In the aftermath of the Washington Capitals’ Stanley Cup breakthrough, I saw a social media post that noted the Capitals were rewarded for sticking with head coach Barry Trotz and imploring the Washington Redskins to take a cue from their neighbors. I wish I could remember who posted it, but it was on Twitter (doesn’t everything noteworthy in D.C. these days come from Twitter?). Redskins head coach Jay Gruden enters his fifth season and is on the hot seat. How hot should that seat be and is this a good comparison?
Let’s begin with the fact that I think the comparison is sketchy at best. Trotz won over 62 percent of his regular season games. The Capitals’ frustration was about translating regular season dominance into postseason success. Even more specifically, it was about beating the Pittsburgh Penguins, their sport’s signature franchise.
If the Gruden-Trotz comparison were valid, the Redskins would have averaged 10-6 regular seasons over the last four years, gone into the playoffs with first-round byes and found frustration by being consistently knocked off by the eventual Super Bowl champ. Instead, Gruden has averaged seven wins per year, made the postseason one time in four tries and been promptly eliminated in the first round—by a team (Green Bay in 2015) that promptly lost in the second round.
The comparison doesn’t hold water. Maybe that’s why Trotz decided to hold up the Capitals with demands for a new contract and ended up resigning in protest yesterday (the one thing all Washington D.C. institutions, sports and otherwise, can compare to each other in is ceaseless and unnecessary drama).
But just because Jay Gruden isn’t Barry Trotz doesn’t mean the Redskins should be looking for a reason to change coaches. Gruden inherited a rough situation—the organizational culture, always teetering under owner Daniel Synder, had become a toxic mess. If you recall the start of 2014, there was still hope Robert Griffin III could return to his rookie year form of 2012. The fan base was split into warring camps over whether to go with Kirk Cousins or stick with RG3.
Gruden, of course, ended up going with Cousins. Those of us that like (and still do like) RG3 should acknowledge that while the head coach didn’t exactly handle the situation gracefully (repeated public criticisms of Griffin), we can write that off to the frustration of a first-year coach stuck having inherited damaged goods and being hamstrung by the front office in terms of making a personnel change. RG3 and his fans are on stronger ground targeting Mike Shanahan, who ruined the quarterback, rather than Gruden, who just accepted what a lot of us didn’t want to see at the time.
So given that mess and the Redskins’ general incompetence in the Snyder era, the fact Gruden has put the Redskins at least on the cycle of mediocrity has to be seen as a positive. They’re in the group of teams that with between 7-9 regular season games. Sometimes, like 2015, that’s enough to make the playoffs. Other times, it leaves you on the outside looking in, but the fundamental quality of football doesn’t really change.
I’ll be honest—after the disasters of 2013-14 (the last year of Shanahan and the first year of Gruden), watching the Redskins and knowing I have a 50/50 chance to watch a victory, seems like a new Golden Age. And I’m highly skeptical of any future head coach suddenly making this a 10-11 win franchise and a real contender for a Super Bowl.
I also think keeping Gruden around for the full term of his original five-year contract has been good for stability and it sends a good message to future coaching and free agent prospects—that the days of the carousel are over.
What that boils down to is that I think it would be a mistake to put Gruden on a “Playoffs-or-Bust” ultimatum. After the trade for Alex Smith, that would be an understandable reaction, but an understandable reaction is not necessarily a good one. If the ‘Skins collapse, make a change. But if they continue to lurk on the playoff border, it’s time to be real and accept that short of Bill Belichick, there’s probably not anyone else that’s going to do a lot better. And we’ve seen rather vividly in recent years that things could be a whole lot worse.