The tension was high between the Washington Redskins quarterback and his head coach. It was said that the quarterback’s outside business interests were a sore subject with the coach, along with the fact that the coach needed a different type of quarterback to run his system. Washington Redskins history has seen this movie before—and both RG3 and Jay Gruden could take a cue from how Joe Gibbs and Joe Theisman handled a similar dynamic in 1981.
When Gibbs arrived to coach the Redskins for the 1981 season, he was a highly accomplished offensive coordinator. Gibbs oversaw the “Air Coryell” attack of the San Diego Chargers, the most feared and innovative passing game of its era, with quarterback Dan Fouts. But the start of Gibbs’ Redskins tenure went poorly, with an 0-5 start and the head coach felt the quarterback he inherited—Joe Theisman—was more interested in off-the-field moneymaking ventures.
There were also practical considerations. Air Coryell was a pure dropback passing game. Fouts, a proto-type NFL quarterback could simply drop back into the pocket and fire downfield. Theisman was shorter, his vision often blocked in the pocket, and the passing game wasn’t working in San Diego the way it had in Washington.
So how did Gibbs and Theisman handle it? Did the quarterback retreat into himself, not dealing with the problems between him and his coach? Did the head coach repeatedly make brash public statements denigrating his quarterback and lament that he needed someone else to run his system? No. Here’s what happened…
Theisman, in a story he’s often recounted, drove over to Gibbs house one day to clear the air. The quarterback assured his coach that whatever outside commercial interests he had, his biggest focus was on winning.
It’s worth noting that Theisman did not apologize for having other business interests nor did he give them up. But he sought to address the misperception that simply having these interests meant he didn’t want to win football games, first and foremost. “You’ve been sold a bill of goods about me”, is what Theisman reportedly began the air-clearing conversation with.
Now, how about Gibbs? Well, he took at the skillsets of the players he actually had. He began putting his quarterback on the move a little bit more, giving Theisman some better passing angles outside the pocket. He also saw that throwing the ball early in the game—and getting defensive lineman tired by not only rushing the passer, but having to chase this little guy around—could open up the running game later. At which point, Gibbs pounded fatigued defensive fronts with big John Riggins.
It was passing to set up the run and the early 1980s Washington Redskins were the first modern team to do it. The formula was in place for a championship team.
The lessons are obvious. I like RG3 as a person a lot. I see him as a hard worker who comes from a solid family and who got royally screwed by his first head coach, who was a pompous egomaniac living off of accomplishments from the previous century, who first got RG3 hurt and then spent more time trying to orchestrate a media campaign against him rather than coaching him.
But from a steady flow of media reports, it seems that RG3 is also extremely passive in dealing with the tensions that exist. At some point, if you want to be the face of a franchise, you have to show you can deal with that and it’s up to him to reach out to his second head coach. For all of Jay Gruden’s faults, I don’t doubt that he wants to win more than he wants to win a PR war, and that’s something I couldn’t say of Jay’s illustrious predecessor.
Now, on to Jay Gruden. His constant emphasis on “the pocket, the pocket, the pocket” is getting tiresome. Yes, we know you have to throw from the pocket. We also know that RG3 is much more effective from there when you incorporate read-option, bootlegs, roll-outs and everything else along with it.
Even in 2013, a year RG3 was allegedly bad, his passer rating was 11th in the NFL on plays from the pocket. But that’s because, even with his brace, he was still being moved around more, keeping defenses honest and making pocket throws easier. RG3 is not going to be Peyton Manning. But he might be pretty good as Robert Griffin III. There’s a life lesson in there for all of us.
More to the point of this article, if Joe Gibbs could adjust his system to the talent on hand, why can’t Jay Gruden? Even with only 1981 knowledge about Gibbs he was still considerably more accomplished than Gruden. As noted, Gibbs orchestrated the most cutting-edge passing offense of its day. Whatever nice things you want to say about Gruden’s time with the Cincinnati Bengals, I don’t think anyone has called Andy Dalton’s offense the defining attack of this decade.
It’s time for RG3 to step up to the plate and it’s time for Jay Gruden to humble himself. More accomplished men than either one of them are today did so in 1981, and the greatest era of Washington Redskins history was ushered in. I’m under no illusions that would happen this time around—we’d have to get a modern-day Hogs to come along with it—but at this point, if you offered me a string of 8-8 seasons, I think I’d feel like glory days were back again. There’s no reason some air-clearing and system-altering can’t at least make that happen.