INDIANAPOLIS — With the NFL’s annual courting ritual of free agency looming, the Washington Redskins faced a mounting problem: how to attract top prospects despite an image of instability that seemed to worsen daily?
The return of Kirk Cousins remains in doubt, with little apparent progress toward a long-term contract. General Manager Scot McCloughan’s hold on his job is cloaked in mystery, given his absence from the NFL Scouting Combine this past week and the puzzling rationale offered by team officials. Moreover, Coach Jay Gruden was heading into the fourth year of a five-year deal, yet to receive a public endorsement from Redskins owner Daniel Snyder or President Bruce Allen.
Over the weekend, Snyder and Allen took one of those perceived negatives off the table by extending Gruden’s contract an additional two years. In doing so, they sent a signal of continuity — one intended for Cousins, would-be free agents and fans — that they believe the Redskins, under Gruden, are building a consistent playoff team that can contend for Super Bowls.
Neither Snyder nor Allen was made available for comment Sunday. Gruden didn’t respond to a request for comment, nor did McCloughan. And team officials plan to delay until Monday, at the earliest, a formal announcement of the extension that was brokered over a steak dinner Saturday night at Prime 47 in Indianapolis, where Allen, Redskins contract specialist Eric Schaffer and Gruden’s agent, Bob LaMonte, joined Gruden in celebrating the coach’s 50th birthday.
With a 21-26-1 record and one NFC East championship in his first three seasons, Gruden was widely regarded as being in a precarious spot heading into the 2017 season. Another division title likely would have earned him an extension, while another season that fell short of the playoffs may well have cost him his job even though one year remained on his contract.
Since he bought the Redskins in 1999, Snyder has cycled through eight head coaches: Norv Turner, Terry Robiskie (a three-game interim in 2000), Marty Schottenheimer, Steve Spurrier, Joe Gibbs, Jim Zorn, Mike Shanahan and Gruden. None of Gruden’s predecessors lasted more than four seasons under Snyder, whether getting fired or bowing out by choice. Gruden, who last season led the Redskins to their first back-to-back winning seasons since 1996-97, is the first to earn a contract extension in Snyder’s 18-year tenure.
Whether the extension, which carries Gruden’s contract through the 2020 season, represents Snyder’s ringing endorsement of his coach or is primarily intended to project an image of continuity is difficult to say. But it is an affirmative move that capped a rocky week for the franchise.
It drew praise from NFL coaches and agents in Indianapolis for the combine who didn’t want to be quoted on the matter but, in private conversations, characterized it as fitting and well deserved.
Minnesota Vikings Coach Mike Zimmer, who worked alongside Gruden in Cincinnati and is a longtime friend, didn’t hesitate to comment publicly. “Jay’s a heck of a football coach, and I’m happy for him. He has deserved it,” Zimmer said Sunday. “He has got the franchise going in the right direction. He’s innovative, number one. Smart guy, handles players very well, relates to them. He’s real smart.”
Former Redskins general manager Charley Casserly, now an NFL Network analyst, called it a good move. “It shows stability to [Kirk] Cousins and other free agents,” Casserly said. “And questions about Gruden’s job security can’t be used against them in free agency.”
Multiple Redskins staff members and assistant coaches privately expressed joy for Gruden, saying he had earned the extension, but declined to be quoted because the team hadn’t formally announced the deal. Two observers said Sunday morning that it felt more like a desperate public relations move following a tumultuous week, designed to ease the minds of potential free agents and fans.
NFL teams traditionally wait until the end of the next-to-last year of a head coach’s contract before deciding on an extension. Some start late in that penultimate season. Redskins officials, however, apparently felt as if they needed to shore up Gruden’s status now.
The Redskins have had a strained offseason, with reports of friction between Allen and McCloughan, his hand-picked general manager. Concern grew when McCloughan missed the combine, which essentially is his Super Bowl — the time of year where he earns his salary by evaluating draft picks’ athleticism and intensity.
Allen initially attributed the absence to the death of McCloughan’s 100-year-old grandmother in early February and said the general manager would return to his duties after he dealt with family matters. Others close to the situation said that McCloughan had been working on Redskins matters throughout the offseason.
Amid conflicting reports, as well as the Redskins’ decision to ignore rather than refute speculation aired on the Snyder-owned radio station that McCloughan might be abusing alcohol, some NFL players’ agents voiced concern about striking contracts with Washington, uncertain who, if anyone, was directing the franchise’s future.
None of this was helpful as the Redskins continued to negotiate with Cousins and prepared to make overtures to other NFL players due to hit the free agent market Tuesday.
Yet even with Gruden’s near-term future in Washington settled, the Redskins in many ways are starting over in 2017.
Offensive coordinator Sean McVay, who was instrumental in Cousins’s development, left to become head coach of the Los Angeles Rams. Gruden also parted with his second defensive coordinator in the past three years, Joe Barry.
Questions about Gruden’s future complicated the task of hiring a new defensive coordinator to take over a unit that needs improvement at multiple positions. The Redskins interviewed a half-dozen candidates, including Wade Phillips and Gus Bradley, but lost out to rivals led by first-year coaches.
And six months before the season opener, it’s possible the Redskins will be starting over at quarterback, too. There are three scenarios involving Cousins, who last year finished with the third-most passing yards (4,917) in the NFL and set a single-season franchise record.
The Redskins could broker a long-term contract by the July 15 deadline. The two sides aren’t close, with the Redskins offering roughly $20 million per year and Cousins seeking at least $24 million, which is what he’s guaranteed under the franchise tag.
If they fail to reach a long-term deal, the Redskins could prevent Cousins from leaving for one more year via the tag, bringing his earnings the past two years to $44 million, only to face the likelihood of losing him to free agency in 2018.
Finally, the Redskins could trade him for a clutch of draft picks and start over at quarterback, whether with backup Colt McCoy or another veteran acquired via trade or free agency.
Clarke reported from Washington.