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Friday, January 10, 2014
Jay Gruden different from previous hires

By John Keim

Jay Gruden
New head coach Jay Gruden comes to the Redskins with something to prove.
ASHBURN, Va. -- At some point during Jay Gruden's introductory news conference, it became clear: Gruden was, for lack of a better phrase, a breath of fresh air.

That doesn't mean he'll work out as the Washington Redskins' head coach. No coach has proved he can win in Washington under owner Dan Snyder. The owner isn't always the reason, but it is his organization and facts are facts: No coach that he's hired has left here with a winning record.

And he's hired some of the all-time winningest coaches: Marty Schottenheimer (career winning percentage: .606), Joe Gibbs (.665) and Mike Shanahan (.552). He hired the college hot shot, Steve Spurrier (.730). Yet that group posted a combined winning percentage of .420 as Redskins coaches with eight losing seasons out of 11. The three longtime NFL coaches combined for seven losing seasons in their other combined 48 NFL seasons.

Again, it's not all on Snyder. But the organization can't hide from its past and this is what they've done here.

Yes, Jim Zorn was not Snyder's typical hire, though that resulted as much from lack of preparation as anything. They were caught off-guard by Gibbs' retirement and had no real plan. Zorn, a nice personable guy, could not command a room and did not have the respect of his players. Even coaches would wonder about some of the bizarre tales he would tell the team, wondering how it related to his ultimate message. After Zorn's first news conference, I remember thinking: I'll like this guy, but it will not go well.

Gruden also is atypical, though in a different way than Zorn. He, too, comes across as personable. He does not come here with the résumé of the other non-Zorn hires. You can point to reasons why he'll be good and equally point to reasons why he won't be. A case can be made either way.

But it's good that Gruden arrives without the sizzle of the others. Gibbs did not arrive with any in 1981 either. Nor did Schottenheimer when he took over in Cleveland. Shanahan was a hot-shot coordinator but failed first-time head coach when he got the Denver job. They all won.

There's a different sort of energy that comes with a guy trying to reach a certain place rather than trying to maintain it. When you've had success, perhaps you start to get too confident in what you can do -- and with whom. You can overestimate your abilities as a coach because of your track record. Gruden, it seems, understands he'll need help -- from coaches, but mostly from players.

The past brings instant credibility, but it clearly hasn't guaranteed anything here. It's not like other teams wouldn't have hired any of these previously successful coaches. During their first news conferences you could see, and feel, why they'd won in the past. But duplicating past success is difficult, especially when you work for an organization with a weak foundation. Is it more firm now? Will there really be a better way of making decisions? I say: Prove it. We've heard this talk before about Redskins Way and Redskins Grades. Why is this time different?

But this is why hiring someone such as Gruden is intriguing. He needs to work hard to prove himself to his players rather than pointing to his résumé. It's not that the others weren't respected; they were. And I'm not even blaming them solely for their losing records here; good organizations win. The Redskins have not. Schottenheimer probably would have won had he stayed longer, but taking all control from Snyder was a bad move, one he felt he could do because of, well, his track record of success.

Of course, the track records buy respect with the owner and can keep him less involved.

But with Gruden, the newness brings something new, something fresh. His personality could be good for quarterback Robert Griffin III, a more personable coach with an even-keeled demeanor. I also can't imagine a former quarterback isn't hard on his own quarterbacks. And it's not as if Shanahan was out of control; Griffin deserves his share of the blame in this breakup. However, Gruden might just be a better fit for him.

Every coach needs authority, but not every coach needs power. Too often here there's a power struggle. Spurrier had none, but he was ill-equipped for the NFL. Zorn had none, but was blinded by an 8-2 start into thinking he was a coach he really wasn't. Only Gibbs knew how best to use that power under Snyder.

Gruden doesn't arrive here as a polished guy, nor as someone who will wow anyone with his charisma when he walks into a room. Maybe that's good because, for a change, it's not all about the coach here. The coach must be in charge; he must be the authority. But he doesn't have to be the star.

A lot has to go right for Gruden to work, just as would be the case anywhere (though Griffin could make his life easier by returning to his old self). The Redskins have never proved all will go right for more than a season at a time. So this is far from just up to him. That can't be emphasized enough. The front office must provide the players and also the support. The owner can't undermine his coach -- whether it's real or perceived -- by his conduct, whether in recommending certain moves or getting too tight with players.

The coach has to do his part too. That's where Gruden's newness can help. Yes, he has a famous last name. But he still needs to make his name.