Jay Gruden in 2018
Jay Gruden in 2018 Credit: All-Pro Reels/Flickr

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The local NFL team has a problem, which is not in itself particularly unusual. Managing a sports franchise is, at its core, about overcoming problems more effectively than other teams in your league.

But this latest problem is particularly intractable, because, at least from the outside, it seems that every decision-making entity on this team has a different set of needs heading into the season, and those needs all would recommend different actions with regard to roster construction, playing time, and general team management.

To wit: Head coach Jay Gruden is starting his sixth season with the team, the first in a two-year extension he signed in 2017. In his last four years, Gruden is an almost clinically mediocre 31-32-1. This is widely considered a win-or-get-out season for Gruden—the coach has even joked about openly at press conferences about expecting to be fired if the team misses the playoffs.

Which pretty clearly limns Gruden’s definition of success: make the playoffs or polish up the resume. This has created a situation where Gruden’s inclination has seemed to lean pretty heavily toward players he knows (or, if we’re being charitable, who “already know his system”), regardless of if that option has the highest upside for the team.

This is most apparent in the quarterback depth chart, where Colt McCoy seemed to start training camp as the odds-on favorite to open the season as the team’s starting QB. McCoy has seen his nine-year NFL career continually derailed by injuries, is still healing from a broken leg, and has amassed largely middling stats during the games he has played. But he’s been on the roster in Washington since Gruden took over the team, knows Gruden’s offense the best, and is generally well-liked by teammates and the local media.

Starting McCoy makes perfect sense if your goal is to go 9-7 and hope to squeak into the playoffs, but it seems unlikely to do much to benefit Dwayne Haskins, whom the team drafted 15th overall this year and presumably view as a future franchise QB. What’s best for Haskins (and future incarnations of this team) is, arguably, to get on the field as soon as possible, even if that leads to a 3-13 record this year. But that’s probably death for the current head coach, who is the one that gets to decide such things. (Ironically, Gruden’s determination to use McCoy likely set back his recovery from last year’s injury, limiting his ability to practice and probably taking him out of the running to start games early this season.)

Team president (and de facto general manager) Bruce Allen, meanwhile, is probably right about at the point where we can start preceding his name with “beleaguered” in print. A vocal faction of the fanbase has been clamoring for his firing, a 2018 USA Today poll of NFL agents named him the “NFL decision-maker” they trusted the least, and even the league’s own website regularly puts him toward (or at) the bottom of the annual NFL GM power rankings. Allen needs some kind of a big win to turn things around.

A slam-dunk on this year’s promising-looking draft class—which would mean multiple starters and/or significant contributors—would help Allen tremendously. Announcing an appealing (i.e. District-based) site for the new stadium wouldn’t hurt. But the biggest referendum on Allen is probably going to come from his handling of the Trent Williams situation.

Williams, the team’s star veteran left tackle, is currently holding out. Some say for more money, others say because of issues with the team’s training staff, but most reports are converging on agreement that Williams is all but done with the team. Thus far, Allen has been handling this crisis in his usual manner: giving meaningless, anodyne, borderline-idiotic quotes to the media while trying to keep a wall of absolute secrecy on anything actually happening.

The party line is that the team wants and expects Williams to return, but there is no indication that this is true. Allen is reported to have the power to all-but-unilaterally make trades, and Williams is a highly-regarded player at a premium position. He could genuinely garner notable returns, which some media folks believe could reach multiple picks including a first-rounder.

What’s best for the team right now is, again, to stockpile picks in next year’s draft and continue to build a young core around Haskins for the future. What’s best for Gruden is to have his best player show up ASAP. And what’s best for Allen is unclear.

Because, of course, everything ultimately revolves around what’s best for owner Daniel Snyder. Snyder was, by many accounts, the driving force behind the selection of Haskins; one would assume that he would like to see Haskins play, and—more importantly—succeed. Snyder has put enormous trust in Allen, and there’s a feeling that he needs Allen to complete the stadium deal. He does not want to have to fire him. Similarly, Snyder is sensitive to the impression that he is quick to meddle and/or fire coaches, so he’d probably also like Gruden to start producing more wins as well.

It would seem like the rational solution to these seemingly conflicting concepts is for Gruden to sit down with Snyder and establish what level of production from Haskins would allow him to return, regardless of wins and losses. With that information squared away, they could then have a frank discussion about what sort of return for Williams makes the most sense for all involved. Which would make sure that team needs and individual needs are aligned, and give some reality to the front-office’s oft-repeated claim that all their decisions are team decisions.

But there are no signs indicating that any of this has occurred, so we’re probably in for five games of Gruden starting Case Keenum at QB before being fired mid-season, while Allen continues his pointless staredown with Williams until the player files for retirement and the team is left with nothing. Twenty years of mediocrity point to that as the likeliest outcome.

Photo by All-Pro Reels on Flickr, used under the Creative Commons BY-SD 2.0 license.