It is 2018 and Jay Gruden is well into his fifth NFL season (fifth!!) as head coach of the Washington Redskins with 4-2 record. 2017 was a disappointing season for the former AFL and WFL star and UFL coach, ending the year with a 7-9 record, one and a half games worse than in 2016 and of course not in the playoffs. The 2017-2018 team carried over some serious flaws from the 2016-2017 season–flaws that made it unlikely the team would have gone far in the playoffs even if the team had earned a berth. It was still a disappointment for the coach, as he has had only two winning seasons out of four with only one playoff appearance and owns an overall losing record through the 2017-2018 season (28-35; his overall pro head coaching record is 115-92 through the 2017-2018 season).
This would have been the final year of his original five year contract, but owner Dan Snyder signed Gruden to a two year extension that would nominally take him through the 2020-2021 season.
The principle change from the 2017-2018 season to the 2018-2019 season was the release of QB Kirk Cousins and the signing of QB Alex Smith (from Kansas City) and RB Adrian Peterson (from Arizona). Smith hasn’t put up the gaudy passing numbers that Cousins has in Minnesota, but he his game management has been sufficient to give the Redskins an edge the team didn’t have last year.
Smith’s superior mobility and pass selection has helped overcome his spotty pass accuracy, and his lack of turnovers have proven to be the difference in games when compared to Cousins in 2017-2018. Peterson has been solid for a 33-old running back–running with purpose between the tackles for solid yardage. Nevertheless, despite these two new veterans, the Redskins could have been as easily 2-4 instead of 4-2 given a continued pattern of failing to capitalize on many of its opportunities.
Gruden’s defense is also still a big question mark. It was made to look particularly inept by New Orleans and Drew Brees (although this is Drew Brees we are talking about). As in previous years his defensive secondary still can’t defend the crossing route and is questionable deep.
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 2018 season and the re-entry of his flamboyant (and Super Bowl-winning) brother Jon as a coach in the NFL, 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 British royal or noble or being a living recipient of the Medal of Honor. It is more elite than being a the governor of a US state, and more elite than being a living member of the NFL Hall of Fame. Gruden is an NFL head coach–one of only thirty-two such positions.
“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) is named for a city that has flat refused to discuss locating the team’s games inside its limits, and is actually headquartered in Virginia? 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 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 appearance on the Phoenix Cardinals practice squad. His playing career features mainly 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 (and current Oakland Raiders coach) 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 claim a third winning season in four years, he just might get another season to marvel at his luck.
November 19th 2018 update: Starting QB Alex Smith suffered a season, and perhaps career, ending injury when he broke a leg during a tackle by two Houston Texan players. Colt McCoy will take Smith’s place, but the veteran backup is notorious for pressing and causing turnovers–the opposite of Smith’s careful play. So the season is likely over for the Redskins. No worries–Gruden is still the luckiest guy in the NFL.