On Jan. 9, a stroke of Jay Gruden's pen on a contract connected two of this offseason's most connectable dots.
Washington general manager Bruce Allen hired Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden to be his new head coach—but truly, Allen was hiring his old coach. Years ago, Jay had served as an assistant under brother Jon Gruden in Tampa Bay. Allen was the team's GM from 2004-2008, and Jay was on board from 2002-2008.
Gruden's mission: To revive the career of second-year franchise quarterback Robert Griffin III and reignite the passion of a beleaguered, change-weary Washington fanbase.
Gruden's credentials? Besides his bloodline, he was the architect of a Bengals offense that improved from 22nd in the NFL in scoring to 18th, then to 12th, then to sixth over his three seasons as offensive coordinator, per Pro Football Reference.
More impressively, Gruden did all of the above with Andy Dalton—a 2011 second-round draft pick from a mid-major that ran an unconventional offense—as his only quarterback. None of Dalton's measurables are great, and his play has never been dominant over the course of a season. Yet Gruden built a high-powered offense around Dalton, and the Bengals made the playoffs thee straight years.
So how come so many analysts thought Gruden wasn't even the best-qualified Bengals coordinator for the job?
Gruden pushed for Dalton over Bengals owner Mike Brown's choice of Colin Kaepernick, according to Paul Daugherty of The Cincinnati Enquirer. Dalton's inconsistencies have been the bane of a young, talented team that can't get out of the first round of the playoffs.
Now, Gruden will have Griffin: A confident and talented dual-threat quarterback.
As a prospect, Griffin was everything Dalton wasn't. But in Washington, Gruden won't have the outstanding offensive line, tight ends or wide receivers that helped Dalton finish third in the NFL in touchdown passes in 2013.
Moreover, Griffin looks far stronger running the zone-read, play- and boot-action concepts he executed in college than when running a typical NFL multiple-receiver offense. Just two days before accepting the job, Gruden told WLW-AM (via NFL.com's Marc Sessler) that he "wasn't really into the read-option stuff" when pushing to pass over Kaepernick in favor of Dalton.
Not surprisingly, Gruden changed his tune about read-option runs during his introductory press conference as Griffin's new head coach, according to Sessler: "I love it. I think it's part of football now."
Allen, per ESPN's John Keim, allowed that Gruden's rehabilitation of Griffin involves much more than film rooms and whiteboards. Gruden has to rebuild Griffin mentally too. "We knew it was more than just X's and O's," Allen said. "It was about finding the right person to build the team chemistry that we needed."
After the very public collapse of Griffin's relationship with outgoing head coach Mike Shanahan—fueled in part by Griffin's alliance with owner Dan Snyder—Gruden's going to have to get Griffin in his corner right away, personally and professionally.
The first step down that path? Offensive reinforcements.
Washington has a few pieces to build around, to be sure. Tailback Alfred Morris is a nice player, and receiver Pierre Garcon is bigger, faster and more dangerous than he's usually given credit for. Of course, there's also Washington's only 2013 Pro Bowler, left tackle Trent Williams.
In fact, though Griffin took a 38-sack beating last season, Pro Football Focus (subscription required) graded Washington's pass blocking fourth-best in the NFL, not far behind the Bengals' league-leading unit. Gruden will have to improve the play of the line and dramatically strengthen Griffin's pocket management.
Still, Griffin doesn't have much in the way of vertical speed or lateral quickness on the outside with which to work. Washington's receiving corps lacks a true playmaker, a home run hitter who can stretch the defense, and it is missing a truly big target who can dominate on 3rd-and-7.
Worse yet, as I wrote in December, Washington may be doomed from having gone all-in on Griffin; the team has no high draft picks and very few overall. It has a lot of work to do on defense too (second-worst scoring defense in 2013).
Fortunately for Washington, as fellow Bleacher Report NFL Lead Writer Brad Gagnon wrote in March, the massive cap penalties the team has been working underneath will be gone, and Allen will have plenty of free-agent money to spend.
Here's where Allen is going to have to lie in the bed he made. In some ways, he played it safe by hiring a guy with whom he had an existing relationship. In another sense—the "staying employed by winning games" sense—he is actually taking a big risk.
It will now be Allen's job to build the team around Griffin, and it's his task to get Gruden the players to make this hire work. Without the kind of supporting cast that will make Griffin's life easier, Gruden's job will be extraordinarily difficult.
If Gruden fails, that means Allen failed twice over.
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