The Washington Redskins wasted little time replacing Mike Shanahan as head coach of the franchise. With four other teams still engaged in their coaching search, Washington jumped to the head of the line and signed former Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden.
Although this is Gruden's first NFL head coaching job, he actually has
significant head coaching experience. From 1998 to 2001, and again from
2004-2008, Gruden was head coach of the AFL's Orlando Predators. He
helped lead Orlando to a pair of ArenaBowl victories in his time leading
the franchise, finishing with a record of 93-61. He also served as head
coach and general manager of the UFL's Florida Tuskers in 2010. In
addition, he served as an offensive assistant under his brother Jon in
Tampa Bay before ending up mentoring Andy Dalton on the Bengals for the
past three seasons.
The first and most pressing question Gruden will have to answer in Washington is how to handle Robert Griffin III. After a stunning rookie season, Griffin struggled returning from injury and had a sub-par sophomore season, struggling through a season filled with highs and lows, as opposed to just a consistent level of mediocrity. While he still showed his ability on the ground-5.7 yards per carry may be down from last season's numbers, but was still a solid performance-his accuracy suffered in the passing game, with his completion percentage dropping five points and his interceptions more than doubling, hitting double-digit numbers. He managed more yards per game, but only because Washington was trailing so much they had to keep airing the ball out. It wasn't a disaster, but it was far below the heights he soared to as a rookie in 2012.
Most crucially, Washington has to get Griffin back into full form, because they've put all the eggs in his proverbial basket. To get Griffin, Washington had to give up their first round picks in three consecutive drafts, with the last one being due this year. That's quite a haul-worth it if Griffin keeps playing like he did his rookie season, as an electrifying, franchise quarterback who can win with both his arms and legs, but a steep price to play for this year's version of RGIII. The trade hurts even more when you realize that Washington would have been picking second overall this season, were it not for the trade-essentially, for Griffin, they could have had Russell Wilson, Cordarrelle Patterson, and Jadeveon Clowney.
But looking back like that doesn't help, and if this year becomes a blip in Griffin's career, then nearly any price paid for him would be worth it. The question is, is Gruden the one to help Griffin develop into the sort of player who can consistently produce that kind of value?
His time at Cincinnati casts a bit of doubt on that. Andy Dalton has turned in a solid, if unspectacular, start to his career under Gruden, but "consistent" would not be the first adjective I would use to describe him. While he's improved every season, he still throws too many interceptions, and the number's gone up every year, to the point where the turned the ball 26 times this season. Worse, his success this year has mostly come against sub-par defenses. In his 12 games against the Ravens and Steelers, for example, Dalton's thrown 16 interceptions to just 11 touchdowns. Of course a quarterback's numbers are going to look worse against tougher teams, but studies show that Dalton's numbers are inflated by "ridiculous numbers against some of the more ridiculously bad defenses"-a fact backed up both by numbers, and by the anecdotal evidence of the Bengals flaming out in each of the last three postseasons.
Nor has the Bengals offense, in general, been lighting up the charts under Gruden-they have remained steady in 17th place in DVOA for each of Gruden's last three seasons with the team. The raw numbers have slightly improved, going from ever-so-slightly below average to ever-so-slightly above average, but it doesn't scream out "offensive genius" at first blush. They have improved in points-per-game, but part of that has been an improvement on the defensive side of the ball, giving the Bengals offense more opportunities in better situations.
Gruden's likely a better candidate than the raw numbers indicate; there's a reason so many teams had him on their shortlist of people to interview. It just seems that the choice of that coach at this point in time, rather than waiting to interview someone like Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell or San Diego's Ken Whisenhunt-if you're going to go for someone this quickly, shouldn't it be a surefire, knock-your-socks off style choice? If this was Jon Gruden, the timing would make sense, or if they thought they could pry someone like Kevin Sumlin out of Texas A&M or David Shaw out of Stanford, then the timing makes sense. Jay Gruden's NFL track record doesn't scream "huge impact hire"-which, it should be clear, doesn't mean he'll be bad at the job at all, just that it's a surprising move for Washington to bring him in so soon into the process. Maybe they were in a rush to get back to reading casino reviews.
Will Gruden be a success in Washington? His fate lies straight along the lines of RGIII. If Gruden can help Griffin develop his pocket-passing prowess and develop into the sort of player who can consistently lead Washington to the playoffs, he's bound to have a long, successful career in charge. If Griffin can't get back to something approaching that magical rookie season, however, Gruden might find himself gone the way of Jim Zorn sooner rather than later.
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