Will Jay Gruden be the Next Joe Gibbs?
For over twenty years, Redskins fans have been longing for the leadership, stability and track record of success that their beloved team enjoyed under the leadership of Joe Jackson Gibbs. Since then, fans have endured a struggling franchise under the leadership of too many coaches to mention. None of them had a winning career record in Washington.
Gibbs came to Washington as a relatively unknown offensive coordinator from San Diego, after the team had endured another miserable 6-10 season under Jack Pardee. During Gibbs’s first 12-year stint, the Redskins only suffered one losing season and went to four Super Bowls, winning three of them. But when Gibbs arrived, he was just an unknown protege of Don Coryell, assisted by seasoned coordinators in Joe Bugel, Dan Henning and Richie Petitbon.
Over the years, Gibbs forged a team with a family identity. He demanded accountability, but his players loved him and he seemed to get the most out of everyone on the squad. While the team boasted a handful of standout players, their success was due largely to innovative play calling and tight cohesion in all three aspects of the game. Gibbs introduced the largest offensive line at the time, and mixed up a power running game with creative pass plays from his “Air Coryell” days. Petitbon was a master at disguising defenses and making halftime adjustments. Special teams held its own, and Mark Moseley set a field goal kicking record. All the way around the Redskins were a balanced, powerful team that routinely built leads that were insurmountable.
Enter Jay Gruden. While he may not have been everyone’s first choice, this rookie head coach has enjoyed years of success as a head coach in the arena football league, and as an assistant coordinator for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Cincinnati Bengals. As an offensive coordinator for the Bengals, the team enjoyed year-over-year improvement on offense, making the playoffs for three successive years.
Unlike the stoic Shanahan era, Gruden is bringing renewed energy and enthusiasm to the Redskins. Instead of standing on the sidelines with a steely-eyed glare, he’s running around the field and stressing fundamentals. He’s very vocal and quick to reward players when he sees what he likes. He’s also quick to reprimand when he sees plays that aren’t executed properly. He demands perfection, but he is also keenly aware that it will take time for his expectations to be met. In the meantime, the players are buying in. They are flying around the field and competing to make the 53-man squad.
Offensively, Gruden is assisted by Sean McVeigh, Chris Foerster, Ike Hilliard, Randy Jordan and Wes Phillips. Instead of blowing up the entire team, the team retained the services of Foerster and promoted McVeigh. Hilliard has returned for a second stint as wide receivers coach, while Jordan (backs) and Phillips (TEs) are new arrivals. The offensive philosophy is to keep what has worked in the past, while installing new plays that maximize the skills of the players he has on the squad. New wrinkles could include increased use of the hurry-up offense, and giving Robert Griffin more authority to change plays at the line and call audibles.
Defensively, the Redskins have retained the services of Jim Haslett as defensive coordinator. They have also retained Jacob Burney as defensive line coach and Raheem Morris to coach the defensive backs. New additions include the return of Kirk Olivadotti to coach the inside line backers, and Brian Baker to coach the outside linebackers. While many people, including myself questioned the return of Haslett, it may be a smart move in hindsight. The Redskins had huge problems with pass rush, linebacker play, and secondary performance last year. This year, the line has been bolstered with an improved Chris Baker, and the arrival of Jason Hatcher. The linebackers are younger and faster. The leadership of Ryan Clark and DeAngelo Hall, coupled with the maturation of Amerson and the other young defensive backs promises a stronger secondary. But it really comes down to coaching. Baker and Olivadotti are stressing fundamentals and attack lanes that have never been taught before. The defensive line is getting better interior penetration, and the defensive backs are routinely breaking up passes in camp.
Special teams has nowhere to go but up. After finishing dead last in all categories, the Redskins hired Ben Kotwicka from the Jets. The former attack helicopter pilot has invited all interested parties to join his “Special Forces”. Players who want to make the final 53 man roster are paying attention to this call to duty. Gruden seems the least concerned with Kotwicka, laughing that the intense new assistant coach “intimidates” him. Sav Rocca is being replaced at punter, most likely by Malone who has some history with Kotwicka. An active kicking competition is underway between Kai Forbath and rookie Zach Hocker. The best accuracy and distance wins.
Will Jay Gruden be the second coming of Joe Gibbs, or will he be the next in a long line of coaches who is shown the door after a short stint? Time will tell, but I have a good feeling about the hire.