Hey, Donald Penn. You’re the left tackle who’s blocking for these guys. Is this team over that controversy?
“Man, I just got here,” Penn said. “Man, I’m going to stay out of that. I’m going to leave it at that.”
If this was something other than a nuclear question, then why treat it as if you couldn’t answer it without wearing a hazmat suit?
As controversies surrounding the Washington football team go, Guice-over-Peterson is nothing really special. It falls under the “It’s always something with these guys” category because it’s always something with these guys. The success of this season didn’t hinge on whether Peterson was active in Sunday’s loss at Philadelphia, and it won’t exactly hinge on when Guice can play again. Philadelphia is better than Washington, regardless of who plays running back. Dallas is better than Washington, regardless of who plays running back.
But this team can’t help but feed the made-for-talk-radio beast, so we have this. (Aside: It’s kind of remarkable that it has overtaken Trent Williams’s continued absence as the buzziest topic in Ashburn.)
What’s important, though, is how Gruden handles it, now and going forward. Guice’s injury — suffered at some point in a 10-carry, 18-yard effort against the Eagles — probably solves the coach’s problem for the time being. Peterson will play. Guice will sit until he has recovered.
“That’s all in the past,” Gruden said Wednesday. “We’ll worry about when they’re both healthy again, if that decision ever has to come again.”
It’s coming, Jay. At some point, it’s coming.
Put aside whether you think Peterson, a Hall of Famer-to-be, or Guice, who missed all of his rookie season with a torn ACL
, is the better choice to be Washington’s top back. What this whole situation highlights is the predicament Gruden is in, trying to save his job with a roster that looks more like it’s building for the future.
That not dressing Peterson would be jarring to the locker room shouldn’t have been surprising — to anyone.
“Knowing what kind of player he is and knowing how much he inspired not just me but all the players in here, to not have him up, it was kind of disappointing,” Wendell Smallwood said.
Who’s Wendell Smallwood, you ask? Well, it’s a good question. He’s the fourth-year running back Washington picked up the week before the season opener after he had been cut by the Eagles. Smallwood was given a jersey Sunday, as was linebacker Tanner Vallejo, because they can play special teams and Peterson can’t. Gruden was thrilled by how they performed in punt coverage.
Yet here was Smallwood, sitting in his still-new locker room Wednesday, mulling over the strange reality: The coaches wanted him to play and Peterson to sit.
“Whether it was me that was up instead or whoever, I think we were all kind of disappointed,” he said. “But that’s the nature of the business. I know what he can do. The team knows what he can do. We know what kind of guy we got in our room.”
Gruden may say this is in the past, but it’s clearly delicate in the present. That’s in part because the coach is at the beginning of his sixth season with exactly zero job security. Imagine a first-year coach, granted the keys to the franchise and responsible for articulating a vision for the future, saying Peterson wouldn’t play. The locker room might not like it, but there would be an element of fear, too, because veterans would know that the coach was empowered to put his plan in place, and they could be gone before he was.
Conversely, imagine an entrenched coach — not just Bill Belichick but Mike Tomlin or Andy Reid or Pete Carroll or even Sean McVay — doing the same. The players would have to acknowledge that the coach controls their futures. His decisions matter and are final.
Gruden doesn’t belong in either camp. Moses, a sixth-year tackle, expressed his surprise at Peterson’s benching after Sunday’s game, then doubled down on an appearance Monday morning on “The Junkies” on 106.7 the Fan, calling the move a “slap in the face” and saying, as a veteran, he would have to express his opinion. He declined Wednesday to advance the conversation, but the entire exchange is indicative of what Gruden is trying to handle. He has to relay a message about why he did what he did and understand that “Well, we needed this guy on special teams” wasn’t going to mollify those who felt a proud veteran had been unnecessarily embarrassed.
“I have relayed it, and it is important for sure,” Gruden said. “This line loves blocking for Adrian Peterson. He’s a big guy. The line likes to block for Derrius Guice. But we only have one ball.”
I understand why Gruden prefers Guice over Peterson. If Gruden is going to be part of the future here — a big if, of course — Guice is going to be part of the reason. Peterson was signed off the street only because of Guice’s injury last summer, and his 1,042-yard season was a statistical outlier. In the previous half century, only three backs age 33 or older — Frank Gore, Franco Harris and John Riggins (twice) — rushed for 1,000 yards.
Kudos to Peterson for being the fourth. But it also creates a dual reality: Peterson is a back that teammates would look at as unassailable, deserving of the opportunity to go out on his own terms. But he’s also a figure coaches could reasonably say they had milked everything out of.
Here, then, is Gruden, entering Week 2 of his sixth season,
dealing with the controversy du jour. He said he has talked to Peterson, who is in “a good place.”
“I feel very good if his number is called this week he’ll be ready to go and play very hard,” Gruden said. “He’ll be Adrian Peterson.”
This is a test. It is only a test. But it’s a test of how a coach whose future is on shifting sands can unify a locker room that knows just that, even as that locker room clearly has an allegiance to a teammate. Jay Gruden’s authority is under examination here, both by his players and the people who will determine whether he remains the coach.