- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 28, 2017

PHOENIX — Jay Gruden isn’t worried.

He spent his Tuesday afternoon on the golf course, hitting the links with Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Dirk Koetter for an informal tourney among the NFL’s head coaches. When he sat down for his scheduled media availability Tuesday evening, he was tan and smiling, cracking jokes left and right. And really, truly, he said, he doesn’t know what all this fuss about his team going down the tubes is about.

“I don’t know why everybody is so doom and gloom around here,” Gruden said. “We’re excited.”

Most of the reasoning behind any doomsday projections has something to do with the firing of Scot McCloughan, the team’s former general manager, amid anonymous accusations of alcohol abuse. McCloughan was let go March 9 after evidence that he had been marginalized within Redskins Park had mounted for over a month.

“I was disappointed. I liked Scot. I liked working with Scot. He’s a good person and a great talent evaluator so any time that you lose somebody that you become close with whether it’s a GM or a player, you know, it’s disappointing,” Gruden said. “But at the end of the day in pro football, anybody who’s been around it enough understands that change is going to happen and you have to react and adjust to it and move forward with a positive outlook, and I think everybody in this organization has a positive outlook.”

“We’re going to miss Scot obviously, but we’re also positive that we can do the things we need to get done to be successful.”

Though Gruden was clear that he feels the Redskins will be fine without McCloughan, he stopped well short of saying that the Redskins needed to fire him.

“No, I’m not going to say [that decision] had to be made,” Gruden said. “It was made, that’s all that I can live with. When decisions are made of that magnitude in the organization you think about it and you reflect on the good things that you learned from Scot and the good things that he did for the team but at the end of the day it’s about moving forward.”

It looks like Gruden will be moving forward with the Redskins for some time. A month ago, he was going into his fourth year of a five-year deal with the Redskins. On his 50th birthday, however, he signed a two-year extension in early March that would keep him with the team through 2020.

“It’s significant obviously, it’s a great honor to be the head coach of the Washington Redskins and have Dan [Snyder] and Bruce [Allen] have the faith of wanting me to continue to be here is important,” Gruden said. “Hopefully I can make them right by the decision and do the best I can moving forward.”

Gruden said that he hadn’t been worried about his contract, given that he had two years left, but that the possibility of an extension was first mentioned to him about a month before he ultimately signed. He didn’t have to think twice, he said.

“I signed it right away when it was offered,” Gruden said. There was no negotiating whatsoever, just ‘Give me the pen’.”

Gruden’s extension came during the scouting combine in Indianapolis, a few days before McCloughan was fired and at a time when the internal conflict rumors were reaching their peak. On the surface, it seemed like a well-timed effort to project an image of stability for players and fans, but Gruden didn’t take that idea too seriously.

“I think it’s good for the players who like me that there’s stability,” he said, chuckling. “The ones that don’t, maybe not.”

Gruden said that the coaching staff is getting more involved in the draft, though that’s not much of a change for him.

“I felt like I’ve had a big role,” Gruden said. “I’ve had a lot of fun with it. It’s one of the reasons that drew me to this job is the ability to have a role and a say in personnel.”

He keeps in regular touch with quarterback Kirk Cousins, and was markedly un-fussed about his starter’s ongoing contract situation. Cousins is currently set to make nearly $24 million by playing under the franchise tag next season, though the team has said repeatedly that it hopes to reach a long-term deal with Cousins before the July 15 deadline.

“He’s getting ready,” Gruden said. “He’s excited about the season, we’ve been in contact on things he wants to work on and we’ve addressed that and so when OTA’s hit we can hit it hard. It’s great to have a guy who’s been in the system for two years now that he can just jump right into a really hardcore situation at work. And just really fine-tune some of those other things.”

Gruden said that Cousins’ experience makes him well-suited to be an “extension of the coaching staff,” serving as a player-coach to young receivers, especially. He shook off the idea that playing under the cloud of the franchise tag could impact Cousins’ willingness to invest in team-building.

“I think having the long-term contract would maybe help a little bit but I think when we get on the field the first game Sunday afternoon people are going to look to him for leadership and he’s going to provide it, whether it’s a one-year deal or a 10 year deal,” Gruden said.

There have been several examples of players pouting after getting tagged, but Gruden doesn’t see what’s so hard about Cousins’ situation.

“I don’t know how difficult it is, really,” Gruden said. “He’s making a lot of money. He’s doing a nice job, he’s having fun playing, the players all respect him and rally around him.”

If McCloughan’s firing, last season’s disappointing end or constant questions about Cousins’ contract had gotten to Gruden, he didn’t let it show. Typically upbeat, he listed his favorite traits about new free agent acquisitions and said he felt the team has every reason to expect a great 2017.

“I’m very optimistic, yeah. I know it’s not great but we’ve had back-to-back winning seasons and there’s no reason for us not to be optimistic. We’ve been very close,” Gruden said.

“Kirk’s excited, I’m excited, so let’s go.”

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