In 2008, general manager Bruce Allen’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers were coming off a second season in three in which they had lost a wild-card playoff game at home. They had also lost three of their last four regular season contests. So Jon Gruden hired two new offensive assistants, a kid right out of college named Sean McVay, and the coach’s brother Jay, who had starred as a quarterback and a coach in the Arena League.
With help from the fresh-faced arrivals, the Bucs got off to a 9-3 start in 2008 before losing their final four games – three by double digits – to miss the playoffs. Jon Gruden, who had won the Super Bowl in his Tampa Bay debut in 2002, was fired. Raheem Morris was promoted from defensive backs coach to replace him. Jay Gruden and McVay moved on to the United Football League under Jim Haslett.
Five years later, Allen, now Washington’s GM, has brought the old gang together again as the Redskins have hired Jay Gruden to replace the fired Mike Shanahan as their seventh (non-interim) coach in Dan Snyder’s 15 seasons as their owner. McVay, the tight ends coach under Shanahan, and Morris, the defensive backs coach the past two years, were retained when their boss got the axe on Dec. 30. So was defensive coordinator Haslett. Even though the Redskins were lousy on defense during three of his four years, he’s apparently sticking around, too.
And that’s the sticking point with hiring Cincinnati offensive coordinator Gruden, the sixth candidate to interview for Washington’s vacancy. Did Gruden get the job because of his history with Allen et al?
That’s a lousy reason to choose a coach. Then-Washington GM Bobby Beathard hadn’t worked with Joe Gibbs when he convinced Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke – who had asked, “Joe who?” – to name San Diego’s offensive coordinator as the coach in 1981. Needless to say that decision was one of the smartest in franchise history.
Presumably Bengals coach Marvin Lewis, who took a chance by handing his offense to a guy with negligible NFL experience, endorsed Gruden to Snyder, his boss with the 2002 Redskins.
However, hiring Gruden because he would keep some of Shanahan’s staff intact is foolish. Sure it saves billionaire Snyder – who’s paying Shanahan $7 million not to coach in 2014 – some money, but what have Haslett and Morris done to justify keeping them? Just-retired defensive captain London Fletcher declined to endorse Haslett while Morris’ secondary couldn’t cover me the past two seasons. And since the Redskins are likely rebuilding their free agent-filled defense, the 2013 starters’ familiarity with Haslett and Morris isn’t that important.
McVay is just 28, the same tender age as Shanahan’s son Kyle was when he was promoted to offensive coordinator in Houston in 2008. And now Kyle is out of work after feuding with a veteran quarterback, Donovan McNabb in 2010, and a young one, Robert Griffin III, in 2013. Will McVay be able to manage the charismatic but strong-willed star who was having major knee surgery a year ago today?
Cleaning house after a disaster makes sense and Washington’s 2013 season, the biggest collapse in franchise history since the 3-13 record came on the heels of the 10-6 campaign that won the NFC East title in 2012, was certainly a disaster.
When Snyder shockingly lured Gibbs out of retirement in 2004, the Hall of Famer didn’t retain any of predecessor Steve Spurrier’s assistants. And when Shanahan, who had won two Super Bowls in Denver, took over in Washington in 2010 after the chaos of the Jim Zorn era, only Gibbs holdover Danny Smith (special teams), Steve Jackson (safeties) and Kirk Olivadotti (defensive assistant) were retained. Olivadotti was gone after one year, Jackson after two and Smith after three.
None of this is a knock on Gruden. He did a good job the past three seasons as the Bengals, 4-12 the year before his hiring, made the playoffs each year, after doing so just twice during the previous 20. Cincinnati ranked sixth in scoring and 10th in yards in 2013 compared to 22nd and 20th in the season before his arrival. Andy Dalton blossomed into one of the NFL’s top young quarterbacks while fellow third—year man A.J. Green has become an elite receiver.
So the 46-year-old Gruden has the credentials although the report that he preferred drop-back passer Andy Dalton to the mobile Colin Kaepernick in the 2011 draft has to give pause considering that Griffin is more like the latter while backup Kirk Cousins resembles the former.
Minnesota and Tennessee, which have also been looking for coaches, wanted to interview Gruden, but as so often happens, once Snyder brings a candidate to Washington and offers him beacoup millions, the man stays.
But why the rush? Is Gruden so incredible that Snyder and Allen opted not to wait to speak to Greg Roman and Vic Fangio, San Francisco’s excellent coordinators, or San Diego offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt — a former Redskin – until their teams’ seasons ended? Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer and Vanderbilt’s James Franklin also fell by the wayside.
Would none of these men nor previously interviewed coordinators Darrell Bevell of Seattle (offense), Rich Bisaccia of Dallas (special teams), Jim Caldwell of Baltimore (offense), Perry Fewell of the New York Giants (defense) and Sean McDermott of Carolina (defense) not have been just as promising a hire as Gruden, whose Bengals lost their playoff opener in each of the last three years by an average of 15 points? Gruden and Bevell are the only ones among the 10 NFL coordinators on Washington’s wish list without Super Bowl experience.
In the end, Snyder did the right thing by hiring a coordinator as his coach for the first time. But did he hire the right one for the right reasons? We’ll find out soon enough.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011.