It is 2017 and Jay Gruden has started his fourth NFL season as head coach of the Washington Redskins with 2-2 pre-season record. 2016 was a mixed bag for the former AFL and WFL star and UFL coach, ending the season with an 8-7-1 record and one game shy of a playoff bid. The 2016-2017 team had some serious flaws the would have made it unlikely to go far in the playoffs even if the team had earned a slot, but the fan base was appeased with a second consecutive winning season, a feat that had not occurred since the 1996 and 1997 seasons–just before current owner Daniel Snyder’s acquisition of the franchise.
The pre-season has unfortunately shown that the first team offense still cannot play consistently against first team (or even second team) defenses. Gruden’s franchise quarterback, a player with striking similarities to the snake-bitten Browns and Texans cast-off Brock Osweiler, still has a knack for throwing interceptions that either kill the game or result in a defensive touchdown, or both. His first team offensive line can’t run block. His defensive secondary still can’t defend the crossing route and is questionable deep. His star tight end, which the starting quarterback depends on to thwart defenses, cannot stay healthy. He was forced to trade or release his two top wide receivers in the off season. And his high-draft 2016 pick linebacker / safety is mulling retirement.
None of this matters. Gruden drives to work early every morning and late every evening with a smile of satisfaction on his face, because he knows what many of us probably don’t think about. Even with low expectations for the upcoming 2017 season and an overall 21-26 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 U.S. ambassador or competing as a driver in NASCAR. It is more elite than the group of swimmers who have successfully crossed the English Channel, and more elite than being on the White House staff of the U.S. president. 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? 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? Isn’t this the team with a decrepit econobox stadium with few decent seats, horrid parking, tasteless greasy and overpriced food, and mind boggling pre- and post-game traffic? Isn’t this the team with tickets that are among the most costly in the NFL? Isn’t this the team where 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. Prior to his stint with the Redskins, 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. He just signed a two-year contract extension in the fourth year of his initial five-year contract. And if he can somehow pull off a miracle and claim a third consecutive winning season, he just might get another season to marvel at his luck.