As is to be expected, the Washington Redskins showed they’re not quite ready for prime time in their preseason opener. Although the result was a feel-good 23-6 victory over New England, the Redskins’ defense twice ran afoul of strict, new rules on pass interference and illegal contact. The first-team offense sputtered in the red zone, settling for a field goal instead of a touchdown. Place kicker Kai Forbath missed a 46-yard field goal.
And Jay Gruden, in a refreshingly candid critique of his NFL head coaching debut, didn’t exempt his own game-day routine from the list of things that need fine-tuning before preseason game No. 2.
Meticulous about planning the squad’s spring workouts and training camp schedule, Gruden confessed it never occurred to him to script a plan for pregame warmups. As offensive coordinator in Cincinnati, he had never given a passing thought to how much time players should spend on the field stretching, jogging or tossing a ball back and forth.
When last week’s opener got underway, Gruden was jarred for a split-second by the fact his headset had one line for offense and another for defense.
And after the Redskins’ first offensive series, his first impulse was to talk it over with Robert Griffin III and start poring over images of the Patriots’ defensive alignment. After a few minutes of that, it struck Gruden he was responsible for the Redskins’ defense, too.
“I was like, ‘Oh, I’ve got to go out there and coach,’ ” Gruden said with a laugh.
“It’s not just the players, now. Preseason’s for the coaches, too, and how we handle our business and our communication and what we go through on game days.”
Gruden is hardly the first NFL coordinator-turned-coach to have an opening-day hiccup or two. And his weren’t even perceptible.
Raheem Morris, the Redskins’ defensive backs coach, recalls with a laugh how disorienting it was the first time he walked out to practice as head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2009, having served as the team’s defensive backs coach for two seasons prior.
“You’re so used to being responsible for one side of the ball that you don’t know where to go during individual drills,” Morris said. “You kind of get lost in the shuffle. You’re walking around. Your back is tight for no reason. You really have no idea what to do during the individuals, other than making sure everything is organized.
“That was my first memory: Where do I go? How do I plan my schedule? What do I want to do on a daily basis so I touch the whole team and see the whole team?”
In time, Morris, a former college safety, devised a circuit that provided the structure he was looking for during practice.
“You develop a routine,” Morris said. As a defensive specialist, he decided to start each practice by checking in on the offense.
“You get a feel for your quarterbacks, the quarterback-center exchange,” he recounted. “You kind of roll through your ballhandling, looking at your running backs. You go through your receivers and see the routes they’re running. Check on your o-line, then your defense. You’ve got to learn to work that circle.”
Even Hall of Fame coaches can struggle with fundamentals, particularly if they’ve been off the sideline for a while.
Joe Gibbs had been away from coaching for 11 years, pouring his energy into his North Carolina-based NASCAR teams and his grandchildren, when he returned for a second stint with the Redskins.
Gibbs surrounded himself with familiar faces, such as offensive line coach Joe Bugel and former running back Earnest Byner, whom he hired to coach the position. But what seemed entirely unfamiliar, at least in the early going, was basic clock management.
In a calamitous gaffe during Gibbs’s third season, the coach called consecutive timeouts in an attempt to ice Buffalo’s place kicker in the waning seconds of a 2007 game. The Redskins were slapped with a 15-yard penalty, and Buffalo’s kicker hit from the closer range. Gibbs blamed himself for the defeat.
As Gruden prepares his Redskins for Monday’s preseason game against Cleveland and the much ballyhooed showdown between Heisman Trophy winners Griffin and Johnny Manziel, he’s also preparing himself.
“The preseason games are equally as important for the coaches as they are for players,” Gruden said. “It’s a great experience for me. I know I’ve got a long way to go to improve myself but just little things — simple awareness things — and being able to communicate and see what’s going on.”
While no one noticed the handful of things Gruden hadn’t fully prepared for in the victory over New England, the game against Cleveland will play out under the national spotlight of a “Monday Night Football” broadcast on ESPN.
Calling the game will be the coach’s elder brother, Jon.
“Jon is Jon. He’s going to be positive if he can,” Gruden said when asked what sort of on-air treatment he expected from his brother. “But if I do something that’s out-of-line ignorant, I’m sure he’ll call me on it.”