Two things stand out about Jay Gruden just days into his first training camp as coach of the Washington Redskins: One, he’s a firm believer in teaching fundamentals and a physical style, and two, he believes in trusting his assistants to do their jobs.
Those represent just a few of the differences between the failed Mike Shanahan era and the as-yet-untested Gruden era.
Saturday marked the first day in pads for the Redskins, but Gruden talked even in the offseason about the importance of having a physical team. And in every practice observed thus far – both in the offseason training camp – Gruden has shown a willingness to take a step back. The former Bengals offensive coordinator is heavily involved in his area of expertise, but he trusts his coordinators and their assistants to handle their responsibilities.
The weekend sessions here featured lively practices. Returning players admitted they competed harder than they had in previous years, and they attribute part of that to more emphasis on practicing in pads. The players wore pads Saturday, and they will wear them again Monday.
“It’s always good to get out there in pads,” safety Ryan Clark said. “I mean, you play football in pads. I talked about it yesterday. Everybody thought it was a big deal that I had on pants, and I was like, ‘Well, we don’t play in shorts.’ So I think it’s good that we get in pads. Physicality wins football games. We have to get used to being physical. We have to get used to hitting.”
After a scheduled day off Tuesday, Gruden said he could put them in pads again Wednesday depending on the health of the players.
Gruden also differs from Shanahan in his approach to delegating. Shanahan let his assistants coach during practices, but he dictated how he wanted things done in meetings and at times during games.
Gruden, however, will coach the offense alongside coordinator Sean McVay and let defensive coordinator Jim Haslett and special teams coach Ben Kotwica run their own units.
Asked about how involved he expects to be in special teams, Gruden said, “Not a lot.”
“I let Coach Kotwica coach special teams. He’s too bossy,” he joked about the former Army captain and company commander. Gruden also has great trust in Haslett, who served as the head coach of the Florida Tuskers in the UFL in 2009 and hired Gruden as his offensive coordinator.
Gruden said he and the coaches have come to a consensus on their philosophies and vision for the team. Because of those talks, he feels he can give his assistants freedom, and the coaches appreciate the vote of confidence.
“He does a great job, both with the offensive coaches and defensive coaches, of delegating and kind of empowering those guys so they feel loyal to Jay, and that makes him a great leader, I think,” said McVay, who worked with Gruden both as a fellow offensive assistant in Tampa Bay and with the Tuskers. “I think each coach has his different philosophy. Jay is a little more hands-on with the offense, where he is going to be the play-caller, and I think he has a lot of confidence in Coach Haslett and his staff to run the defense. . . . That’s just his style, and guys are enjoying it.”
Haslett, himself a former head coach, said there is no right or wrong way to run a coaching staff. The key to success and good working relationships, he said, is trust.
“Well, Jay and I have a good relationship. We’ve worked together before, so he’s seen us run a defense, and he knows what we do and he understands it,” Haslett said. “Obviously, a head coach can oversee whatever he wants.. . . But you’ve got to trust the people you hire. I’ve had that situation where you hire guys and you’ve got to trust them to do a good job. You’ve got to hire guys that understand the game and relate well to players and handle all the situations. I think Jay did a nice job of hiring people.”
Gruden said if problems do arise and a position group or unit isn’t performing well, then he has no problem stepping in and ordering changes.
“Yes, yes,” he said of intervening in such instances. “Because ultimately it’s my neck on the line. But right now, my decision is to let the coaches that I’ve hired coach and let the personnel people handle the personnel and let the GMs look at the contracts. . . .
“But right now, since everything is going smoothly – now, maybe we’ll have some ups and downs, and I’ll probably have to stick my head into the meeting there and clear some things up and make some tough decisions here and there in scheme or personnel. But right now, I want to make sure the guys that I’ve hired feel like they can do their jobs, and sometimes they won’t feel like they can do their jobs if the head coach is always looking over their shoulders. . . . That’s just not my style.”