The defensive failings were not all on former coordinator Joe Barry. To blame him for every situation is incorrect, and nobody there would do so. Based on numerous conversations throughout the season, many within the organization are well-aware of the talent deficiencies on defense. But as one player said Thursday, yes, they lacked talent, but so did some other teams who he viewed as better-coached and whose players played harder. The Redskins didn't max out.
Many players said privately they didn’t have a problem with Barry and liked his upbeat demeanor and felt they were prepared. But it also wasn’t the case that all of them absolved the coaching staff of blame, whether it was Barry or secondary coach Perry Fewell (who was also fired). In fact, I heard more grumbles about Fewell. It’s also telling that the only position coaches retained were inside linebackers coach Kirk Olivadotti and outside linebackers coach Greg Manusky, himself a former coordinator -- he was in charge of San Francisco’s defense when Redskins general manager Scot McCloughan held the same title there.
Over the past few weeks, Gruden knew he’d have a tough decision to make -- was it just the talent or the scheme? The fact that he was mulling it over in recent weeks suggested he knew what he had to do, he just wanted to step away from the season for a couple of days first. As one former coach, who has been in this position himself, told me Thursday that’s the smart approach. You don’t make emotional decisions. Gruden let a few days pass and then made the decision he had to make.
Don’t get caught up in scheme and play calls. Ask any coach or coordinator and they’ll say the same: There aren’t a lot of variations from one to the other. It’s not about 3-4 or 4-3 -- and make no mistake the Redskins need more talent regardless of what they use. There are only so many coverages or blitzes you can run.
But the key always is how you set up the language of a defense -- do the calls allow for easy communication, which in turn helps you play smarter and faster and more disciplined? Too often the Redskins looked lost in coverage, with two defenders running to one area while a receiver ran free to a vacated spot. Too often receivers ran wide open on third-and-long. Other times it’s about the technique being taught. Was that always on the player? At what point does that become a coaching issue? Thursday’s moves provided the answer.
This wasn’t about a game or even a stretch. It’s about a track record. Two years provided one, backed by two years in Detroit when the Lions ranked 32nd both times in total yards and points. If the talent is bad, you must help them elevate their games.
Others in the building wanted to see a more aggressive defense, perhaps using even more press coverage than they have in the past. Talent can dictate that, too. As one former NFL coach said, the Redskins don’t have the talent to play the way, say, Arizona does. It was also interesting that early in the season Barry said they didn’t want to move corner Josh Norman around and have him shadow one receiver. Then three games in, that’s what they started doing. It was not something they had worked on much in practice, several players said at the time. Makes you wonder where that dictate came from. As the former coach said, you know who you're facing when the schedule comes out in April, so if you plan on moving Norman around, start working on that in the offseason.
This is the second time Gruden has shown he can make a tough decision, having benched Robert Griffin III two years ago. Actually, that decision for Gruden was easy: He didn’t think Griffin could play. But the tough part was making a move he knew would be unpopular, especially with some higher-ups. This one is the reverse: For fans, and others in the organization, it’s a move they’d be more in favor of, but for Gruden it was the guy he had hired and liked. Give him credit for wanting to steer the organization forward. You learn about head coaches when they have to make the tough decisions (also, Gruden and Fewell share the same agent, too).
And that’s what a coach must do: He can’t afford to stay loyal to one person; he owes it to the organization to make the right choices. Now he must make the right one again. Based on Thursday’s actions, Gruden did not get it right last time. If he doesn’t get it right this offseason, then he’ll be the one on the hot seat next time.