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Jay Gruden’s Hiring: Short-Term Snoozer, Long-Term Alarm

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Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images.
Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images.

Jay Gruden is Washington’s new head coach. Great. What are we supposed to do? Throw wild parties to celebrate li’l Chucky’s arrival in D.C.? Slip into a football depression? Declare him the next Joe Gibbs? Condemn him as the next Jim Zorn? May I suggest none of the above?

Sure, there’s a lot to like about Gruden’s hiring. The ‘Skins now have a real NFL structure in place — an owner, a general manager and a coach — with conventional authority vested in every position for the first time under Dan Snyder. Whatever you think individually or collectively of the men occupying those roles, that’s progress.

Gruden is a gridiron rat; his family, as you may have heard, is littered with coaches. He hails from Tiffin, Ohio, a town just a few hours from Canton, football’s holy land. The guy’s an Arena Football League legend and has paid his dues at various levels of coaching in three different professional football leagues. Gruden’s passion for football is evident; it is clear he lives for the game. He was probably drawing up plays in his head while fathering his children. He might flunk a rudimentary test on world events, but ask him about attacking a two-deep zone and you’ll get a Ph.D.-level reply. Oh, and he’s not Mike Shanahan. That means he arrives in Washington with something to prove, has a detectable personality, and thus far, has avoided communicating in insulting and transparent code. Gruden seems to understand that it’s football, not national security, and that he’s a football coach, not a human Enigma machine.

On the other hand, Gruden’s hiring furrows the brow. How much of the Gruden name is style over substance? Was Jon really that good? Would Jay be here if his last name was Smith? Cincinnati’s offense, frankly, was less than the sum of its parts. Was that Gruden’s fault or Andy Dalton’s limited ceiling? On Washington’s side of the equation, the retention of the Tampa staff and others with connections to Gruden indicate he was the favorite the minute Shanahan was shown the door (if not weeks before). Considering their work with Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson, quarterbacks with similar skills to Robert Griffin III, wouldn’t it have been wise to keep an open mind and give Greg Roman and Darrell Bevell, San Francisco’s and Seattle’s offensive coordinators, a legitimate shot? And the rumored longer contract (Gruden received a five-year contract) to seal the deal and end Gruden’s tour of NFL coaching vacancies feels too much like the Dan Snyder free agent frenzies of yesteryear. No NFL franchise stalks the objects of its affection like the ‘Skins. If Roger Goodell issued restraining orders, Snyder would undoubtedly be the league’s leading recipient.

The preceding two paragraphs, a point and counterpoint of the Gruden hiring, are roughly equal in size and influence. In other words, it’s a wash. I am numb. Washington is numb. We have seen this act — a Snyder re-brand — too many times to get excited anymore. Snyder has applied more lipstick to his pig than Jim Henson (Muppets reference, Miss Piggy … work with me). Now, it’s about time. Time or, more directly, the wins and losses compiled over time, will deliver Gruden’s verdict — and that fact, far more than his hire, is something to boil the blood, to send hot flashes down the spine, and to cause palms to sweat.

Despite the (completely appropriate) lack of excitement from a fan base too shrewd to be moved by another poorly re-wrapped gift of hope, this is a massive pivot point in Washington’s future — make no mistake about it. Yeah, yeah, I know every new coach is a change agent that offers the possibility of new franchise course. But this pivot point rivals that of January 1981 when Gibbs arrived the first time, 2004 when Gibbs returned or the 2005 NFL Draft when Aaron Rodgers was picked 24th overall, one slot before the ‘Skins nabbed the consolation prize: Jason Campbell (ugh … gut punch). 

Two years from now (at most), the ‘Skins will know if they have a bright young coach, a franchise quarterback, an edge to the team, and a program that is respected around the league (an intangible force absent from ‘Skins football for over 20 years). If the answer is yes on all accounts, the ‘Skins five-year forecast might (finally) flirt with stability and competitive football. If the nation’s capital is doing this same tired, I-can-do-this-in-my-sleep dance and being sold yet another coach in 24 months, it means hiring former Hall-of-Fame head coach George Allen’s son (GM Bruce Allen) didn’t work out, Gruden failed and Griffin’s career is on the rocks. With the Gibbs card having been played years before, with no other link to ‘Skins history left un-exploited, and absent a franchise player at the quarterback position, the failure of this regime would leave the ‘Skins with little more than the only constant of the last 15 carnival-like years: Dan Snyder.

That said, regardless of what you think of Gruden’s hiring, if you have any shred of interest in Washington’s success, you’re rooting for him — with noted desperation. If only owner’s had term limits…