The Washington Redskins announced Jay Gruden as their new head coach Thursday morning. In the moments that followed, I heard several versions of the same assessment among NFL types who tried to explain the decision: Gruden might be a better head coach with the Redskins than he was during his occasionally criticized run as offensive coordinator with the Cincinnati Bengals.
Well then. I can think of no better way to express my own ambivalence about this hire than to pass along the hope that Gruden will perform better in a job necessitating more responsibility and stronger leadership than the one he carried out to mixed results over the past three years. His quick rise -- as late as 2010, he was coaching in the Arena Football League -- speaks to a number of factors unrelated to his specific aptitude for this job.
Let's get it out of the way: Gruden is the younger brother of ESPN analyst Jon Gruden, a Super Bowl-winning coach long thought to be an object of Redskins owner Dan Snyder's affections. If his last name were different, would Jay Gruden have been a candidate in Snyder's eyes? It's a question worth asking.
The Redskins clearly weren't looking to overhaul their operation after firing Mike Shanahan, a plan that might have disqualified some stronger candidates. Early reports suggest that defensive coordinator Jim Haslett will be retained and that tight ends coach Sean McVay could be promoted to offensive coordinator.
NFL teams are desperate for the profile Gruden provides: A relatively young, offense-minded coach who has had success with young quarterbacks. He is 46 with a goofy personality, based on his appearances last summer on HBO's "Hard Knocks," and his offense ranked 10th in the NFL in scoring (24.3 points per game) over the past three seasons. During that period, the Bengals won 30 of 48 regular-season games in the first three years of quarterback Andy Dalton's career.
Gruden's work with Dalton is an illustration of the genuine ambivalence surrounding this hiring. While Dalton had plenty of NFL success relative to other quarterbacks in their first three seasons, his poor playoff performances reflect limited growth and development -- part of the responsibility of a coaching staff. So should Gruden be praised for running a playoff-caliber offense with a limited quarterback? Or does Dalton's apparent plateau suggest a threshold for Gruden's abilities?
I asked those questions of Matt Williamson, who studies NFL personnel for ESPN.com. Williamson noted that most of the Bengals' talented offense was collected during Gruden's tenure, often to his specifications, and seemed part of what he viewed as a plan to surround an average quarterback with superior weapons.
"I think he maximized Dalton," Williamson said. "That's a feather in his cap. Dalton was especially good in the red zone, and that's a reflection of the playcaller. You could make an argument that Dalton is a guy that entered the league with very, very average tools. I think they have coached him up to his max.
"When you look at those spurts where he was awful, a lot of it was decision-making. I'm not sure I can kill a coach for Dalton thinking he has a bigger arm and more tools than he does. He's trying to make throws he can't make. That's a bad decision and on him not knowing who he is."
In some cases, however, Gruden seemed to put too much faith in Dalton. Trailing by seven points entering the fourth quarter last week against the San Diego Chargers, for instance, Gruden ignored the running game and called for Dalton to throw 31 passes in a game he already was struggling in. That decision is part of why the Bengals' season ended once again in disappointing fashion.
Gruden's hire had me thinking back to a few years ago, when Chicago Bears general manager Phil Emery said that the first criteria for any hire he makes is excellence in the candidate's current job. It is a simple but perfect way to put the uncomfortable discussion we're having here.
Was Jay Gruden an excellent offensive coordinator? Did he earn a job as an NFL head coach? I'm not sure about the former, and if we're now projecting better performances in more difficult jobs, then I'm not sure the latter even matters.