In the NFL, the precarious see-saw of expectations and reality almost exclusively favors the latter.
Washington Redskins fans are no strangers to such foibles. In fact, over the past few decades, they have become well-versed. It’s not hard to see where they’ve stumbled: artifacts from the era abound, in the form of press clippings.
The maladies include ill-advised, free agent signings, blown draft picks, terrible trades and a dizzying carousel of head coaches.
Turmoil at the coaching position may be the Redskins’ most egregious transgression. In an industry that favors organization stability, the Redskins have been anything but. Since 1999, no less than eight men have held the title of head coach, including current job-holder Jay Gruden.
The results have been up and down for the latest hire, highlighted by last season’s 9-7 division title. This late-season push helped propel Gruden to the second-most wins, through two seasons, of any of the Redskins’ recent hires:
Wins Through Two Seasons
Joe Gibbs 16-16
Jay Gruden 13-19
Jim Zorn 12-20
Steve Spurrier 12-20
Mike Shanahan 11-21
Norv Turner 9-23
Marty Schottenheimer 8-8*
*fired after one season
The 2016 season has gotten of to an inauspicious start. Expected to be repeat contenders, the Redskins are instead dead last in the NFC East at 1-2. Their point differential is minus 24. In fact, they were quite fortunate to win Sunday (only a meltdown by the Giants prevented a disastrous 0-3 start).
Teams learn most about their coaches when faced with adversity. It’s relatively-easy to keep a locker room unified, during the best of times (see last year’s Redskins, for a perfect example). Keeping it together amidst losing is more challenging.
Redskins’ owner Daniel Snyder hired Gruden, the former Cincinatti offensive coordinator, hoping he’d be a more affable personality than the prickly Shanahan.
“My strength is dealing with players,” Gruden said, the day of the hire. “And, not let them get too high or too low.”
Such platitudes are company line for the first-time head coach, whose Washington epitaph will undoubtedly give mention to his monotonic-demeanor.
The 17-week, regular season is a grind. Keeping a level-head is important. But, it is also possible to be too even-keeled. At a certain point, stoic can be misconstrued as passive.
As a fan, you want your coach to be an authority figure. Take Bill Belichick, Mike Tomlin and John Harbaugh, for example. All three have Super Bowl rings. On Sundays, they can be seen stalking and scowling up and down the sidelines. Their authoritative demeanors demand performance and seem to promise swift retribution to those who fail to perform.
Jay Gruden, by contrast, exudes no such aura. Television cameras often catch him idly-standing, wearing the blank expression of a UPS worker delivering packages. It never wavers, even as precious games slip away.
NFL teams pride themselves on preparation and practice. Coaches spend countless hours developing a Sunday game plan. The X’s and O’s are only as good as the situation dictates. Games change, and adjustments are required.
The Redskins have been guilty of blind-adherence to their game plans. Their play-calling – on both sides of the ball – has been suspect.
Last week, Washington got the ball in the red zone with :19 remaining in the second quarter. Naturally, they mismanaged the clock and headed off to the locker rooms without a single point.
That wasn’t an isolated incident; their clock management has been suspect, all season. Crucial drives often unfold at a snails pace, as precious seconds slip from the clock. In close games, it feels as though everyone is waiting for someone to come along and take charge.
And, that’s the maddening thing about this year’s Redskins. It feels like the sink is running with no one in vicinity of the kitchen. Better awareness and communication between field and sideline will be needed, to ensure opportunities are not wasted.
Also, they’ve been too passive in go-for-it, fourth down situations, opting to punt or settling for field goals. Choosing to the ball back in the opponents’ hands (and returning their own, leaky defense to the field as well), rather than trust their potentially-potent offense to advance the ball a yard is questionable, at best.
Life off the field hasn’t been much easier for Gruden and his staff. There have already been leaks to the press – players venting their frustrations anonymously, indicating a lack of locker room control. The coach seemed to take a passive-aggressive stance to these incidents as well.
“It is very bothersome, and hopefully we address it,” Gruden said, about the leaks – not exactly Draconian in his choice of words.
Then there was the embarrassing moment, during a training camp press conference. Gruden was seemingly ambushed by a question about cornerback Josh Norman’s secondary gig as a Sunday morning analyst.
It wasn’t the biggest deal in the world. But this is the NFL, where even the smallest detail is analyzed to death. It highlighted Gruden’s lack oversight and, worse, made him look incompetent. That sort of stunt would never have occurred in New England.
Gruden and his staff need to take the wheel and regain control of the ship. Winning big this week, when the hapless Browns come to town, would be a step in the right direction.
To accomplish that, they will need a better display of coaching than they’ve shown, thus far.
Were they to eke out a squeaker or, heaven forbid, lose, the bad buzz around this team will grow to a dull roar. And, Gruden will have taken another step closer to being stamped onto the list of Redskins has-beens.