AFL, ‘bitter’ snub helped mold Redskins’ Gruden
ASHBURN, Va. (AP) — A tight end was needed to run the play, so new Washington Redskins coach Jay Gruden rushed over and lined up. He helped direct traffic pre-snap and ran a little 10-yard route toward the right flat, although Robert Griffin III decided to throw the ball elsewhere.
In such moments, it’s easy to mistake the coach for some sort of gloried intern on the practice field.
“Coach Gruden’s a lot more hands-on,” guard Chris Chester said, “a little more active trying to get guys coached up.”
Yet Gruden is actually a Hall of Fame coach. Well, an Arena Football League Hall of Fame coach — though he doesn’t add “HOF” when he signs an autograph.
“I got a blazer with a Hall of Fame patch on it,” Gruden said in an interview with The Associated Press ahead of this week’s minicamp, which began Tuesday. “That’s all I got. I don’t know where it is. I don’t even know where the Hall of Fame is.”
Should Gruden wish to see his plaque, he can find it on display in the AFL office in Chicago, a reward for his four titles as a player and two more as a coach in the indoor league. He’s a football equivalent of Crash Davis, the fictional character from “Bull Durham” who set records in the minors with hardly anyone paying attention.
Maybe that’s why, even at 47, he runs around on the field looking as if he’s still itching to put on a jersey and play just once in the big leagues. Instead, he’s living vicariously through his players as a rookie head coach in the NFL, the league that never gave him a shot as a quarterback.
“I’ve always been bitter about not getting that opportunity,” Gruden said. “My dad’s in the league, my brother’s in the league, I can’t even get a damn tryout. I watched some of these guys throw, and it really ticked me off for a long time. But I’m over it now.”
Maybe so, but his unfulfilled playing career manifests itself in various ways. For one, he isn’t going to accept shortcuts when it comes to the position he played.
“When you play the position, you know what it takes,” Gruden said, “I don’t expect the quarterback to call the play and not know anything about the front, the blitz that’s coming, or the coverage, like, ‘I’m just going to throw it to this guy.’ I need him to know what’s happening.”
So far, coach and franchise player seem to be getting along just fine, a stark change from the tension that developed last season among Griffin, coach Mike Shanahan and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. Then again, the first game is still four months away.
“When it’s new, everything is all good,” veteran receiver Santana Moss said. “It’s just like getting that new girlfriend. When we had the old one and she got on your nerves — the new one ain’t going to get on your nerves until down the road. She might be like the old one.”
True enough, but Gruden got the job in part because he is the antithesis of the old one. Every coaching change made under owner Dan Snyder has alternated between generals-in-charge (Marty Schottenheimer, Joe Gibbs, Shanahan) and affable players’ coaches (Steve Spurrier, Jim Zorn, Gruden). Players always find the new guy different and refreshing.
“I want to make sure the energy level is high out there, and guys are enjoying what they’re doing,” Gruden said. “But in the meantime, we have got to stay on them and make sure they’re disciplined and not jumping offsides. ... There’s a lot of coaching going on. Doesn’t mean I have to be a hard-(butt) on every snap and yelling at people.”
Gruden draws on his AFL experiences, his more recent work as an offensive coordinator with the Cincinnati Bengals, and the football bloodline shared with older brother Jon, who won a Super Bowl with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and works as an analyst on “Monday Night Football.” Jay Gruden is aware of the turmoil that led to Shanahan’s dismissal after a 3-13 season, but he isn’t going out of his way to try to be different. Then again, it’s almost impossible to picture Shanahan lining up as a tight end during a drill.
“I’m not going to try to do something that Shanahan didn’t, or not do something that he did, or do something that my brother did or Joe Gibbs did,” Gruden said. “I’m just going to try to coach the way I know how, and the way I’ve done it in the past, and hopefully it’ll be good enough.”
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