Jay Gruden was throwing passes to NFL receivers before he could drive. As the son of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ running backs coach in the early 1980s, as well as a teenage quarterback of some local renown — better, most folks thought, than his older brother, Jon — the youngest Gruden got the job of tossing warmup passes to the Bucs’ receivers and running backs before practices. He has still never faced a more pressure-packed situation.
“The first 10 passes I threw were about 20 yards over [the receivers’] heads — I was so nervous,” Gruden recalled once. “But those are the best memories I have.”
Those days marked the beginning of a pro football education — and those first fluttering passes the beginning of a devotion to the art of quarterbacking — that has brought Gruden, now 46 years old, to a new pinnacle in his career.
Hired Thursday by the Washington Redskins as their head coach, Gruden brought much to the table as a candidate — including a famous last name, a deep and varied résumé and a history of winning everywhere he has been. But perhaps nothing signaled Gruden’s suitability for the job more noticeably than his understanding of the quarterback position.
“He sees offensive football through the eyes of the quarterback,” said Cincinnati Bengals Coach Marvin Lewis, under whom Gruden served as offensive coordinator the past three seasons. “He’s basically playing the game with them, through them.”
In Washington, Gruden’s most pressing task will be to connect — both in terms of offensive philosophy and personality — with Robert Griffin III .
If there is reason for reassurance on the part of Redskins fans, it is that Gruden has spent nearly his entire life preparing for this task — from his childhood days tossing footballs at tires that Jon hung from tree branches, to the three years he just spent developing Andy Dalton into a Pro Bowler and 4,000-yard passer.
“The luckiest guy in this whole deal is Robert Griffin,” said Doug Williams, the former Redskins Super Bowl MVP. “Jay understands offense to its fullest, and especially the quarterback position.”
Williams was the Buccaneers’ quarterback in 1982, the first year Jim Gruden Jr. joined the coaching staff, the first summer young Jay Gruden started tossing footballs around the practice field. Two decades later, they would work together for the Buccaneers when Gruden was an offensive assistant on his brother Jon Gruden’s staff and Williams was a front office executive.
“I’ve known this guy for over 30 years,” Williams said. “He’s going to get the best out of what Robert can do — and maybe some things Robert didn’t even know he could do.”
Bobby Bowden wanted Gruden up in Tallahassee in the mid-1980s when Gruden was a quarterback at Tampa’s Chamberlain High. Florida State was a dream destination for a Sunshine State kid, but Gruden was intrigued by the burly, gruff, deep-voiced coach from Louisville, Howard Schnellenberger.
Gruden, a coach’s son, understood coaching pedigrees — and he knew Schnellenberger had worked under Bear Bryant at Alabama and Don Shula in the NFL. He also understood offensive football, so he knew Schnellenberger ran a pro-style offense that might pay future dividends for Gruden’s own NFL aspirations.
“I was able to lure him to Louisville,” Schnellenberger recalled, “with the promise of great things.”
Louisville was terrible at the time, which meant two things: Gruden got to play right away, and he lost a lot. The Cardinals went 2-9 Gruden’s freshman year, and 3-8 his sophomore year. Late in the 1987 season, Gruden’s junior year, they were playing Florida State when Gruden took a vicious hit by a Seminoles defender, tearing two ligaments in his knee and ending his season.
“His leg was turned clear around, like it was on backwards,” Schnellenberger said. “I thought he’d never play again. But lo and behold, he was ready for the first game the next year.”
After leading the Cardinals to an 8-3 record as a senior — their first winning season in a decade — Gruden, 6 feet 1 and 200 pounds at the time, thought he would be drafted by the NFL. But the draft came and went without his name being called, the first of many disappointments when it came to Gruden’s NFL dreams.
“I’ve had scouts tell me that they’re amazed I’ve never gotten a chance,” Gruden told the St. Petersburg Times in 1991. “But I guess the size and the knee have scared too many teams.”
The totality of Gruden’s NFL playing career consisted of a few weeks in the Phoenix Cardinals’ training camp and a few practices with the Miami Dolphins, both in 1989.
Eventually, he wound up in Louisville as a graduate assistant under Schnellenberger, but when the NFL launched the quasi-developmental World League of American Football in 1991, Gruden signed on, first with the Barcelona Dragons, then with the Sacramento Surge. But he quickly grew homesick for Florida, and decided to call the closest minor league team to his home, the Tampa Bay Storm of the Arena Football League, to ask for a job.
“Someone in the front office asked me to take a look at Jay Gruden,” recalled Fran Curci, Tampa Bay’s coach at the time. “I said I don’t need another quarterback, I’ve already got two. But I said, ‘Okay.’ . . . The other guys were good, but all Jay did was throw touchdowns. He just had a knack. And he learned the indoor game real fast. We went with Jay, and we won the championship.”
Gruden still harbored NFL dreams — “I wouldn’t want to play arena ball for five years, but it could be fun for now” he said in 1991 — but they eventually vanished. He wound up playing arena ball for eight years, including a two-year, out-of-retirement stint in 2002-03, and coaching in the league for 10. All the while, the lack of opportunity in the NFL gnawed at him.
“Just prove to me I’m not good enough,” he told the St. Petersburg Times in 1993. “I watch television, and I see guys who I played against in college who I didn’t think were very good, playing just because they’re 6-4. You see a guy go 10 of 30, and it eats you up inside. Just give me one day at camp. See if I can throw that out route. See if I can throw it deep. That’s all I ask.”
In one sense, his game was perfect for the arena league — his lack of size and powerful arm didn’t hurt him as much on the smaller field, and his accuracy and quick decision-making skills were bigger assets in the high-octane indoor game. But you couldn’t tell that to Gruden. To him, football was football, no matter where it was played, and the NFL’s shunning of him left an arena-sized chip on his shoulder for a long time.
“He won everywhere he went. So imagine: How frustrating must it have been to never get that opportunity, when all you’ve done is win?” said Brett Bouchy, a longtime friend who was owner of the Orlando Predators when Gruden coached there and is now owner of the AFL’s Los Angeles Kiss. “So yes, he had a chip on his shoulder. To this day, he still thinks he would’ve been a great NFL quarterback.”
Entering the final weekend of the 1999 Arena Football League season, the Predators had a 6-7 record, two busted-up quarterbacks and a clear, if impossible, mission: win their last game, and they made the playoffs; lose, and they went home. A few days before the game, Gruden, at 31 the youngest head coach in the league, called Connell Maynor into his office.
Maynor, a 30-year-old who had been signed late in the season, had played quarterback in college and at a previous arena league stop, but with the Predators he was being used as a backup wide receiver-linebacker. He had two catches and one sack.
“Joker,” Gruden told him, according to Maynor, using the nickname he had given Maynor, “it’s your turn.”
With Maynor at quarterback, and with Gruden altering the offense to fit him, the Predators won their regular season finale to make the playoffs, then beat the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds on the road to make the Arena Bowl title game, where they finally lost. A year later, with Maynor starting at quarterback all season, they won the championship.
“If you had seen Connell when he first came to us, you would’ve thought we’d have no chance of winning a game,” Bouchy said. “But Jay figured out his assets, and tailored the offense around him.”
Gruden became an AFL legend, bolstering the four Arena Bowl titles he won as a player with two more as a coach and gaining election to the league’s Hall of Fame in 1999. Along the way, he acquired a reputation as one of the keenest offensive minds in the league.
“Brilliant football mind,” said Ed Khayat, who, as coach of the Nashville Kats in 1997, gave Gruden his first assistant coaching job. “There was nobody better at calling and designing plays. He had played quarterback, and he could see things nobody else could.”
When Jon Gruden got the head coaching job of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2002, he invited his brother to join his staff as an offensive assistant. The Buccaneers job gave Jay, at last, a taste of the NFL, plus a Super Bowl ring — the result of Tampa Bay’s championship in January 2003. It also gave him some new insight into offensive football, as he spent most of his seven seasons with the Buccaneers in the press box, connected to his brother via headset, getting an education in the West Coast offense of which Jon Gruden was an adherent. All the while, he kept his AFL gig, pinballing down Interstate 4 between Tampa and Orlando depending on the day of the week or the month on the calendar.
When Jon Gruden was fired in 2008, sliding seamlessly into an ESPN analyst’s job that has made him perhaps even more famous than he was as a coach, Jay decided he had put down enough roots in Florida (he and his wife, Sherry, had three boys) that he didn’t seek to jump right back into another NFL job.
“He grew up as a coach’s son, bouncing around his whole life, from Dayton to South Bend to Tampa, and I don’t think he wanted to put his family through that,” Bouchy said. “People ask him why didn’t he go back [to the NFL] sooner. He had many opportunities to go, believe me. But he wanted to create a stable environment for his family.”
When Jim Haslett, then coach of the Florida Tuskers of the United Football League, offered Gruden a job as his offensive coordinator, Gruden jumped at the opportunity to stay in-state. And when Haslett departed to become defensive coordinator of the Redskins in 2010, Gruden took over as coach. In both of his seasons in the UFL, he guided the Tuskers to the league championship game, losing both times.
“He’s had so many different types of quarterbacks,” said Chris Greisen, who took the Tuskers to the UFL title game in 2010. “He figures out what a guy does best, and how to mold the offense around him.”
By this point, Gruden’s boys had begun to approach college age and Gruden had checked off the last missing item from his résumé — succeeding as a head coach in “the outdoor game,” as arena league folks called it. He was ready to get back into the NFL, and no one who had played under him had any doubt he would succeed.
“Guys who have been in that world,” said Brooks Bollinger, Gruden’s quarterback with Florida in 2009 and the first part of 2010, speaking of Gruden’s time in football’s minor leagues, “have an easier time looking outside the box.”
They came to Cincinnati together, Gruden and Dalton, the offensive coordinator and the quarterback, the former a football lifer, the latter a 35th overall draft pick that every team in the NFL passed on at least once.
Three years later, they had shared in two division titles and three playoff appearances, and Dalton, under Gruden’s tutelage, had become the first player since Peyton Manning to throw for more than 3,000 yards in each of his first three NFL seasons.
Each season they were together, Gruden gave Dalton more responsibility, increasing, for example, the number of “packaged” plays — containing two or three options for the quarterback to choose from, depending on what he sees from the defense — in the game plan.
“We want to have the ability to give our quarterback the chance to get us out of a bad play, into a better play,” Gruden told Bleacher Report last October. “It might be overwhelming for some quarterbacks. Luckily, [Dalton] can handle it. If we had a different quarterback in here, we’d probably be doing some things differently.”
Gruden also fostered an atmosphere of openness, where input was welcomed and dissenters were encouraged to speak their minds.
“Everything you can think of you want to do, you can at least say [it],” Bengals quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese said in the same Bleacher Report story. “He is willing to allow for ideas to be spread and talked about. Not everybody likes to hear all those things. But he’s either faking it or enjoying it.”
“One thing that really helped make it smooth for me,” Dalton told the Cincinnati Enquirer this week, “was that from the start, Jay was big on asking my input, what I’m most comfortable with and any ideas I had.”
This is the background and the résumé, and these are concepts and beliefs, that Gruden will be bringing to Washington, and into his first season with Griffin. They may have little in common on the surface — Gruden has been overshadowed his entire life, while Griffin has been considered a prodigy since his days as a track and football star in high school. But if there is one thing to be gleaned from Griffin’s career, it is that he thrives when he has a strong rapport with his primary coach.
“It has to be genuine. He has to believe it,” Gruden said Thursday of the coach-quarterback dynamic he hopes to foster with Griffin. “I’ll let him know I’m a trustworthy guy. He also has to understand I expect a lot from the starting quarterback. I expect him to come in and prepare and work hard, and I expect him to take the blame on some throws. I expect him to be a great leader. . . . If he doesn’t like a play, I won’t call [it]. I will make sure he’s comfortable with everything we’re doing.”
Some coaches might run from a situation like Washington’s, with a strong-willed owner, a sagging roster and a quarterback in need of repair. But Gruden has spent a lifetime on football’s fringes, and at this point, the Redskins, coming off a 3-13 nightmare, sit squarely on the fringes of the NFL. He is, in that sense, perfect for this job, and it is perfect for him.
“He will absolutely win,” Bouchy said. “You’re going to see a huge improvement, and you’re going to see it immediately. Lots of people say he’s Jon Gruden’s brother. Five years from now, they’ll be saying Jon is Jay Gruden’s brother.”
Mark Maske contributed to this report.