So now that the Washington Redskins’ coaching staff is complete, two things are clear: The group is alarmingly short on experience at the top, and Jay Gruden has rolled the dice on his head coaching career. There’s no other way to put it.
After appearing overmatched in his disastrous rookie year, Gruden should have picked sage lieutenants to lean on during those crises that annually befall the Redskins. Instead, for his second season, Gruden stuck with a formula that didn’t work in assembling what appears to be a shaky command team.
Let’s start on defense. Gruden’s hiring of Joe Barry as defensive coordinator was highly questionable. In Barry’s only previous stint directing a defense, in 2007 and 2008, the Detroit Lions ranked last in the league in yards and points . Gruden worked with Barry in Tampa Bay and picked him, in part, because Barry displayed more passion throughout the interview process than other candidates with better résumés.
Knowing Gruden, I get why the fire-in-the-belly stuff is important to him. A lifelong grinder, he wants to ride or die with similar guys. And who wouldn’t prefer to work with longtime buddies?
But anyone who has watched Washington’s defense the past five seasons knows Gruden didn’t need another good friend on the staff. He needed a 3-4 whiz with a history of making chicken salad out of, well, you get the idea. Barry is an outstanding linebackers coach, a mutual friend who worked with him in Tampa Bay recently told me, and he’s well-respected by many of his former players. NFL history, however, tells us that good position coaches don’t always become successful coordinators.
Tied for 29th in the 32-team league in scoring average this season, Washington has concerns throughout its defense — Gruden should replace three-fourths of the secondary — and will be led by a coordinator who must prove he’s competent.
Barry stepped into a pressure-cooker situation. Offensive coordinator Sean McVay has been in it for some time. At 29, McVay is one of the league’s sharpest young coaches. Although Gruden is the play-caller, McVay had a major role in assembling the game plan and performed it well. Aside from Xs and Os, though, Gruden requires help McVay can’t provide.
Gruden’s verbal flogging of Robert Griffin III embarrassed the organization. Griffin is one of the least self-aware people you’ll ever meet, and his ineptitude in the pocket the past two seasons was outmatched only by his ego. Still, Gruden went too far in his blistering critiques. Behind the scenes, Gruden needed someone to rein him in before his contempt for Griffin became public.
Gruden and McVay have been close since their days on the Buccaneers’ staff, and Gruden promoted McVay after he served only three seasons as Washington’s tight ends coach . It wasn’t McVay’s fault Gruden had even less patience with Griffin than Mike and Kyle Shanahan did, and it would have been unfair for Gruden to demote McVay in favor of an old-timer, preferably someone with head coaching experience, to teach him a thing or two. But in the toxic environment of Redskins Park, having such a young senior member on his staff is a challenge Gruden cannot afford.
New offensive line coach Bill Callahan was a head coach in the NFL and college, and new quarterbacks coach Matt Cavanaugh spent eight seasons as an NFL offensive coordinator. On defense, new secondary coach Perry Fewell is a 17-year NFL coaching veteran who has served as a coordinator. Of course, position coaches don’t set the agenda; head coaches and coordinators do. That’s why it seems Gruden is walking a high wire without a safety net. The lack of leadership in the locker room also hurt him.
Often, many players were way too upbeat after losses. And the group’s lack of professionalism — once, reporters were shouted out of the locker room while attempting to interview Griffin under the direction of a high-ranking team official — reflected poorly on Gruden, who got no help from above from a front office led by empty suit Bruce Allen.
If Gruden had joined a well-run organization, he could have taken some chances with his staff, knowing he had a rock-solid support system in the front office. Gruden, however, didn’t join a good organization. He joined the Redskins.
At this point, new General Manager Scot McCloughan appears to be Gruden’s only hope to succeed in Washington. Quickly, Gruden needs McCloughan to stock the roster with more talent than the Redskins have had in about a generation. Otherwise, the questions about his staff soon could become the least of Gruden’s problems.
In about seven months, the NFL’s 2015 regular season will kick off. But for Gruden, who missed an opportunity to help himself while remaking the Redskins’ coaching staff, it may be over already.
For more by Jason Reid, visit washingtonpost.com/reid.