The Redskins were between two needs after the Shanahan era came to its inevitable fiery conclusion.
They needed a head coach who could resurrect — or at least re-direct — the career of Robert Griffin III, the 2012 rookie of the year who had both his knee and then seemingly his will to function under the current regime ripped apart. Or they needed a defensive-minded head coach whose system could improve a unit that was at best mediocre and mostly horrendous while giving up 29.9 points per game (31st), and 5.7 yards per play (27th).
For everyone else, that decision would have been difficult. But everyone else is not Dan Snyder.
For Dan Snyder, the decision was surely easy. Get the guy who will toss the necessary life ring to the quarterback who cost you multiple first-round picks, including the second overall pick this year. Get the guy who satisfies the apparently selfish desires of that quarterback, if we are to believe the various reports of Griffin’s smug and commanding nature, and his firm grip on a pet owner. And most importantly, get the guy who’s name is Gruden.
Jay Gruden, not Jon. Dan Snyder knows he hired Jay Gruden, right?
He did, and reportedly to a five-year contract. It’s a hiring that makes a lot of sense, as given what’s been invested in Griffin, the need to get his mind and arm right is far ahead of the defensive shortcomings, though they are still present and real. But which Jay Gruden did Snyder hire, exactly?
Hopefully and likely, it’s this one: the guy who made the Bengals’ offense into one that was at least good enough to make the playoffs during each of his three years he was the offensive coordinator. Yes, Cincinnati still hasn’t won a post-season game since 1993, a wondrous time in our lives when the greatest song in human history topped the charts. But the thing about winning a playoff game is that it’s impossible to do when you don’t even qualify for the January battledome, and the Bengals had done that only twice since ’93.
That’s something, but Gruden’s work with Andy Dalton is far more important for both his future in Washington, and that of a man named Griffin. With Dalton, Gruden took a quarterback whose outlook with the Bengals is now under heavy scrutiny, and he structured an offense tailored to his skillset. It was one primarily focussed on quick, high percentage throws (see: a west coast offense) to ease along the often inaccurate Dalton, with still plenty of opportunities to put lots of air under a football, and have it land in A.J. Green’s mitts.
The result was a top ten passing offense this year (eighth at 258.5 yards per game) that scored 33 touchdowns while chucking (tied for third), and often gained significant yardage with ease (Dalton was tied for the league lead with 15 passes of 40 yards or more). And Gruden did all that with a quarterback who has defined average, or slightly above average if we’re being kind and generous.
But a coach’s teaching only goes so far, and common sense decision making still isn’t a strong point for Dalton. That was glaringly evident last week when he turned the ball over four times (two through interceptions), and overall this season he finished fifth with 20 picks, including three games with three or more.
Despite that woe and averageness, Gruden was still able to coax out enough from Dalton this past season to field a highly productive offense. The scoreboard always shows the most important numbers, and this year the Bengals averaged 26.9 points per game, their highest pace with Gruden that was good enough for sixth.
But then there’s the other Gruden. The sample size is inherently small with this Gruden, and again, he was undone by Dalton. But when an offensive coordinator who’s now an offensive-minded head coach brought in to bring Griffin back to life oversaw a unit that scored only 33 total points over three playoff games, that’s concerning. It’s a worry which grows when we look back to two years ago in 2011, and remember that one of the Bengals’ three straight playoff losses came when their offense was unable to out duel and opposition that was led by T.J Yates.
There’s also the not at all small matter of a schematic fit. A healthy Griffin excelled in his rookie year while running the read-option, and although his primary undoing this season was an inability to be a pocket passer, he still needs to be himself. He’s pretty good at running, and his success in the read-option was tied to the Redskins’ success in 2012, and their NFC East division win.
But change is coming, and it’s the sort that both men — Gruden and Griffin — want badly, or at least that’s what the latter is saying.
From what I’m told, RGIII wants to play in a pro-style offense, rather than run read-option plays all the time. Should work with Jay Gruden
— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) January 9, 2014
Griffin can be what, say, Colin Kaepernick is now. He can still thrive while running read-option plays and forcing defenders into difficult decisions. Only now he may be doing it in an offense that incorporates some read-option plays, and isn’t centered around them.
The most significant change under Gruden will likely lie with something that isn’t especially a strength for Griffin: reading defenses. In the past his offense was simple, with little to no reliance on progression reads, something that’s absolutely fundamental in a west coast system.
Gruden’s success in Washington may then be tied to either his ability to make Griffin into something he isn’t, or how flexible his thinking can be going forward. Both?