ASHBURN, Va. -- The Washington Redskins have returned to a familiar spot. They’re coming off a strong victory over a good team. That means coach Jay Gruden is in a familiar spot as well: trying to get his team to turn that good win into something more.
The Redskins (3-2) have become the NFL’s middle ground in the last three-plus seasons, unable to escape the .500 barrier.
“That’s something we’re all dying to find the answer to,” Gruden said. “Our consistency has not been very good under my reign as head coach. Sometimes handling success is equally important as handling adversity. We handle losses well, but in some of those losses throughout the course of the game, we don’t handle adversity well.”
They enjoyed success last week in beating the Carolina Panthers (3-2). They rolled at Arizona (1-5) in the season opener and then lost at home by 12 to the Indianapolis Colts (1-5). Three weeks ago they beat Green Bay (3-2-1), only to lose by 24 at New Orleans (4-1) the following game -- after a bye.
On Sunday they host the Dallas Cowboys (3-3), another franchise with a similar one-week-up, one-week-down stigma.
The Redskins' roller-coaster ride hasn’t just happened under Gruden, however. In his second stint as coach, Joe Gibbs had two years when he won a combined 19 games and made the playoffs both times (winning one game); in the other two years, they won a combined 11.
The Redskins haven’t won nine or more games in consecutive years since 1991-92. They have won 10 games three times since 1991, and they’re a combined 16-32 in the following season.
Under Gruden, they’re 27-25-1 since the start of the 2015 season and 18-18-1 since the 2016 season began. The Redskins are the NFL’s equator, and if they don’t get off it, Gruden will feel a similar heat.
“Our biggest test is to see how we respond after this win,” Redskins left tackle Trent Williams said. “What we’ve been doing -- playing great, playing bad, playing great, playing bad -- we’ve got to cut that streak. We can’t continue to operate like that. ... [But] our problem has never been focus, never been effort. We always play hard. It always comes down to fundamental mistakes.”
"I wouldn't say he's very nice right now, and I don't think he should be."Redskins backup QB Colt McCoy, on coach Jay Gruden
Against New Orleans, the Redskins would have forced punts on the Saints’ first two possessions if not for penalties on third down. The Saints scored touchdowns both times. A 43-19 blowout followed. Against Carolina, they recovered a fumbled punt and a play later scored the game’s first touchdown. The energy level surged. They haven’t trailed in their three wins; they haven’t led in their two losses.
“When we’re up, we have a good front-running attitude. When we’re down, we have to figure out ways to get out of a funk,” Gruden said. “After a big win, we have to have the focus and mentality that this next opponent is coming in to whip your ass, so you better get ready to play.”
But he blamed himself, too.
“When we get down, we have a tendency to press too much, including myself as a playcaller. ‘God, we’re down 14. Throw it deep!’ Instead of just sticking with the plan a little bit,” Gruden said. “That’s something I can improve on as a playcaller and something players can improve on. We don’t have to make the great play right away. We have to do our job and good things will happen if everyone is focused on their jobs.”
Much was made of the Redskins’ defensive backs getting together a day after losing to New Orleans, smoothing out whatever issues existed. Their on-field communication improved against Carolina. No coach was involved.
“It comes down to being responsible and accountable,” Redskins receiver Paul Richardson said. “We have to do a better job of that. Your coach could be a hard-ass or whatever, but a lot of guys could agree that being in the NFL, you deal more with your position coach or your coordinator than your head coach. It’s the men. You’ve got to take coaching. ... We all have to be leaders in our own right.”
Until the Redskins win consistently, everything will be questioned, from the atmosphere at Redskins Park to whether or not Gruden is too nice or too demanding. There have been many approaches by coaches under owner Dan Snyder. None has resulted in consistent winning.
“If Jay is an a--h--- to us all the time, then it’s, ‘Man, Jay’s too hard on his guys,’” said Redskins long-snapper Nick Sundberg, who has been with the team since 2010. “Joe Gibbs was a really hard coach. How many playoff games did those teams win [in his second stint]? I’m not knocking those teams, but every coach has his own way. There’s no right or wrong answer. Every player accepts coaching a different way.”
Before the Carolina game, many people said Gruden’s mood was different during the week.
“I wouldn’t say he’s very nice right now,” backup quarterback Colt McCoy said, “and I don’t think he should be.”
The key, as an organization -- not just coaches -- is to bottle that urgency each week. Right or wrong, until the Redskins win consistently, more charges will come. Winning proves what works. For now, it's mixed: In the last three years, they're 9-16 after a win and 15-6-1 after a loss.
“Every situation is different,” Gruden said. “I’m not nice all the time. But I’m also not a guy who will come out and scream for no reason, just for the sake of screaming. Guys will tune you out.
“It’s not all fun and games that’s being reported. We don’t hold hands or play ring-around-the-rosy and tell jokes. It’s not a comedy session. This is a serious business. We know how important each game is and how good each opponent is. ... With 16 weeks out of the year, we have to have the same mentality each week. We do, for the most part. It’s just that sometimes when we get down in the course of a game, we don’t do a good enough job digging out of a hole.”