It is 2016 and Jay Gruden has started his third NFL season as head coach of the Washington Redskins with an O-2 record. It is an ignominious start after winning the 2015 NFC East division championship with nine wins and seven losses. In spite of throwing for over seven hundred yards in two games, his franchise quarterback has a resurgent knack for throwing an interception (three so far) that is guaranteed to lose the game. His running backs can’t run, and when they do run, they fumble the ball away. His offensive coordinator has been slow to adapt to player shortcomings and has been prone to call predictable plays. Worst of all his defense is a disaster. It cannot stop the run, and cannot stop the pass. It cannot stop the pass even with one of the top corners in the league. It cannot rush the passer and it cannot tackle up the middle. It cannot shed routine blocks and it cannot tackle in the open field.
None of this matters. Gruden drives to work every morning with a Cheshire cat smile on his face, because he knows what many of us probably don’t think about. Even with an appalling start to the 2016 season and an overall 13-21 losing record as head coach, he’s one of the luckiest guys in professional sports. It is because he is spending another day as part of an elite club. This elite club has only thirty-two members…more elite than being a governor of a U.S. state or holding the rank of 4-star general. It is more elite than being one of the group of astronauts that have been to space, and more elite than being one of the original employees of Amazon.com. Gruden is an NFL head coach–one of only thirty-two such positions in the NFL.
“Now wait a second,” you might be saying right now. Isn’t this the Washington Redskins that has an ethnic slur as a mascot name, is ridiculed and disparaged for keeping the name in the face of national and local media scorn and persistent protests at home and away? Isn’t this the Washington D.C. team that hasn’t been to the Super Bowl since 1991, and never under the current owner? Isn’t this the team that plays in a state (Maryland) that is wholly uninterested in building it a new stadium (unlike the Ravens) and is named for a city that has flat refused to discuss locating the team’s games inside its limits?
The home stadium, FedEx Field, is a decrepit econobox with few decent seats. Stadium parking, which is horrid, is expensive. The food at the stadium, which is often tasteless and greasy, is grossly overpriced. Traffic in and out of the stadium grounds requires hours of grinding stop-and-go driving, each way. Tickets are among the most costly in the NFL. The franchise used to have a season ticket waiting list that took decades to traverse–and now there is no real wait. Opposing team fans have been known at times to outdraw home fans in the stadium.
None of that matters to Gruden.
Jay Gruden spent more time in the Arena Football League as a player and coach than he has been involved in the NFL. As an NFL player he never advanced farther than a brief slot on the Phoenix Cardinals practice squad. His playing career features only highlights from the defunct World League and the AFL. His NFL coaching resume only shows six years as an offensive assistant for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, when his more famous brother Jon Gruden coached the team, and three years as the offensive coordinator of the Cincinnati Bengals. He interviewed for head coach at five different NFL teams (and turned down a sixth) without getting hired.
Nope, life is good for Jay Gruden. He has made it to the pinnacle of his profession, and he is enjoying every minute of it. And if he can somehow pull off a miracle and repeat as division champs with a interception-prone quarterback, slow-thinking coordinators, a questionable defensive line, and a knack for making opposing rookies and over-the-hill veterans look like pro-bowlers, he just might get another season to marvel at his luck.
3/2/17 postscript: The Redskins finished 8-7-1, missing the playoffs by one win. Gruden’s tenure will extend to the 2017-2018 season and Kirk Cousins has been franchised for a second straight time.