Jay Gruden acted like a strong NFL head coach Monday, when he became the first man in the Washington football operation with the guts to be bluntly analytical, critical and honest about Robert Griffin III’s abilities as a quarterback and the ton of work he must do to master his craft.
Now, we’ll find out if it works.
If this is a candid cathartic moment that bonds Gruden and Griffin, convinces them that their futures are linked and they must help each other, few better things could happen to a franchise that’s been in the wilderness for most of 23 years. If Gruden’s remarks, pungent at face value and a punch in the mouth if taken the wrong way, are a wedge that divides the rookie coach from his quarterback, then send a Hazmat caravan to Ashburn pronto — toxic waste spill in progress.
Normally, I don’t quote at length in columns. But I’m new around here and, in my brief time, I haven’t heard anything quite like Gruden on Monday. As soon as I got up off the floor, I loved it.
“Robert had some fundamental flaws,” Gruden said of Griffin’s two-interception, six-sack work in a 27-7 loss at home to the previously 1-8 Bucs. “His footwork was below average. He took three-step drops when he should have taken five. He took a one-step drop when he should have taken three, on a couple occasions, and that can’t happen. He stepped up when he didn’t have to step up and stepped into pressure. He read the wrong side of the field a couple times.
“So,” concluded Gruden, who included all his players in his critique, “his basic performance was not even close to being good enough [for] what we expect from the quarterback position.”
Gruden also addressed an online sports site headline — “RGIII Throws Teammates Under Bus” — that, while almost comically misrepresenting the tone of Griffin’s self-critical postgame remarks Sunday, pointed out Griffin’s habit of elaborating at running-for-high-office length to almost any question, perhaps mistaking intelligence for judgment.
“First of all, Robert needs to understand he needs to worry about himself, number one, and not everybody else. It’s his job to worry about his position, his footwork, his fundamentals, his reads, his progressions, his job at the quarterback position,” Gruden said. “It’s my job to worry about everybody else. And, yes, everybody else needs to improve. . . . But it’s not his place. His place is to talk about himself and he knows that. He just elaborated a little too much.”
Gruden balanced every qualm with a compliment. But this barrage of blunt is going to give us some basic answers about key people — in a hurry.
Does Griffin truly want to be coached, not coddled? Given the career-military background of both parents and his ingrained respect for authority and chain of command, you would hope he does. After three serious injuries in the past five years, which have eroded his speed, does he want to join Gruden in the long hard task of remaking, but not dismantling, his lifelong style of play?
Or, after years of national adulation and attention, from his Heisman Trophy at Baylor to his meteoric NFL rookie year to the breathless attention paid to his various injury recoveries, has he fallen into the unconscious trap of seeing himself as a brand to be defended rather than what he now actually is: a 24-year-old whose NFL career may go in either direction — dramatically?
Will owner Dan Snyder, who is utterly invested in all things Griffin, tolerate a coach who says what he actually means, slaps the wrists of his two most visible stars (Griffin and to a much lesser degree DeSean Jackson) on the same day and, apparently, has decided to coach the darn team his own way and the heck with playing the cozy angles.
If things don’t go well, and the team’s tough schedule may have more to do with Washington’s success than Griffin’s short-term learning curve, will team president Bruce Allen, and others close to Snyder’s ear, back a coach with few conventional credentials? Or will they, because they’re all chest-deep in responsibility for paying a Marvel hero’s ransom for Griffin, go the more Machiavellian route of sycophancy and betrayal that’s become a team hallmark?
This is more than riveting theater on a bad team. It’s irresistible arm-chair psychology. Gruden’s long playing career as a quarterback, all in the football minors, was marked by lost opportunities when passers with bigger names or contracts, or a quarterback-politics inside track, got shots at NFL jobs he craved. Profiles of him give the list. How can he look at Colt McCoy, who has played in two games and won both, and not see something akin to his own frustrations?
Because Gruden has spent a career learning the difference between big talent, brains and a high ceiling (like Griffin) and moxie, polish and a lower ceiling (like McCoy or Kirk Cousins), Gruden likely will coach up Griffin like a favorite nephew — give him every last ever-lovin’ chance — right up until the day the football man in him, the designer of precise offenses, just can’t stand to watch one more mistake and gives the modern-day Jay Gruden . . . sorry, McCoy . . . his chance.
“He’s absolutely open about it,” Gruden said of Griffin. “He’s very frustrated with the way he played obviously. . . . He has to be receptive. It’s just a part of the position. You’ve got to be able to get coached and understand when you make a mistake and not do it again . . .
“Sometimes you don’t need ‘great.’ You don’t need to lead at that position on every snap. He is obviously very competitive, but we just need him to do what he is supposed to do. Take your drops the right way and throw the five-yard stick route when you’re supposed to and do the best you can.
“He is a great competitor, and we’ve just got to try to get him better. His frame of mind is in the right place: It just doesn’t come out the right way sometimes. But I think he wants to get better. He knows he has a long way to go . . . and if he stays on the right track as far as work ethic and listening and preparing, then he will get there.”
Most people would rather get smacked in the face by someone with good intentions who just wants to get their full attention than be stabbed in the back by an anonymous enemy. If Griffin thinks of himself as Robert — the dedicated young man who wants to rework his style, become a student of the pro game, and eventually be a good NFL quarterback — he probably has a coach who can help him.
After all the bad breaks to his body and the career detours of the past two years, if Griffin still thinks he’s RGIII in Superman socks — on the cusp of greatness — then cover your eyes. It’ll be the same old movie for this franchise, with new plot twists, but the same ending: Ugly.
Fancy Stats: A look at all three Redskins QBs