Allen And Gruden: What End Do You Have In Mind?

Created on Feb. 17, 2014 5:00 AM EST

Author (among many other things) Stephen R. Covey published his book "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People" in 1989. It has stood the test of time quite well, a tribute to the quality of the piece. The title of Covey’s book succinctly captures its essence: adopt these seven “habits” to become more effective, successful and happy.

Habit 2, Begin with the End in Mind, is my personal favorite. It endorses and demands an active imagination. Habit 2 argues that to arrive at a preferred personal or professional destination, a person must first create the mental vision of that reality. Those who lack a personal mission or who fail to imagine themselves in a desired state, leave their outcome to chance or, worse yet, to the influence of others. 

Since the death of Jack Kent Cooke in 1997, I have spent many days and nights wondering if the ‘Skins of Washington have any imagination or mission statement that extends beyond a day, a week, a month or, at most, a season. The series of coaches and players that have passed through Washington, D.C.’s turnstiles is long, occasionally decorated (Joe Gibbs) and largely embarrassing (Albert Haynesworth, Jim Zorn, et al.). Success has been a fleeting state sprinkled ever-so-lightly across an era that has ranged mostly between mediocre and grotesque. Save for the hiring of Shanahan and the 2012 season with Robert Griffin III (and we know how that ended), the team has rarely flirted with establishing anything of substance. Every doomed hiring or obnoxious signing felt like another regretful entry on a hodgepodge list of singular actions that lacked a connection to a larger, discernable strategy.

Now 17 years, a paltry four winning seasons and two lonely playoff victories since Mr. Cooke’s death, owner Daniel Synder sits at the crest of an organization with a battered and bruised brand. His allegedly beloved ‘Skins are exiting a 3-13 season — tied for a franchise-worst — and are selling its seventh head coach with Jay Gruden in 15 years. Snyder, the never-ending marketer, is getting adept at his organizational re-sets, though. Maybe he’s learning. Or is it that Snyder is acknowledging the carnage his ownership has brought to a once-proud franchise and its financial bottom line? Whatever the root cause, Snyder’s slick exit out of the ugly Shanahan era and into the uncertain Jay Gruden era would have made a former president proud.

When he fired Mike Shanahan, Snyder fractured the coaching staff like a United States map on election night. Many members of the incumbent staff, particularly those lacking deep (or family) ties to Mike Shanahan, were retained (Sean McVay was even promoted). The subliminal message was clear: this latest disaster was Shanahan’s fault and Shanahan’s fault alone. It was a convenient portrait for Snyder to paint, but lucky for the owner, it possessed enough legitimacy to pass the sniff test of a skeptical fanbase.  

Snyder’s reconstruction, post-Shanahan, is a marketer’s dream. Bruce Allen, the polished, likeable, smooth-talking son of the team’s former Hall-of-Fame head coach George Allen, remains and has assumed the lead of football operations. Jay Gruden, the flashy offensive coordinator with oodles of name recognition, was shrewdly slotted in as head coach. And most recently, the team hired former Super Bowl winning quarterback Doug Williams to a front office post. Who couldn’t sell that? It is all so Dan Snyder.

What remains to be seen is if this popular new cast has substance or if it is just another relabeled bottle of Snyder snake oil.  If Allen, Gruden and everyone not wed to the Shanahan’s hope to escape the Snyder curse, they would be wise to heed Covey’s second habit and begin anew with a grand end in mind. The Super Bowl is the obvious dream, but before that fickle and elusive goal is attainable for the flawed ‘Skins, much more needs to be accomplished. What exactly? I have three suggestions: the obvious, the radical and the fundamental. 

The Obvious: Fix “The Suffix”

It is no secret that Allen’s and Gruden’s time in D.C. is indelibly linked to the aspiring franchise quarterback and corporate pitchman. Coaches and personnel men with elite quarterbacks are slapped with genius labels; those lacking such an asset face almost certain unemployment.

Robert Griffin III has a special set of skills, but the problem (for Gruden in particular) is he’s a big hot mess at the moment. His confidence is shaken. His mechanics are a mess. The magic from 2012 is gone. And he can’t seem to break up with social media. Those facts are, in part, why Shanahan was sent west and why Gruden’s in D.C. If Chucky’s little brother is beginning with the end in mind, he should be racking his teeming football brain for a plan to make this 2016 headline reality: “During the 2014-2016 NFL seasons, Washington QB Robert Griffin III threw for 13,000 yards and 90 touchdowns while playing 45 of a possible 48 games.”

The Radical: The Washington Who?

The nickname needs to change. This seems obvious to everyone but, well, the one person that really matters (Snyder). Congress is involved. The issue surfaces every few weeks. Various T.V. heads and writers (this one included) have stopped using the “R word.” Snyder can shake a defiant fist at critics and tout the proud history of the team, but the fact is the nickname has become an eyesore and it will eventually (as sponsors start to flee and fans quit buying the gear), if it hasn’t already, begin harming his bottom line.

If I’m Allen or Gruden, I push for a new handle, if for nothing else than the karmic grab. What do you have to lose? Nothing beyond a cringe-inducing name.

The Fundamental: Can I See Your I.D.?

What do the great teams have that the ‘Skins don’t (besides sound ownership)? A culture. An identity. Some known way of doing busy. Think Sean Payton and Drew Brees. Think the Patriots, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. Think Ben Roethlisberger and Mike Tomlin. Think Pete Carroll and Russell Wilson. Think the Ray Lewis and Ed Reed Ravens.

When you close your eyes and think of ‘Skins football, what comes to mind? Aside from spectacular buffoonery, probably not much … and that’s the point. There is no system in place, no established leadership and no respected culture. It is an organization that lacks a foundation. The ‘Skins are just there. Every season is a reboot. And here we go again.

Allen and Gruden, at their beginning together, need to dream of an end where the sight of the ‘Skins on an opponent’s schedule insights the gnashing of teeth, not a confident snicker. They need to ponder an end where game-day announcers cite the lethal camaraderie between Gruden and Griffin and the formidable brand of “’Skins football” (a force that hasn’t existed in 20 years) instead of regurgitating pieces on the team’s internal drama or the owner’s long, checkered record.

Winning with regularity prompts such external recognition; however, sustained success, despite the annual perils of NFL seasons, requires that a clear identity, an uncompromising way of doing business, first be firmly entrenched internally. Allen, Gruden … over to you.

In Conclusion

I am tired — tired of rolling my eyes on draft day, being heckled at the water cooler during free agency, being mocked in September, and the ‘Skins being out of contention by Thanksgiving. I just want this team to right itself, establish some sort of footing in the league, and string together a period of competitive football. I want to write about a respected winner. That is the end I have in mind. To steal a line from an imagination-charged member of a band that performed in Washington, D.C. fifty years ago, you may say I’m a dreamer, but let’s hope for the sake of George Allen, Jay Gruden, et al., that I’m not the only one.

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