- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 8, 2018

ASHBURN — Jay Gruden couldn’t resist.

As soon as rookie wide receiver Trey Quinn hauled in the pass, the Redskins coach chimed in with his usual banter. Thursday marked Quinn’s first practice since he suffered a high ankle sprain in Week 1 against the Arizona Cardinals.

“Look at 14,” Gruden said. “Who the hell is that guy?”

Even with his offense decimated again by injury, Gruden maintains the same irreverent, devil-may-care manner that has marked his coaching career.

In his fifth season at the helm, the Redskins are off to their best start under Gruden at 5-3.

But midway through the season, Washington faces hurdles ahead as it clings to a one-game lead in the NFC East ahead of Sunday’s game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The big problem: Starters Shawn Lauvao, Brandon Scherff and Paul Richardson are out for the season. And the Redskins are still waiting for running back Chris Thompson (rib), wideout Jamison Crowder (ankle), left tackle Trent Williams (thumb) and Quinton Dunbar (shin) to be ready for game action.

Oh, and the passing game isn’t working.

Gruden isn’t panicking.

Still, the Redskins haven’t made the playoffs since 2015. Gruden said finishing strong in the second half is “critical.”

“We’re in a good spot — not in the best spot ever — but we’re in a spot where we control our destiny,” Gruden told The Washington Times. “That’s [all] you can ask for. So we’ve got to make this thing about us and what we do to prepare and how we play moving forward. I’m excited.”

That doesn’t mean it will be easy.

Gruden knows full well the difficulty of competing with an injury-riddled roster. Last season, the Redskins went 3-5 in the second half to finish 7-9 and out of the playoffs. Washington ended the season with 23 players on injured reserve.

This season, Gruden’s made some adjustments. On Wednesday, he held a walk-through instead of a normal practice. Players went through 80 pad-free repetitions instead of their usual 35 padded reps. The change comes as three newly-signed offensive linemen try to absorb more plays and concepts.

Gruden’s keep-it-loose coaching style can catch some by surprise. Center Chase Roullier, a 2017 sixth-round pick out of Wyoming, was used to the more by-the-book, almost militaristic-approach of his college coach, Craig Bohl.

Roullier said Gruden is serious about football — but he keeps it fun.

“He brings a lot of energy every practice, whatever it is,” Roullier said. “We’re out there grinding and Jay will come up behind us and try something a little goofy. It brings energy to the team.”

Gruden’s demeanor can make him an easy target for sports-talk radio, but his players say there’s a toughness behind the barbs and wisecracks.

“People think they know our head coach because they’ve seen him walking down the street a couple times, but that’s not — this is a job, everybody treats it like it,” linebacker Mason Foster said. “Jay takes it more seriously than anybody. … This year, (training camp) was definitely for real. It was full pads every day. Physically tackling — that’s what he wants his team to be.”

This year, the Redskins have forged an identity in the first half of the season not often seen with Gruden teams.

Known as an offensive innovator, Gruden this year seems to be channeling the late Chuck Knox, the former Los Angeles Rams coach known for his “run-first” philosophy.

And don’t complain to Gruden about quarterback Alex Smith, who’s in his first year with the Redskins. Smith’s a winner, the coach said.

“Sure we’d love to have better stats on offense, but the bottom line is we are where we are,” Gruden said. “A lot of the reason we’re in first place is because of his play.”

The defense, too, has been promising. Despite blowouts to the New Orleans Saints and the Atlanta Falcons, the Redskins have allowed the ninth-fewest points per game (21.5).

There are encouraging signs for the Redskins, though they are far from guaranteed to make the playoffs.

If they don’t, there will be questions about what comes next. Gruden is already the longest-tenured coach in the Dan Snyder era. But the team has just one playoff appearance in that span.

Gruden said he understands the business.

“That conversation has been going on for five years,” he said. “It’s never bothered me.”

“Every year there’s a sense of urgency,” he said. “If you don’t have a sense of urgency in this business, you don’t have a sense.”

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