PHOENIX — Jay Gruden hadn’t lobbied for a contract extension. And he didn’t see one coming earlier this month when Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder and Bruce Allen, the team’s president, offered the two-year extension that takes Gruden through the 2020 season.
“I signed it right away when it was offered — no negotiation whatsoever,” Gruden recounted with a chuckle during a 45-minute question-and-answer session with reporters at the NFL owners meeting Tuesday. “‘Just give me the pen!’”
Having played a round of golf after wrapping up his NFL obligations at the Arizona Biltmore, Gruden was relaxed and in good spirits. And the coach, who was entering the fourth year of a five-year contract when he signed the extension, spoke with optimism about the coming NFL season.
He was proud of the offseason changes he has made to the Redskins’ coaching staff, bullish about the free agents added to the roster and eager to upgrade further through the 10 selections the Redskins have in the April 27-29 NFL draft.
It was Gruden’s first extended remarks since early March, and he peppered his replies with signature jokes and self-deprecating cracks.
But his tone turned serious when asked about the team’s March 9 firing of general manager Scot McCloughan, who had worked closely with Gruden the past two seasons to assemble rosters that delivered the Redskins’ first back-to-back winning seasons since 1996 and 1997, as well as the 2015 NFC East championship.
“I was disappointed,” Gruden said, when asked how he felt upon learning McCloughan had been fired with 22 months remaining on his contract. “I like Scot; I liked working with Scot. I think he’s a good person and a great talent evaluator. Anytime you lose someone, it’s disappointing. But at the end of the day, it’s professional football. Anyone who has been around it understands that change is going to happen.”
Asked whether he felt the Redskins needed to make a change at general manager, Gruden paused. “I’m not going to say it had to be made. It was made,” he said. “That’s all I can live with. When decisions are made of that magnitude, you reflect on the good things you learned from Scot and the good things he did for the team. And you move forward.”
And in the “moving forward’ that has followed — the additions of a towering crop of wide receivers that includes 6-foot-4 Terrelle Pryor, a pair of defensive tackles in Terrell McClain and Stacy McGee that Gruden believes will thrive under line coach Jim Tomsula’s tutelage, not to mention the work quarterback Kirk Cousins is already putting in on his own time to get familiar with throwing to taller targets — Gruden sees every reason to be optimistic following an 8-7-1 season that fell short of the playoffs.
Last season’s record, he conceded, wasn’t great. “But we’ve had back-to-back winning seasons; no reason for us not to be optimistic,” he continued. “We have a very good offensive line coming back. The defensive line will be addressed a little bit [more].”
And he continued, position-by-position, seeing possibility at every spot.
As for the receiving corps, which lost more than 2,000 yards with the departures of Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson, Gruden conceded that it might take Cousins a bit of time to adapt to his new targets and fully exploit their ability to leap up for must-have catches in the red zone.
A former quarterback himself, Gruden made no secret that he favors tall receivers, but he was quick to add that he likes “little receivers, too,” referencing 5-8 Jamison Crowder, who has played with impressive toughness and versatility.
Asked how tall receivers might alter the offense, Gruden said: “More fade routes!” Then chuckled, acutely aware of Redskins fans’ weariness of the easy-to-read, ill-fated fade routes down the stretch last season.
At running back, Gruden made clear that Rob Kelley would enter training camp as the team’s starter and Chris Thompson would continue to play the third-down role. But he hasn’t given up on Matt Jones, benched for the last nine games of the 2016 season after one fumble too many, and expects him to compete alongside Mack Brown for carries.
Like McCloughan, Gruden believes in drafting the best player available. But he conceded that if all grades were equal, he’d lean toward taking a player at a particular position or two.
Nose tackle, still unaddressed, could be one. But so, too, could be running back.
“If we add one, there are some special players in the draft that would be hard to pass up if they are available,” Gruden said, without tipping his hand any further.
With McCloughan not on the job for roughly a month before his firing, Gruden said that everyone on the coaching and scouting staffs has taken on a slightly bigger role in preparing for the draft. It’s a process he clearly enjoys, ferreting out the fierceness that others might overlook in prospects.
And as the 2017 season approaches, Gruden’s role will expand in another way, too, as he takes over the play-calling duties formerly held by Sean McVay, the team’s offensive coordinator before going to Los Angeles as the Rams’ new head coach.
“I’m a little nervous about it, but I’m confident,” Gruden said. “I’ve always had a passion for it, so I’m excited. But it’s a lot of work to call plays and to call plays effectively.”