ASHBURN, Va. -- Washington Redskins coach Jay Gruden spotted it when Sean McVay was barely old enough to drink. That's why he hired him in the UFL. And it's why Gruden tried to hire him away from the Redskins when he landed in Cincinnati.
The Redskins saw it, too. It's why they denied Gruden's request.
The players? They weren't surprised, either. McVay spent seven seasons in Washington, working his way up from a 23-year-old assistant tight ends coach to tight ends coach to offensive coordinator. Now the coach of the Los Angeles Rams, McVay's offense scored 30 of the team's 46 points in a win over the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday.
"He's like a mad scientist," Redskins tight end Niles Paul said. "He's a genius, man. He's like a football genius."
It certainly wouldn't be a good look for the Redskins to lose to McVay's Rams, especially if quarterback Jared Goff plays another good game and Kirk Cousins struggles for Washington. It's not as if there's pressure on Gruden, who has three more years on his contract.
And it's not as if the Redskins' struggles are directly related to losing McVay. They also lost receivers DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon. Some of the same questions that arose after Sunday's loss to the Philadelphia Eagles existed under McVay, from play-calling to the lack of a run game. The Redskins' offense struggled at times last December as well, scoring a combined 25 points in home losses to the Carolina Panthers and the New York Giants.
That said, the Redskins were long aware of McVay's football acumen.
"He is organized and detailed," Gruden said.
Those were two reasons why he let McVay call plays the past three seasons. Gruden said he married the Redskins' existing system with his own but, because he'd sometimes uses Bengals terminology, he opted to let McVay call plays instead.
"It was a steady, good flow that he had about him," Gruden said. "I didn't have to step in a whole lot. I did from time to time, but he is a good playcaller. We just kind of let him roll with it."
Gruden and McVay both relate well to the players: Gruden is comfortable operating a little more off-schedule, like the former quarterback he was in college. He'll admit to going with a play based more on instinct. McVay, numerous people have said, was more about the details. Not that both coaches don't have the other skill; each has their strengths. Both are personable, perhaps one reason they've remained close. Gruden said they talk every week or so. He called McVay to congratulate him Sunday.
McVay has always talked about how much he liked that Gruden let him develop as a playcaller by giving him freedom. McVay also coached three seasons under Mike Shanahan.
"You could tell he learned a lot under the tutelage of Mike Shanahan," Redskins tackle Trent Williams said. "He learned a lot about how to make plays look the same that aren't the same. He knows defenses extremely well so he knows how to set people up. He studies film more than you would believe. His ability to predict what's coming and to put the players in the right position to me stood out. And what I liked that he did from a players' standpoint he let everyone do what they did best. He didn't have a cookie cutter style."
Williams said Gruden does the same.
The player also said McVay took a big-picture approach, something Paul noticed when he moved to tight end in 2012.
"He goes through the whole progression of the offense," Paul said. "He'll tell you from the O-line to the receivers what the responsibility is, where he's supposed to be at. A complete grasp of the offensive system. You feel like now he has a chance to be totally him. That's what he's always wanted to be. I know for a fact he's always been capable of that."
He's a football junkie.
"I'm not surprised by his success because he puts the work in," Redskins tight end Vernon Davis said. "He stands out. His energy. It doesn't matter what time of day it is or where he is, he's always talking football, talking about plays. He's even going back and reminding me of some plays I had in San Francisco that I don't even remember. He remembers and brings it up."
They also know some of what McVay will want to do Sunday; the tough part will be knowing when -- and then stopping it.
"He'll run naked [bootlegs] and keepers," Davis said. "He'll take shots deep. He loves to go deep. He loves the tight end so he'll use them. You'll see a lot of seam routes by the tight ends with him."
"He'll try to hit three or four shot plays," Gruden said, "and attack our defense with some play-action shots. Some sort of play-action bombarooski. Those are the ones that make or break a close game. You hit that and it changes momentum. It changes everything. We have to figure out a way to hit some and I know he is."