- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Jay Gruden’s first season with the Washington Redskins was trying. He carved out a decorated career as a quarterback at Louisville, then spent the better part of the next two decades playing and coaching in the minor leagues. He made a transition to the NFL as an offensive assistant with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, joining his brother Jon’s coaching staff, and later served three years as the offensive coordinator for the Cincinnati Bengals.

That resume couldn’t prepare Gruden for the level of scrutiny and continued struggles that would follow the Redskins. The team finished 4-12 last season, dogged by a series of issues — most notably at quarterback, where three players waffled under center for significant portions of the season.

Gruden’s hope is that the second season ends up better than his first. Although he was optimistic a year ago that the Redskins would be better than 3-13, their record in the final year under coach Mike Shanahan, one victory proved that prediction to be only marginally true.

The Redskins overhauled their defense, importing not only a new defensive coordinator and coaching staff but four players who are expected to start when the season opens on Sept. 13. They hired Scot McCloughan, a highly regarded former college scout, as their general manager, and he drafted 10 players, seven of whom made the initial 53-man roster.

Just last week, Gruden took his boldest step yet, announcing plans to install Kirk Cousins as the starting quarterback, presumably ending the rocky tenure of Robert Griffin III.

“The No. 1 thing is learning about the guys that you have and learning about the team that you want to build,” Gruden said last week. “You’ve got to understand that this could be your only opportunity as a head football coach, and if that’s the case, you’ve got to make sure you go at it your way and deliver the message you want to deliver and build the team that you want to build.”

Those who have been around Gruden in the past have routinely praised his ability to communicate with a variety of players. He was seen as the type of person who could relate to Griffin, helping the former No. 2 overall pick take the next step in his development, while also using his extensive past and his family’s pedigree to foster a new era for the moribund franchise.

Instead, there were plenty of hiccups that derailed that progress. Gruden had remained fairly hard on his players all season — the byproduct of losing all but four games, when few pleasantries are exchanged — but drew particular ire for his criticism of Griffin following the Redskins’ 27-7 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Nov. 16.

That game was Griffin’s second since returning from a dislocated left ankle and the first after the Redskins’ bye week. It was presumed that the extra week would have allowed Griffin greater time to recover and heal from the injury; instead, he threw two interceptions, was sacked six times and had a 73.3 quarterback rating in one of only two victories by the Buccaneers all season.

Afterward, Griffin said that Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning “don’t play well if their guys don’t play well,” which was perceived as a shot at the rest of his teammates. A day later, Gruden ran down Griffin’s flaws, noting that his footwork was below average, his eyes were in the wrong place on several throws and that Griffin’s performance “was not even close to being good enough to what we expect from that quarterback position.”

Gruden said after the press conference that all of those critiques had been shared with Griffin privately, and that the quarterback acknowledged, understood and took them in stride. Instead, he was viewed as having ravaged Griffin in the press conference — a situation that the coach still thinks was unjust.

“It was one instance, by the way,” Gruden pointed out, when asked about the criticism. “It was one [freaking] negative thing after the Tampa game. It’s not like every day I came out and bashed him. It was one [darn] press conference.”

But, Gruden said, he learned from the response to that criticism, and he shared with Griffin his feelings on that exchange. No matter how Griffin felt, he told the quarterback, he needed to be aware that only the message, and not the intent behind it, would carry.

“We get so much publicity around here, that’s just the way it is,” Gruden said. “That’s where we really collided last year. It wasn’t so much about him as a player but his words to the media, you know what I mean? He can’t alienate himself from the players. When we struggle, when the team doesn’t produce, we don’t produce. It’s not him versus me or me versus him. It’s us, and that’s ultimately what I want to get across to him. His words, my words, represent this organization — not me, not him, not me versus him, but about what we need to do to get better and improve ourselves. That’s the biggest challenge that we have.”

Until Griffin was benched early last week for Cousins, Gruden had spent significant time during the offseason building him up and restoring his confidence. That was a planned approach, Gruden acknowledged, understanding that minimizing any doubt surrounding Griffin would work to his benefit.

It was also a chance for Gruden to censor himself, understanding that any slights of anyone could be detrimental in plenty of ways.

“You have to be careful around here, and I’ve learned that the hard way, unfortunately,” Gruden said. “You know, that’s part of being a first-year coach. You get a little naïve, a little too trustworthy, of [the media], so I’ve learned, but I’ve got to be careful. I still want to be truthful and be who I am, but I also have to understand that my words will be read by this [player] right here and I don’t want it to be taken the wrong way and hurt his feelings. I’ve got a whole team and a whole organization and a whole fanbase that I have to represent in a positive way, and that’s what I’m trying to do.”

Players, for the most part, took well not only to Gruden’s coaching, but also to his management style. Gruden occasionally joins drills in practice — at one point early in training camp, he grabbed a red foam pad that he used to hit tight ends at the line of scrimmage — and is often joking around with players during the warm-up period.

It has helped foster a collegial, two-way relationship that several players have said they have grown to appreciate.

“Any time you’re in a situation with a coach who you know expects something, you’ve got to go out there and work hard,” fullback Darrel Young said. “Every system is different. We had a year in the system, and I’m not going to say he has his core group of guys, but I think he knows the guys who he wants who fit his system, and hopefully, we stick together and we stay around long enough to keep that tradition, hopefully, around here a long time.”

Gruden has been taking a similar long-term approach. The process has not been easy, he will readily acknowledge, and it has been difficult.

That’s not to say that he’s not cut out for it. Gruden, who signed a five-year contract when he was hired prior to last season, knows the fickle nature of coaching. He’s aware that only one thing, winning, can end all the strife.

“At the end of the day, I don’t want to lose this job and think, ‘Aw, dammit. I wish I had done it differently. I wish I would have gone at it a different way,’ Gruden said. “I just want to make sure that I continue to go on the path that I believe in. I believe this is the right way to build a franchise. Whatever happens after that is fine. I believe in myself, you know?”

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