The concept, to use the family parlance, is called Twister, and it is the quintessential Gruden football play, liable to show up anywhere from the epic family holiday-pickup games — Jon Gruden and his three sons vs. brother Jay Gruden and his three sons — to, quite possibly, Sunday afternoon’s 2014 regular season opener of the Washington Redskins. Jay Gruden, the Redskins’ new head coach, may not hear Jon’s voice in his headset anymore, but who needs headsets when you have cellphones?
“I could call him and say, ‘Why dontcha just run Twister, man?’ ” Jon Gruden said into his left pinkie finger one recent morning, his thumb held next to his ear, in the classic hand-depiction of a phone. “‘They’re playing double-switch coverage every . . . play!’” He put the hand-phone down. “Yeah, good ol’ Twister,” he said with his familiar squinty smile. “It’s a three-level concept in the passing game. Can’t say much more than that.”
Absurd as it might sound for the Grudens to collaborate on play-calls in the middle of Redskins games this season, the truth may not be too far off. They have been sharing ideas — at the dinner table, on napkins, on whiteboards, late at night, early in the morning, on vacations and on game days — nearly all their lives.
This summer, as he has prepared for his first game as an NFL head coach, Jay Gruden, 47, could lean on a handful of football mentors from a lifetime in the game, from his father, Jim — a former high school head coach, Notre Dame assistant and San Francisco 49ers scout — to coaching legend Howard Schnellenberger, for whom Gruden played quarterback at the University of Louisville in the late 1980s, to various coaches and colleagues from the 18 years he spent in the Arena Football League.
But there is little question who sits atop the list of men who have shaped Jay Gruden’s vision as a head coach: his big brother Jon, 31 / 2 years older, the Super Bowl-winning former NFL head coach and current analyst for ESPN’s “Monday Night Football.” They may not look alike or act alike — Jon is shorter and more high-strung, with an expressive, telegenic face that once got him named to People magazine’s 50 Most Beautiful People list, while Jay’s beefy, everyman face is most notable for the cowlick above it that can’t be tamed — but they think alike.
For seven seasons in Tampa Bay, Jay served as an offensive assistant on Jon’s Buccaneers staff, connected to him on game days from the press box via headsets — charting defenses, suggesting plays and dictating replay challenges. They rarely argued. And in 2003, they won a Super Bowl.
“I’m on his branch,” Jay said of the football philosophy he took from his brother, using the common terminology of the football coaching “tree.” Jon Gruden himself resides on the Mike Holmgren branch of the fruitful Bill Walsh tree, the ancestral home of the West Coast offense that both Gruden brothers espouse.
“I think the Grudens have a patent on their own version of the West Coast offense because they built it so well,” Baltimore Ravens Coach John Harbaugh said this offseason.
Six years after the Grudens were terminated in Tampa Bay — the only time in his career Jay Gruden has been fired — the tables have turned. Now it is Jay, following a lengthy stint in the Arena Football League and three successful seasons as the Cincinnati Bengals’ offensive coordinator, who is at the helm of an NFL team. And it is Jon who is doing what he can to help out. In that effort, the latter seems unrestrained by any expectations of neutrality he might have due to the nature of his ESPN job.
“We collaborate” — note the word choice and the present tense — “on coverage-beaters, core concepts, double-switch-beaters, plus-10 patterns — just technical football,” Jon Gruden said. “Sometimes I just like to show him something I’ve seen. I say, ‘Man, I’ve got a great idea.’ And sometimes I’m sure he’s probably holding the phone over here.” He makes his hand into a phone again and holds it an arm’s length from his ear. “But that’s okay,” he said. “We’re brothers.”
Between the Redskins’ four preseason games and those three full seasons with the Bengals, much is already known about what a Jay Gruden offense looks like. He likes to run the football. He likes to get the ball to his playmakers and let them make plays. He likes to use his tight ends and running backs in the passing game. (Redskins backs caught more passes — nine — against New England in the team’s first preseason game than they did in the entire month of November 2013 under Mike Shanahan.) It is, in short, much the same philosophy his brother had in Tampa Bay.
“In terms of the foundation of what they believe in and their schemes, they’re very similar,” said Redskins offensive coordinator Sean McVay, who has coached under both Gruden brothers.
The wild card, though — and the element of a Jay Gruden offense that can’t be gleaned from his past — is Robert Griffin III. No one, except perhaps Gruden, his players, his coaches and his brother, knows what a Gruden/Griffin offense will look like, because neither Gruden nor his brother ever had a quarterback like him.
“You have to adjust your offense to the quarterback and the supporting cast you have,” Jon Gruden said. “What can I bring here? And what has worked in the past? You have to combine those two things. You can’t change everything your first year. You’ve got to gradually build your team, one brick at a time.”
The score was Syracuse 48, visiting Louisville 0. After an evening flight and a couple of buses, the Cardinals, their bodies and egos bruised, made it back to campus in the middle of the night. As Jay Gruden, a freshman starting quarterback on that 1985 squad, recalls it now, it was 5 a.m. when the players were roused from sleep by coaches banging on their doors.
Coach Schnellenberger was calling for a full scrimmage — in pads. It was barely 12 hours since their game had ended.
“Guys were literally damn near dying,” Gruden recalled. “They didn’t have the same rules [restricting full-contact practices] back then that they do now.”
Gruden learned passing mechanics and love of the game from his father. He learned X’s and O’s from his brother. But he learned discipline from Schnellenberger, the crusty old cuss who had played under Bear Bryant at Kentucky and later coached under Bryant at Alabama. That 1985 team was Schnellenberger’s first at Louisville, and he seemed intent on installing an unrelenting, Junction Boys mentality in his new charges.
“That first year at Louisville, I had to purge the squad because it was unpurged, undisciplined,” Schnellenberger recalled. “I had to push further than even Bryant did. Nobody’s tougher than Bryant, but my program was tougher because I had further to go.”
Gruden wound up at Louisville, choosing it over Florida State largely because of the pro-style offense Schnellenberger ran, a vestige of his days as an assistant to Don Shula with the Miami Dolphins. It also didn’t hurt that Schnellenberger used Joe Namath, whom he had coached at Alabama as Bryant’s coordinator, to recruit Gruden. “That got my mom excited,” Gruden said.
But it didn’t take long on the Louisville campus before Gruden began to wonder what he had gotten himself into.
“You go from a high school player, loved by your mom and dad, sleep in a comfortable bed, get up whenever you want, go to school, come home and take a nap — to playing for Howard Schnellenberger,” he said. “It was tough.”
There were days during training camp, Gruden recalled, when, perhaps two hours in, Schnellenberger would pronounce himself unsatisfied with the effort and results and order everyone to start over.
“And I mean all the way over,” Gruden said. “We’d have to run back to the locker room and run back out and go through stretching and everything. We’d be out there for 41 / 2, five hours, all told.”
Other times, when Schnellenberger thought his players were lollygagging through practice, he would suddenly order a live tackling drill — for everyone, quarterbacks included. Gruden still has a crooked index finger on his left hand — broken when it was caught in someone’s face mask — as a memento.
“I could go on and on,” Gruden said. “But really, when all is said and done, he liked to think he turned a bunch of young kids into men. He taught us the value of hard work. He wanted loyal players who worked hard and bought in, and the guys who stuck with him, we have a real bond.”
All these years later, Gruden still talks to Schnellenberger regularly. The old coach, now 80, is just a big softie. When Gruden’s oldest son, J.J., was looking for a graduate assistant coaching job a couple of years ago, Gruden called Schnellenberger, then at Florida Atlantic, and Schnellenberger created a spot for him. Gruden’s wife, Sherry, is Facebook friends with Schnellenberger, who posts a steady stream of family snapshots and black and white photos of himself as a player.
“What a great young coach he is. What a great young man,” Schnellenberger said of Gruden. “He knew what he was doing. He knew as a quarterback he had to be the toughest guy, the leader of the team, and he fulfilled those roles completely. He went through the hardest training camp that any pro player has ever gone through and lived to tell about it.”
A good coach picks up character traits, catchphrases and bits of strategy, often unconsciously, from each of his own coaches, taking the biggest chunks, the ones that underpin his own philosophy, from the mentors who made the biggest impressions. He absorbs knowledge at every level along the way, adapting those lessons for the changing circumstances of each next stop.
In other words, yes, those 18 years in the Arena Football League were worth something tangible by the time Jay Gruden returned to what he calls the “outdoor” game.
“He has a way of seeing things, in tighter areas, like the red zone, because that Arena game was so compact, with its shorter spaces,” McVay said. “Because of that, he has a unique ability to see certain things that others wouldn’t.”
The only thing you can’t take from your mentors is personality. That has to be your own. Compared to his brother’s cartoonish intensity — Jon Gruden famously acquired the nickname “Chucky” because of his resemblance to the murderous cinematic doll — and his college coach’s ruthless authoritarianism, Jay Gruden is remarkably calm, good-natured, well adjusted and (there’s no other way to say this) normal.
“He is kind of normal and relatable,” said Redskins tight end Logan Paulsen, a holdover from the Shanahan regime. “But he does know football. He has that next level of football knowledge and love. He’s not like these other coaches, with the [office] door closed. He’s a motivator in a different way than the prototypical, crazy, stern football coach. With Jay, you want to play for him because you like him.”
Gruden bristled at the suggestion he may be “too normal” — somehow not crazy enough — to succeed as an NFL head coach, where the ones hoisting Lombardi Trophies can often come across as raving lunatics racked with irrational paranoia.
“You don’t have to be crazy. You have to be competitive,” he said. “And I’m the most competitive guy in America.”
His brother, meanwhile, bristled at the suggestion Jay Gruden’s surest claim to craziness was in accepting the Redskins’ job in the first place — given the way the franchise has churned through coaches under owner Daniel Snyder.
“I remember when I went to the Raiders in 1998,” Jon Gruden said. “Everybody warned me about [owner] Al Davis — warned me about this and warned me about that. Pretty soon you go in there, and you’re a basket case and not yourself. [The Redskins] won three games in . They’ve had eight coaches since 1999. Everybody’s warned [Jay] about this and warned him about that. ‘You’re not going to be here very long.’ Well, just be true to yourself. Just go in there and help these players. Don’t worry about being there 10 days or 10 years or whatever it is.”
That’s the way the Grudens talk, their thoughts full of football jargon and poster-quality platitudes, interspersed with self-deprecating humor and mild vulgarities. In Gruden-speak, lousy players are “slappies” and football plays are “concepts” — with names such as Dusty, Zap, Blast, Twister, Drive, Dino, Razor and Dagger — until you add formations, blocking schemes and pre-snap motion, at which point they become full-fledged plays.
The language and terminology of Jay Gruden’s Redskins offense comes straight out of the Jon Gruden playbook. It is a language they have shared most of their lives, never more so than during the seven seasons in Tampa Bay.
When he joined his brother’s staff — having turned him down a couple of times when Jon was in Oakland because he didn’t want to uproot his family — Jay Gruden was 35 years old and his title was “offensive assistant.” It was a part-time job, allowing him to keep his main gig as head coach of the Arena Football League’s Orlando Predators. He spent most of that first season with the Buccaneers with his mouth shut, offering a suggestion only when it was requested and absorbing most of Jon’s legendary tirades.
“Some of the things he would say were pretty funny,” Jay Gruden recalled. “He’s very, very intense, and he wants every call to be right by the refs, and when they aren’t he has some choice things to say. But my job was mainly to provide him with information, what coverage we’re getting on certain downs, what personnel. We were in charge of challenge flags, and if we were wrong, it wasn’t fun to be on the headset with Jon.”
But by the end of that season, Jay had grown increasingly confident in suggesting plays. Late in the first half of Super Bowl XXXVII, the Buccaneers, already ahead by 10 points, were driving deep in Oakland Raiders territory and facing a first and goal from the Oakland 5-yard line, when Jay Gruden’s voice boomed over his brother’s headset:
“Just call 374 Wasp, dammit!”
Jon Gruden, in a role-reversal, did as he was told.
“Shelf Right Nickel 41 Kill 374 Wasp,” he barked out, the additional elements in the play-call representing the formation and blocking scheme. Moments later, Bucs wide receiver Keenan McCardell, split out wide right, ran straight at Raiders cornerback Charles Woodson and stopped. Quarterback Brad Johnson threw a tight spiral at McCardell’s back shoulder and McCardell caught it for the touchdown.
“Jay called that one,” Jon Gruden recalled, beaming. “I remember a lot of times he was there with plays, formation adjustments and dealing with players who were hard to deal with. That’s his biggest strength. He can deal with people.”
On Sunday afternoon, when Jay Gruden pulls on his headset for his first regular season game as an NFL head coach, you might see 374 Wasp. You might see Twister. You might see plays no Gruden has ever called before, if only because they have never had a Robert Griffin III before.
You won’t see a Chucky on the sideline. You won’t see crazy. And you won’t see Jon Gruden or his cellphone. Starting now, Jay Gruden is on his own, more or less.