- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Ask Jay Gruden how he would describe the offense he has put together in the months since being named coach of the Redskins, and with painstaking care, he’d run down the dimensions.

A solid zone-running game with a bit of power sprinkled in. A pocket passing game with a healthy mix of quick throws, screen passes and play action. Some bootlegs. Some zone-read. Balanced, as the coachspeak goes.

However one describes it, two things are clear: Gruden, as he has often tried to do, has tailored it to his players’ strengths. And, come its full reveal for Washington’s regular-season opener on Sunday at Houston, it won’t look much different from what the previous coaching staff strung together in recent years.

“Everybody wants to say they’re going to run the ball for 250 yards a game, but some defenses are very hard to run against, and you might get behind so you’ve got to have a good balance about you,” Gruden said. “I think balance, diversity, is a key for this offense.”

Gruden had the opportunity this spring to completely overhaul the Redskins’ playbook, discarding all that the team had gained the last four years under coach Mike Shanahan and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. It could have been his chance to put his signature on a phase of the game that he has overseen since he first entered coaching 17 years ago.

Instead, as he evaluated his players, he found it hard to make wholesale changes. For one, the Redskins’ running game has been highly productive in recent seasons. Also, his idea for turning quarterback Robert Griffin III into a pocket passer emphasizes short drops and quick throws — something Griffin did the last two seasons.

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Gruden’s compromise was simple: He’d mix the zone-running game with a tweaked passing game to maximize their abilities. Over time, he’ll reserve the right to change things. Early on, it will be about letting the playmakers do their thing.

“There are a lot of different systems that you can win with and ways to play defense and ways to move the ball, but the biggest thing is, what type of team are you going to be?” said Tony Dungy, the former NFL coach and current television analyst. “Are the players buying into your way of doing it? When you get 53 guys buying into what you want to do, that’s when you’re going to be successful.”

Crash course in new system

The process of installing the playbook this past spring was daunting, but not difficult.

Players received their copies for the first time when offseason workouts began on April 7, and, because teams with new coaches are permitted to hold an extra minicamp, players and coaches benefited from an extra three-day crash course in late April.

The goal was to have every offensive concept installed by the team organized team activities ended in mid-June, so when players returned from a five-week hiatus for training camp, they could begin moving forward with mastering the particulars of certain scenarios.

“At first, it was, ‘Come in and let’s learn these base concepts that we’re going to run,’ and then it was, ‘Boom, all right, now let’s master the protections,’” Griffin said. “After that, it was, ‘All right, now, let’s start looking at personnel and attacking personnel based on the match-ups that you have.’ You put all of that stuff together by the end of OTAs and you come back to training camp and you’re doing it all over again, but it’s just accelerated.”

Between 50 and 60 plays were installed in meetings each night for much of the first week of training camp. As days wore on, the red-zone offense, the goal-line offense, short-yardage plays, the two-minute drill and other special situations were addressed. All of that needed to be in place and understood by the end of the second week.

“It’s going home, it’s drawing the plays over and over, it’s quizzing yourself, it’s saying the plays out loud, asking the questions that come up, watching film of the plays, going back and watching Andy Dalton [Gruden’s previous quarterback in Cincinnati] run the offense at a high level, watching our practice reps,” Cousins said. “You know, the more you’re in it, the more questions come up that can be covered and answered.”

While the Redskins did not put together a game plan for their preseason opener against New England on Aug. 7 — a customary move around the league — they did make preparations for Cleveland 11 days later, mostly to better evaluate players. A game plan was put together for the preseason game at Baltimore on Aug. 22, though the three-day break between games stunted the depth of those preparations.

Once the season begins, coaches will draw from their concepts to put together a comprehensive plan for that week’s opponent. There’s no specific number of plays, week-to-week, that players may be responsible for — just the entire package; a hefty responsibility.

“It’s a multitude of things that you have to be ready for coach to call, because he might call a play that he never called all week in practice but you’ve got to know what to do on that play,” Griffin said. “That’s why it takes professionals to be able to do that stuff.”

Different language, similar concepts

On multiple occasions, Gruden has found himself trying to call a running play with the terminology he used the last three seasons with the Bengals. Because offensive line coach Chris Foerster, the run-game coordinator, was retained to help maximize the team’s strength, Gruden forced himself to make the linguistic translations.

“There’s no reason to change the damn words,” Gruden said. “Now I have to learn the words, so on game days, I’m calling what I called in Cincinnati and Sean [McVay, the offensive coordinator] is like, ‘No, it’s this!’ I’m like, ‘Oh, yeah.’ We’re still evolving, still trying to find that happy medium.”

The changes weren’t radical enough to make it impossible to pick up. Tight end Logan Paulsen, who had a different offensive coordinator during each of his four years at UCLA, said the transition could have been far more arduous for players.

“It’s from the West Coast tree, so obviously, there are some different concepts and slightly different verbiage, but for the most part, it’s the same,” Paulsen said. “There wasn’t a ton of new learning. It was just switching it in your mind.”

That can make it simpler for the players — but then again, care must be taken by the coaching staff. When Dungy took over as head coach in Tampa Bay in 1996, he had his staff draw up an offense from scratch. When he was hired in Indianapolis in 2002, the Colts had the No. 2 offense the year before, giving him reason to keep much of what former coach Jim Mora left behind.

Ultimately, he said, how the Redskins incorporate their offense won’t be as important as how Gruden oversees it.

“Sometimes it takes a year or two and you have to weed some players out who have been used to doing it a different way,” Dungy said. “But the big thing a new coach wants to do is just establish, ‘This is the way we’re going to do things.’”

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