- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 5, 2017

Deep in the evening of his 50th birthday, the news broke. Washington Redskins coach Jay Gruden had signed a two-year extension in a private room of Prime 47, a swanky Indianapolis steakhouse replete with aged wood and crisp white linens.

Gruden, team salary cap guru Eric Schaffer and Prime 47 regular Bob LaMonte, returned to the bar to begin the celebration. In the vicinity were two fellow offensive minds, Sean McVay and Kyle Shanahan; one Gruden honed, the latter of which preceded him in Ashburn.

The news was a beacon in a week of scrutiny. Washington had wobbled through the combine, chased by stories focused on the whereabouts of its general manager and here-we-go-again headshakes about the organization’s ability to stay on a straight path. For a night, a drop of joy entered the narrative. The amiable Gruden was put under contract until 2020, a position that could influence the future of Kirk Cousins and the coach’s standing in Washington lore.

If he fulfills the life of his contract, Gruden will join a select group to have coached seven full seasons for one of the league’s most melodramatic organizations. Just Ray Flaherty, George Allen, Joe Gibbs and Gruden will be able to say they made it that long running a football team in the nation’s capital. It’s a short list of survivors.

Allen is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the father of current Redskins string-puller, Bruce. Gibbs, too, is enshrined in Canton, as is Flaherty. Gruden is 21-26-1 in his three seasons as coach of the Redskins. The team has won 19 games during the last two seasons, allowing Gruden to jump a low bar. The last time that happened was during the 2007-08 seasons. Gibbs was in charge in 2007. The woebegone Jim Zorn era followed the next season.

When Gruden was hired, he received a guaranteed five-year contract. The assurance for such an untested coach — Gruden had never been an NFL coach prior — was rare, particularly in the meat-grinder of Redskins Park.

Had Gruden not received an extension this offseason, he would be walking into a fourth season that was less a penultimate year than a final test. Washington regressed last season, missing the playoffs after winning the NFC East Division a year earlier. Team owner Daniel Snyder would be hesitant to absorb multiple seasons of Gruden’s guaranteed contract. But one? That seemed feasible, and made enough sense that as soon as Washington’s embarrassing season-ending loss to the New York Giants concluded, the referendum on Gruden’s future began.

Saturday night’s extension swats aside that percolating conversation. The endorsement of Gruden can also be used as a calming influence in the Cousins negotiations. Washington just re-committed to the man who unwound the Robert Griffin III saga and installed Cousins as the team’s quarterback. In turn, Cousins began setting organization records, became rich and has lined up a slew of products and causes to pitch.

What Cousins does not have is a long-term deal. Bruce Allen claimed in the offseason that a multi-year deal between the organization and quarterback would be easier to come by than many thought. Instead, the team again used the franchise tag on Cousins, moved to the NFL Draft Combine playing a bizarre public game of geolocation with its general manager and was surrounded by trade rumors for a quarterback who is again on a very expensive one-season deal.

Gruden’s extension does not explain where general manager Scot McCloughan has been, and why, during the combine. The team said he is away from the organization to handle the death of his 100-year-old grandmother, which occurred Feb. 6, according to an obituary. McCloughan has long touted himself as a “scout with a title” whenever in a position of power. Part of his entrenched philosophy is that multiple in-person meetings are crucial for proper player evaluation.

“For me, I learned from Ron Wolf and my father, that you have to see them in person and you have to get to know the individual,” McCloughan said in his near-empty office shortly after being hired in 2015. “What gives him the aspect that makes him average to good or good to great, or, does he stay static? That’s so hard to find out, but, I’ve been lucky enough to see both sides. I think I’ve got a pretty good idea how to figure it out now.”

After not being allowed to speak with the media at January’s Senior Bowl, which is atypical of the event, McCloughan did not attend the combine, making him unavailable to have a conversation with prospects he could be drafting in seven weeks. In various passing sound bites, Allen said everything would be fine once McCloughan completed his family obligations.

Within this swirl, Gruden’s extension popped up. He turned 50 on Saturday night. For his birthday, he received two more years on his contract that could put him in charge until 2020. His wife, Sherry, provided Gruden with a plush-football-sized puppy.

To make it this far in the everlasting turmoil of Redskins Park and guillotine-dropping environment of the NFL, Gruden has relied on offensive savvy and a playful demeanor. He was cleaned up in a Redskins polo shirt, with his hair swept to the side like his mom had made some late adjustments on the way out the door, during his lone media appearance at the combine.

But, typically, Gruden is in a baseball cap and cracking jokes. During a sitdown interview in 2015, then-rookie Brandon Scherff wander by for an interview of his own. Spying the 315-pound offensive lineman, Gruden didn’t miss a beat when raising his voice to make an off-color joke about Scherff’s body mass. He’s often self-deprecating when taking fire from reporters in the press conference room at Redskins Park, using humor as a mechanism to diffuse the perpetual jabbing a Redskins coach receives.

Still, it’s taken time for him to adjust to the glare in Washington. He deemed himself too forthcoming early in his tenure at Redskins Park. Gruden’s first season was a careening journey that had become commonplace for the organization. At 4-12, there was a lot to fix. His boldest move was the removal of Griffin and installment of Cousins.

“The No. 1 thing is learning about the guys that you have and learning about the team that you want to build,” Gruden said then. “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.”

For two seasons, the offense has hummed under Gruden. It was so effective that its young coordinator, McVay, was hired to coach the Los Angeles Rams. Cousins, tight end Jordan Reed, wide receiver Jamison Crowder and free agents Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson are all better off for having played in it.

The Gruden-Cousins combination has at least one more season, assuming Cousins is not traded, to exceed where they have gone together in three years. Washington has not won a playoff game and made just one postseason appearance with the duo. It won the division, then stumbled through a year filled with almosts and capped by the strike of a gong. Those things were deemed enough to give Gruden more time, intertwining every future birthday with the day he signed on in the back of an Indianapolis steakhouse for two more years with Washington. The question is if it will be enough to influence Cousins.

Nora Princiotti contributed to this article.

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