It is difficult to find sympathy for an NFL coach. Every one of them takes the seven figure job knowing that they will inevitably be fired. It comes with the territory, at the bottom of the job posting after “other duties as assigned.” Jon Gruden, upon being fired from the Buccaneers, rented out a space in a Tampa strip mall and started a consulting firm/support group The Fired Football Coaches of America. Now shuttered, it should reopen in the near future, either in Oakland or Las Vegas. No one will pity him.
But later this season, when his brother is eventually fired (or to be technical, does not have his contract renewed), I will feel bad for Jay Gruden. I’ll even feel a little relieved for him.
To be clear, Jay Gruden has done and will do things that are evidence enough that he should not be a head coach. This is a man who thought Colt McCoy—who he once confused with Kirk Cousins—was a starting caliber QB, he came out of a TV timeout with 10 men on the field, he’s never won a playoff game in five years and counting, just to name a few. Other non-job related things like being unable to answer a question about what kind of food he likes do not make him a likable character. The main thing separating Jay Gruden from your average suburban dad is that he never gave up his dream of playing QB, playing in NFL Europe’s predecessor and the Arena League before working as a coach for his brother rather than being an account manager and coaching his son’s Pop Warner team, wearing a similar ill-fitted polo.
What makes him a sympathetic figure is that he works for Dan Snyder and is not incompetent. It would be easy to blame Gruden for taking the job in the first place, knowingly going to work for one of the worst run franchises, and possibly most toxic, in the league. But there are only 32 head coaching jobs in the league, when one comes along you take it. The next job offer paying millions of dollars may never come.
And Jay Gruden has done a relatively good job. His win/loss record is better than his two predecessors, and as unspectacular as 9-7 and 8-7-1 are, he is the only coach under Dan Snyder to post back-to-back winning seasons. Until last year’s injury plagued season, his offenses were average at worst. In the spectrum of coaches he’s comfortably neither a game changing mind nor a debilitatingly bad coach. He’s competency in a tracksuit. That’s as good as Dan Snyder is going to get. Joe Gibbs had one losing season in 12 years in his original stint with the Redskins that got him to the Hall of Fame, in his second, under Snyder, he had two in four years. Marty Schottenheimer won in Cleveland, won in Kansas City, and won in San Diego. In Washington he got fired after going 8-8 in his first season. Mike Shanahan’s winning percentage in Denver was better than Bill Walsh’s, in Washington it was worse than Todd Bowles. No one succeeds for Dan Snyder, they just stick around long enough to be better remembered than Jim Zorn.
Gruden didn’t get blood from a stone, but there’s not reasonably more you can ask a coach to do in Gruden’s situation. Every time ownership/management took a step forward, it took at least a step back and handcuffed him. He took over the team with two up and coming QBs, management ran both out of town. Bruce Allen was finally removed from the GM role, less than two years later he was back running the show. A few seasons ago the Redskins had a very good and deep group of skill position players, this season they have the worst in the league. In April they had a good draft getting a potential franchise QB that Gruden won’t be around to coach, in June their best player didn’t show up and said he’s never playing for the team again and then the front office declined to trade him in a seller’s market. None of these are ultimately Gruden’s fault, but they are his problem.
Jay Gruden will land on his feet. He should have no problem getting an offensive coordinator job, his experience as a head coach will be useful to a rookie head coach and he would be an upgrade over at least a few playcallers right now. Or maybe he’ll go to college, the bulk of his coaching career is outside the NFL. Where ever he lands, he’ll inevitably be fired there too. I won’t feel bad for him then, he’ll be just another coach stuck in the machine.
But this season, I’ll feel some sympathy for his predicament before the Redskins move on. I’ll miss making jokes as his expense like imagining his love of truck racing, his ownership of every Eddie Money box set, or how meticulous he is about keeping his above ground pool clean. But I won’t miss him on the field, because the chances are that Dan Snyder and Bruce Allen will replace him with someone worse. That should be fun.