“That’s what hurts the most,” Gruden said after a 25-16 loss to the Tennessee Titans. “I feel like these guys are laying it all on the line. And . . . [chokes up] . . . it’s too bad they couldn’t get it done.”
The typical NFL coach rarely shows much emotion in news conferences, other than anger or annoyance over the line of questioning. Gruden, who is quite open and friendly, prefers a rapid-fire, matter-of-fact style with a dash of humor. But his feelings overcame him briefly, and in those few seconds, he hinted at the difficulty of keeping another injury-ravaged team together. And then he returned to the cold business of declaring that Washington, at 7-8 and losers of five of its last six games, is “not good enough.”
It doesn’t matter that Washington has 21 players on injured reserve. It doesn’t matter that Gruden is teaching his fourth starting quarterback. A 7-8 record, especially after a 6-3 start, is not good enough. One playoff appearance in Gruden’s five seasons as the head coach is not good enough. And even though some veteran players will tell you this squad has been better and more unified, it looks like more of the same. For the second straight year, Washington enters the regular season finale with the same record. Over the past four seasons, they are 31-31-1. You can’t sell progress with those results. However, it is a little easier to get people to buy into the notion that, through injuries and inconsistency and player development, the franchise finally has built a foundation.
If Washington isn’t definitively a better team right now, it is in a better situation, without a doubt. The defensive line, full of young players the organization drafted, is the team’s strength. The offensive line has some health concerns and probably needs to add an above-average guard to its mix, but it is a solid unit. The team depth is such that the play of the special teams, which had long been a major problem for this franchise, can be considered a strength. There’s an understanding now that Washington, despite Gruden’s pass-happy track record, will be a physical, run-oriented team that plays aggressive defense. It’s a work in progress, but the commitment is there.
There’s an intangible charm to this team because the locker room has good character and camaraderie. It gets harder to make that case when Swearinger is openly ripping Greg Manusky’s defensive play calling. Linebacker Zach Brown has had a few rebellious moments, too. But on a 53-man roster, there is going to be conflict. Instead of isolating controversy, it’s better to look at the team as a whole and consider some praise from veteran running back Chris Thompson, who is a glue guy in the locker room.
“I really feel like this team has become a band of brothers,” said Thompson, who admits that chemistry has been poor on previous Washington teams. “I feel like every single guy in here looks at the next guy like his brother, so as we’ve gone through all this adversity all year, guys continue to just keep it together, having guys giving speeches every single week, different guys just basically letting us know that we’re not going to give up on each other regardless of the situation. And that’s what I love about this crew.
“I just believe everything that we’ve gone through, this team has felt different than any other team that I’ve been on. These guys here, it’s something different. I’ll tell you, I’ve missed a lot of games this year, but I’ve enjoyed every single day that I’ve been with these guys.”
The Redskins are still highly flawed, but the hope is that the next phase of construction will be easier because they have a sturdy base, at last.
Is that reason to bring back Gruden for a sixth season? It’s a tough call, but aside from that miserable home loss to the New York Giants on Dec. 9, the team has been competitive despite severe injury attrition. I’m interested in seeing what Gruden and a somewhat revised coaching staff can do with those foundational pieces. I’m also on the record as saying that Bruce Allen, the team president, has to go for reasons much broader than this season’s mediocrity.
It’s a little incongruous to have a new president or general manager and keep the coach. It’s far from unprecedented, however. Washington never truly replaced Scot McCloughan, who was fired in March of 2017 . To finish what the organization is building, it needs a true and accomplished talent evaluator picking the players.
The loss to Tennessee was another reminder of how this team needs greater star power. You can’t just excuse the limitations and blame them on injuries. This team lacks sufficient speed, particularly on defense. It needs durable players. It needs athletic players. It needs receivers and another young and versatile tight end. It needs a fast safety. It needs inside linebackers who run sideline to sideline. It needs an outside linebacker who can complement Ryan Kerrigan.
After the game, running back Adrian Peterson ignored his 119-yard performance and lamented a few runs that he thought he could’ve turned into big plays. As he spoke, I could only think that Peterson is one of the few Washington players who could make the claim that he had greatness to leave on the field. And he’s a 33-year-old future Hall of Famer who wasn’t signed until two weeks before the season began.
“For me, I have to make those count,” Peterson said. “It eats at me. I feel like we can learn a lot from it moving forward. I don’t think anyone can question the heart and desire that each and every guy played with these last couple of weeks. I’m still proud of the group for going out and giving their all. Sometimes, you give your all, and you fall short.”
There’s an inclination to look at the Redskins, see all the edits to their depth chart and give them a pass for simply playing hard and creating something competitive out of a dire situation. But on the other side of the field, the Titans were talking about their resiliency, too. And backup quarterback Blaine Gabbert just had to win his third game of the season subbing for Marcus Mariota, who was injured just before halftime.
The proper perspective is that Washington gave its all, and it’s a shame that the roster wasn’t good enough to withstand the injury trauma. The offensive talent was suspect before all the injuries. The line-centric defense was equipped to play mostly in a phone booth. Even with this makeshift lineup, the Redskins had opportunities to steal a victory at Nissan Stadium. But they whiffed, same as Ha Ha Clinton-Dix did on a potential game-changing interception.
The good news is that there’s now plenty of substance upon which to build a winning team. Give Gruden and his coaches credit for developing that. Give the front office credit for drafting and acquiring some of those key pieces. But recognize that it took the franchise too long to figure out the fundamentals of roster construction, and that’s why the organization is smack dab at .500 over the past four years.
The challenge is different now. They need stars at skilled and other high-profile positions. They need to make a significant draft and free agency investment to do that. And they need a nuanced evaluation of their training and injury prevention measures.
If Gruden’s job is in question, the first thing asked should be: Is there any way the franchise can help him do his job better?
Washington has built .500 teams for the past four seasons, and no surprise, it is a .500 team. The problem isn’t coaching. It’s a lack of difference makers.