WASHINGTON — Redskins coach Jay Gruden will not have much time to rest this offseason.
Gruden lost offensive coordinator Sean McVay to the Los Angeles Rams on Thursday when he was hired as their new head coach just one week after defensive coordinator Joe Barry and three other assistant coaches were fired by Washington.
Entering a critical fourth season of a five-year contract, Gruden has critical decisions to make on both sides of the ball and has to hope general manager Scot McCloughan can keep his offensive playmakers. Wide receiver Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson, who both topped 1,000 yards receiving in 2016, are free agents. So is quarterback Kirk Cousins, though the team can use the franchise tag to keep him on the roster if it chooses.
That’s a lot of uncertainty for any coach. Let’s start with the simple decision: Who runs the offense next season? Here are the possibilities:
The veteran offensive line coach helped stabilize the coaching staff when he was brought on board in 2015. He has plenty of experience at age 60. Callahan was the offensive coordinator for the Oakland Raiders from 1998 to 2001 and the head coach there for two years, which included a Super Bowl appearance. For a time in Dallas he was granted play-calling duties under Jason Garrett, though that did not last and he eventually parted ways with that club to come to Washington as the offensive line coach. He could slide into this role with the Redskins hiring a new offensive coordinator with only a limited amount of disruption. No offensive coordinators are exactly alike. But Callahan already has a heavy presence in run plays installed during the week.
Handing him this role in addition to his line duties wouldn’t be ideal. Callahan often stays after practice for 30 minutes working with his linemen on drills and technique and they have gotten better as a group over the last year. The linemen are almost always the last players off the practice field. Hard to see Callahan being able to do all of this.
Another veteran assistant coach who helped stabilize the coaching staff when he was hired in 2015 after Gruden realized coaching the quarterbacks, calling plays and being the head coach was too much for any one person. Cavanaugh has developed a nice relationship with both Kirk Cousins and Colt McCoy, who called him the “MVP” of the 2015 season for keeping a tense quarterbacks room with Robert Griffin III as professional as possible. Cavanaugh knows quarterbacks because he was one. He starred at the position at Pitt in the mid-70s and had a 14-year NFL career primarily as a backup. Cavanaugh was the offensive coordinator in Chicago (1997-98) and in Baltimore (1999-2004), where he helped coach the Ravens to a Super Bowl title. He hasn’t held that title at the NFL level since, however.
Cavanaugh returned to Pitt as the offensive coordinator (2005-2008), but has been a quarterbacks coach since 2009 with the Jets, Bears and Redskins. This could work, too, but Washington again would be best served making Cavanaugh the offensive coordinator and hiring someone to fill his position. It didn’t work well in 2014 when coaches were stretched too thin and if Washington adds another developmental quarterback in the draft it needs someone able to give extensive work to that player.
A potential candidate to join McVay in Los Angeles – especially if his father, Wade, is hired as the defensive coordinator. It’s hard to see Phillips making this big a jump over more experienced options on staff. Even McVay at his precocious age was the offensive coordinator in 2014, but without the play-calling duties yet. Phillips, too, was a quarterback. He played in college at UTEP. In the NFL he was a low-level assistant in Dallas before becoming the tight ends coach there in 2013. Phillips was an original hire by Gruden in 2014 and worked well with tight end Jordan Reed.
Wait…he’s already the coach. Yes, but this is his offense. No one would have a better feel for what he wants done. There were times the past two seasons when Gruden would get frustrated when McVay went away from the running game too soon. Some of that had to do with personnel or game situations. Other times it was less clear. The Redskins don’t have an elite running back right now and run blocking has been an on-again, off-again issue.
It’s not like it’s unheard of for a head coach to be the primary play caller. Bruce Arians (Arizona), Mike McCarthy (Green Bay), Andy Reid (Kansas City), Sean Payton (New Orleans) and Bill O’Brien (Houston) all call their own plays as head coaches and have had proven success. Gary Kubiak did the same in Denver and won a Super Bowl last year. Adam Gase (Miami) managed it in his first year with Miami. This might be the most seamless of all options and would allow the rest of the offensive assistants to remain in their current roles, but Gruden can’t afford to put too much on his plate as he did in his first season. It was a harsh lesson learned.
The Redskins could always go in this direction. Not sure what message it would send to bring in someone over established options in house. Gruden would also have to have an immense amount of trust with an outside option. There’s not an ideal candidate with ties to Gruden, which is absolutely necessary in this circumstance. There isn’t time to grow a staff here. An outside coordinator would have to be able to get on the same page with Gruden immediately given where he is in his contract. If he can reach into his past and find that person, then maybe Gruden and the Redskins go in this direction.
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