’s raining?”
Soon, he will be back to his morning jogs in Richmond, back to those precious minutes spent completely, and blissfully, alone.
“I love Gucci. 2 Chainz. Eh, Drake is okay,” he said, before revealing the rap album that has brought him the most joy: 50 Cent’s “Get Rich or Die Tryin’ ”.
“Every song on that album was great,” Gruden said, grinning as he detailed playing the album on repeat during his commutes from Orlando to Tampa when he was an offensive assistant on his brother Jon’s Tampa Bay staff 15 years ago. “I love 50. I knew all those words by heart.”