If there’s a game still to be played but no playoffs possible, there’s really only one question to ask: Whither the coach?
Where the Washington Redskins and Coach Jay Gruden are concerned, though, that one question — and it’s a big one — just leads to a slew of others. They’re all important. But because the presents are unwrapped and next up on the calendar — after Sunday’s finale against Philadelphia — is Black Monday, when as many as eight NFL coaches could be let go, let’s start with the coach.
The case against Gruden is plain. He just finished his fifth year, the most of any of the eight coaches who have served under owner Daniel Snyder. His record: 35-43-1. Throw out the first season, you say, because he was cleaning up the Mike Shanahan mess? Fine. The past four years have yielded a record of 31-31-1. Yawn.
Gruden’s five Washington teams have made precisely one playoff appearance that lasted precisely one playoff game. That was in his second season, when a late-season surge resulted in a 9-7 record and yielded a division championship, which was promptly followed by a home loss to Green Bay on wild-card weekend.
He couldn’t be more middling, this guy. In those four years, in which he has neither won more than nine games nor lost more than nine games, 14 teams have won more games than Washington, and 14 teams have lost more games than Washington. If not for the it’s-in-the-DNA dysfunction that comes with being employed by this franchise, his teams are a human shoulder shrug.
So there’s an easy conclusion: His teams haven’t quantifiably improved, so he should be fired.
The problem with that conclusion: The case to keep Gruden is equally plain. He has posted two winning seasons, and the only other Snyder coach who can say that is Joe Gibbs. More importantly, his past two teams have been so riddled by injuries, it’s hard to know whether to laugh or cry.
When Alex Smith, the starting quarterback, went down with a broken leg last month, darned if Colt McCoy, his capable backup, didn’t follow with a similar injury. That has been the script here recently. Trent Williams, Jordan Reed, Brandon Scherff, Paul Richardson, Derrius Guice, Jamison Crowder, Chris Thompson, Matt Ioannidis, Jonathan Allen, Quinton Dunbar, Mason Foster — I’m sure I’m missing someone significant — they all missed significant time over the past two seasons.
“You’re talking about very good players that we spent a lot of time with,” Gruden said after Saturday’s loss to Tennessee. “Quarterbacks, guards, tight ends, running backs. It’s just difficult. But that’s pro football.”
Gruden won’t say it, so I will: That’s more than pro football. That’s a run of bad luck that makes the entire enterprise hard to evaluate.
So maybe the best argument to keep him is that, given circumstances that have largely been out of his control, the entire operation hasn’t collapsed. That’s not exactly inspiring, but it’s true.
Really, the only thing you can really say with conviction about Gruden is that it’s hard to say anything with conviction about him, one way or the other. But there are logistical issues here, too, and they’re important.
Start with his contract: In the spring of 2017, for no real reason, Washington granted Gruden a two-year extension. Fire him now, and the franchise owes him for 2019 and 2020. If Snyder really wants to get rid of him, it’s a financial hurdle he can overcome. But it ain’t nothin’.
This, though, is probably more important: We know there are head coaching openings for 2019 in Green Bay and Cleveland. Various league experts, of which I am not one, believe at least four others probably will open: Arizona, Denver, the New York Jets and Tampa Bay. Four others could go either way: Cincinnati, Miami, Carolina and Jacksonville.
That’s 10 total teams, excluding Washington, with wobbly coaching situations entering the final weekend of the season. Even if, say, just six others open up, that’s some major turnover. Are there six or seven worthy candidates who would be an easily identified upgrade over Gruden?
Before you answer that, remember a prospective coach’s evaluation process: In Washington, you have no idea who will be under center next fall. Smith’s leg injury was so bad, it’s unclear whether he will play again. He’s guaranteed $71 million, more than $50 million of that over the next two seasons.
Put aside the regular old mayhem that involves working in Ashburn: Is a hot new coach going to be attracted to a situation in which a 35-year-old quarterback, whose first season in Washington was already kind of blah, is now recovering from a compound fracture in his leg? Worse, what if that 35-year-old quarterback represents only dead money against the salary cap, hindering how a new coach could build his team?
Suddenly that Jets job, with Sam Darnold already in the fold, or the Browns job, with Baker Mayfield slinging it around, doesn’t look so bad.
Oh, and one other thing: Who the heck is making the decision about the coach anyway? Doug Williams is supposedly empowered as the senior vice president of player personnel. But when Washington traded for Smith last spring, he found out when Bruce Allen, the team president, texted him. Doesn’t sound like a guy who’s going to be determining the future of the coach.
So maybe it’s Allen and Snyder evaluating Gruden. How’s that working out? Remember: Allen was hired in December 2009 to bring order to a chaotic front office in which Jim Zorn thought the swinging-gate fake field goal was a sound play and Vinny Cerrato alternately ran the roster, hired the coach — and hosted his own radio program on Friday mornings.
What order has Allen restored? He (and Snyder) hired Mike Shanahan and then fired him four years later. He hired Gruden, with the aforementioned middling results. Allen’s nine-season tenure has yielded two playoff games. Just six franchises — Buffalo, Miami, Oakland, the Rams, Cleveland and Tampa Bay — have played in fewer during that span. That’s the company he keeps.
So he gets another chance at hiring a head coach?
This is muddled. It really is. In so many ways, Gruden has brought calm to a position — head football coach, Washington Redskins — that so often has been defined by chaos. But when you commend him for that, you look up and find that four years of his roster and his program have yielded a record that is just plain flat, that tells you almost nothing.
Bring him back? Sure. Fire him? Um . . . I guess.
The belief here is Gruden should be back in no small part because: Where else are you going to go?
Some conviction, huh? That’s about all the conviction 31-31-1 merits.