The energy is different, as it always is when there’s a new coach. New drills, new voices, a new vibe, new storylines that don’t involve backroom drama. The Washington Redskins needed it, badly, after a 3-13 season punctuated by anonymous swipes at star players and a few at the coaches. Reputations were altered; the direction of the franchise changed.
Life is calmer now for the Redskins. (Well, if you don’t count the storm over their nickname.) That’s the result of hiring Jay Gruden, whose candor, insight and friendliness provides the franchise a breath of fresh air. But also an unknown: Though opinion around the NFL was split on his hiring, Gruden has passed the first test of his tenure by laying a solid foundation. And the Redskins head into training camp next month energized.
It’s about a new trust, felt by players and coaches. Gruden has made it clear from the get-go: This is about the players. There’s a different level of ownership by the players and even some of the coaches. Maybe it helps that Gruden took a different path to reach this point, starring in the Arena League for many years, but he coaches without much of an ego, or at least not one that overwhelms him. He didn’t come to Washington with a system, he came with beliefs in what he wanted to run and fused them with what worked well here in the past. Not all coaches operate that way.
Any change after such a disastrous season feels like a good one. Any new voice feels like the right one, especially when the new guy is a lot different than the old one. Mike Shanahan loved having total control; Gruden favors delegating authority. Shanahan did not jump into drills to provide a look for the offense (others would); Gruden will do just that. Not that one way is the right way. And, of course, one of them won Super Bowls and the other hasn’t won an NFL game yet. That’s why, for now, all we know is that the offseason has been a mostly good one for the Redskins.
The feel-good offseason started with quarterback Robert Griffin III’s work. He got the necessary work in that he could not get last season because of his knee. He worked hard on his mechanics and will continue to do so; he looked much more relaxed around Gruden than under Shanahan. He’s not wearing a brace; he can be more himself. He’s as confident as he’s been in a while.
However, Griffin also is still learning to be a pocket passer. That doesn’t just mean throwing a pass from the pocket, but also knowing when to run and where and how quickly to go from your first option to your second or third. It doesn’t mean he can’t or won’t do it, but it does mean there’s an ongoing transition that will take time. Nor does it mean he won’t make plays in the process. If he’s more himself, why wouldn’t he? There are things he does well as a passer; the trick for Gruden is incorporating those while he improves in other areas. Knock the Shanahans all you want, they coaxed a terrific season from a rookie quarterback two years ago.
DeSean Jackson’s arrival might not be the same feel-good story because there’s some risk involved, but it certainly can be cause for optimism. The guy is a playmaker; the Redskins needed a playmaker.
But Jackson is an emotional player, and the Redskins need to successfully harness that and know how to deal with him. The good news for Washington is that Griffin made it a point to learn what motivates Jackson and bond with him. That helps now; it needs to pay off during the season.
The defense can feel good, too. It added pass-rushers in Jason Hatcher and, the Redskins hope, Trent Murphy. They have a vocal leader at safety in Ryan Clark. They’ve added two outstanding linebacker coaches in Kirk Olivadotti (inside) and Brian Baker (outside), the latter of whom has focused heavily on pass rush techniques. They’ve talked a great game about a more aggressive pass rush.
But as the Redskins exit the spring, Hatcher is coming off knee surgery, joining two other key players along the defensive line in that regard. The defense might have five starters 30 years or older and there are questions about what certain players have left.
Then there’s Gruden. Players have talked about the new energy in practices, stemming from him and his new hires. Coaches like him because they have more freedom -- to hire, to implement ideas, to coach. It matters. It’s too early to say he changed the culture; Shanahan was said to have done the same thing. But Gruden has changed the mood. There’s a different level of passion, stemming from his energy and the coaches. It rubs off on players. Because of that, it (should) enable him to command the room, a pre-hire criticism. That is, as long as you bring in the right players who won’t abuse that trust. It’s a fine line.
Is he organized enough? That was a knock before he was hired. Then again, his offensive coordinator, Sean McVay, is ultra-organized. Can Gruden command the room? How will he handle it if the defense struggles and he feels they should tweak or change their coverages or philosophy? Or how will he handle in-game adjustments, clock management? Player discipline?
We’ve learned a lot about Gruden, but there’s so much more to learn -- questions that can’t be answered until the season begins. Until then, the Redskins can feel optimistic. They’ve been at this point before. The next step has always been the hardest.