In early January 2014, the Washington Redskins were looking for a new head coach, having fired Mike Shanahan on Dec. 30.
The Redskins reportedly had both candidates on their list, among others, but interviewed Gruden first. He was well known to general manager Bruce Allen, who had worked with Gruden in Tampa Bay. Allen also was close to Gruden’s brother Jon going back to their days in Oakland.
Allen reportedly couldn’t let Gruden leave the building at Redskins Park and signed him to a five-year, $20 million contract.
On Jan. 9, 2014, the Redskins announced Gruden as their new head coach. “We were looking for a new leader, somebody who can inspire our football team,” Allen said at the introductory press conference. “We knew it was more than just X’s and O’s. It was about finding the right person to build the team chemistry that we needed. We needed someone who would be a good teammate to the coaches, the organization and the players in the locker room, and through this search, we kept looking for that leader and teacher.”
They stopped looking after Jay Gruden.
One week later, Mike Zimmer was hired as the head coach of the Minnesota Vikings.
Since then, Gruden has gone 26-34-1 with one NFC East division title.
Zimmer has gone 36-25 — including an 11-5 season in 2015 (the Redskins haven’t won more than 10 games in a season since 1991) and the NFC North Division crown, and currently is coaching one of the best, if not the best, team in the NFC, with a 10-3 record.
Gruden has struggled of late this season keeping his team ready to play — a 5-8 team decimated by injuries and the losses of key offensive and defensive players. But he has kept his starting quarterback, Kirk Cousins, under center.
Zimmer had his young promising quarterback, Teddy Bridgewater, sidelined for the season last year with a devastating knee injury. Then this year Sam Bradford was knocked out early with knee surgery.
He was replaced by journeyman Case Keenum, who has led Minnesota to its successful season to date.
Maybe, just maybe, the Redskins got the wrong Bengals coordinator.
Gruden, of course, was supposedly hired to fix quarterback Robert Griffin III, so it was unlikely that Washington would have hired a defensive coordinator to be the next head coach.
And then there is Allen, the Prince of Darkness, and taking care of his Tampa mafia, which Zimmer was not part of.
The same questions that dogged Gruden at the end of last season — his ability to be the head man, the CEO on the field — are on the table again this season in the final month after the two embarrassing losses to the Cowboys and Chargers.
Last year after the 26-15 loss to Carolina on Monday Night Football, Gruden said, “First of all, we were outcoached today. There’s no question about that, and they played better than us, so you’ve got to give credit to the Carolina Panthers. It’s my responsibility to get these guys ready to play, and we didn’t execute like I would’ve liked to have seen. That falls on my shoulders.”
Two weeks later, the shameful season-ending 19-10 loss to the Giants that kept Washington out of the playoffs, Gruden yet again said, “We’re very disappointed at the outcome,” he said. “We feel like we have personnel good enough to win the game. I take responsibility for us having our season over. It’s on my shoulders. We’ve got to do a better job as coaches.”
Eight months later, after a 21-17 preseason loss to the Green Bay Packers, Gruden said, “”You know, we’re a work in progress, no question about it.”
And now, following the 30-13 loss to the Chargers, there is the latest Gruden declaration of failure. “”We have not been competitive, and we weren’t ready to play today, and that’s on me, the staff,” Gruden said. “We’ve got to do a better job to get these guys ready.”
The same questions I raised in January are still on the table — what if Gruden is not the guy? What if he is Norv Turner?
What if he isn’t Mike Zimmer?
⦁ Thom Loverro hosts his weekly podcast “Cigars & Curveballs” Wednesdays available on iTunes, Google Play and the reVolver podcast network.
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