Jay Gruden faced a gargantuan task when he accepted the job as head coach of Washington’s NFL team in January.
The franchise has been mired in less-than-mediocrity for the better part of two decades and changing such a culture isn’t a snap. The undertaking has been more difficult that Gruden imagined.
We don’t know yet if it’s too much for him to handle. But we know he has firsthand experience with organizations that consistently fielded the type of atrocious football that is commonplace in Washington.
The latest example of D.C.’s ineptitude might be the most thorough yet, Sunday’s 24-0 spanking courtesy of the St. Louis Rams, dropping Gruden to 3-10 in his rookie season as an NFL head coach.
“Obviously, before the season started we had high hopes,” Gruden said after his team’s fifth consecutive loss. “Things happened to us and now we are where we are.”
Destined for its 14th non-winning record in 18 years, Washington is where Cincinnati used to reside. The Bengals posted 14 consecutive non-winning seasons between 1991-2004. But they turned things around under coach Marvin Lewis, who has led them to winning records in five of the last six seasons.
Gruden caught the tail end of that resurgence, serving as Lewis’ offensive coordinator for three years – making the playoffs each time – before accepting Dan Snyder’s offer.
That’s not even the best example of fortuitous timing on Gruden’s part.
Tampa Bay started as an 0-14 expansion team in 1976 and was mostly a laughingstock for 20 years before Tony Dungy took over. Dungy led the Buccaneers to the postseason in four of his six seasons and led them to double-digit victories three times, but was fired.
Jon Gruden swooped in – with his kid brother in tow as an offensive assistant – and the franchise immediately won the Super Bowl.
Washington is a different animal for Jay Gruden. There’s no Lewis or older brother to do the heavy lifting under the headset. Perhaps more importantly, there are legitimate concerns about the process for procuring talent.
We also still have questions about Gruden’s ability to effectively use the players he has. But he clearly knows the type of players necessary to reverse fortunes and change the culture of losing NFL franchises.
“It’s something that’s going to be a process,” he said. “It’s going to take good drafts, good free agents, getting young players in here and taught well – how to study, how to learn, how to prepare, how to play and how to finish games. That’s something we’re going through right now and trying to change it.”
How do you alter a mindset when nothing around you changes? How do you NOT get used to losing when that’s all you do?
Left tackle Trent Williams has been on double-digit loss teams for four of his five NFL seasons. You would think he’s accustomed to the sensation. He begs to differ.
“You never get used to losing,” he said. “You put so much in during the week and during the offseason to go out and win. Every time you lose, it’s a downer. It’s a feeling that sucks and leaves a nasty taste in your mouth. I know I’m not used to losing and I don’t know that I’ll ever be used to losing.”
He might be the only one.
Fans certainly are quite familiar with the agony of defeat. So are those who are paid to observe the games. All the optimism in the world is no match for week after week of cold, hard reality.
In addition to the pathetic won-loss column, there’s all the off-the-field drama: Who’s playing quarterback? Is the front office calling the shots? What do former players think of the defensive coordinator? How long will the owner hold out on the nickname?
Lately, there’s another question: “Will Gruden make it to Year 2?”
“As a coach, you’re judged on wins and losses,” he said. “Whenever you sign a contract, you know that going in. All you can do is what you believe in, try to motivate the guy and try to figure out a way to get victories in the NFL.
“If you don’t, obviously you are always subject to the owners making a change. They have that right. I’m just going to keep coaching the way I know how and not worry about it and do the best I can.”
Changing coaches has been a breeze for this franchise.
It’s the culture that has it tied in knots.