WASHINGTON — It’s the energy of the night when the impossible turns to possible. Strains of the band in the stands, cheering friends in the crowd and high-strung teammates on the sideline combine to create an anticipation that something big is about to happen.
Washington Redskins coach Jay Gruden will walk between players during warmups, seeing if they’re flashing back to their high school days when football meant everything rather than readying for a meaningless NFL preseason game. Maybe it means their livelihood nowadays, but Gruden is looking for the passion that comes not from paychecks, but simply playing.
Who would have guessed Gruden is old school?
“I just like to see them — pregame warmups, see how they look, the look in their eyes, see how excited they get and see how they play,” he said. “With all the information we’ve given them through OTAs and training camp up to now, to get ready for the first game, I want to see how they process it and then see how they’ll perform.
“At the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about. When the lights cut on, who is going to show up and play in a big way, protect the football, play assignment-sound football, fundamentally sound football and make plays? At the end of the day, it’s about making plays and hopefully those guys will step up and do that.”
Gruden has kept who’s playing and for how long against the Atlanta Falcons on Thursday from the team. Aside from Jordan Reed not making the trip, even banged-up players like Trent Williams and Preston Smith don’t know if they’re going in for a series or more.
Gruden has to know who really wants to play in January by watching them in August. It’s the same strategy used by general manager Scot McCloughan. If winning is made on Thursday in Atlanta, maybe it lasts in the tough stretches of the season against Dallas, Arizona and Green Bay.
So it’s a mind game from the start to see who is mentally tough. Gruden is messing with his players. A third-year coach coming off a division title can do that. He has been around long enough to do so.
“We’re going to get everybody some reps in the game that are traveling and making the trip,” Gruden said. “Once the game gets started … I’ll put them through pregame warmup and once the game gets started, then I’ll make my determination on who to take out and when to take them out. That’ll be solely my decision and we’ll go from there.”
The one problem, though, is Gruden is still soft on starters. If they play a second series or 10 plays it would be unusual. Gruden treats the preseason like the useless stretch that it is. At most, a handful of players can make the roster through an August of big plays. Some years, no one does.
Gruden has seen these players for three months in some type of camp. And sure he needs to see who can perform under the lights rather than half-speed in practice, but starters get far too little time aside from the third preseason game. It wasn’t enough last season to ready quarterback Kirk Cousins for prime time and this year the team starts on a Monday night against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Gruden needs starters to be better ready than playing third-stringers who will be looking for new careers come Labor Day.
Maybe Gruden needs to embrace that adrenaline rush during the pregame and treat this game a little more aggressively. Give in to that battle cry and let his starters prove themselves for a quarter.
After all, it’s show time.
Rick Snider has covered Washington sports since 1978. Follow him on Twitter @Snide_Remarks.