Jay Gruden, From AFL QB to NFL HC

Jay Gruden is the Head Coach of the Washington Redskins. He came on board in 2014 following the departure of Mike Shanahan. Shanahan led the Skins to the playoffs in 2012, but in 2013 their play fell off enough that it prompted ownership to make a change. They interviewed and hired Jay Gruden, who is the younger brother of former NFL head coach and Super Bowl winner Jon Gruden. Before coming to the Skins he spent many years as an NFL assistant most notably as the Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator. While in Cincinnati, he helped quarterback, Andy Dalton find his rhythm and helped lead the team to the playoffs. Though Cincinnati hasn’t had a lot of playoff success in recent years, Daniel Snyder the owner of the Skins felt Gruden had shown a deft hand helping the young quarterback to grow. The Redskins had recently committed to Kirk Cousins, and Snyder felt a change would do him good.  

Of course, as you all well know, Gruden is Arena Football royalty. As a player, he won four championships in Tampa as their QB and two in Orlando as a head coach. With the Redskins training camp being held here in Richmond, I asked for and was granted the opportunity to interview him for a few minutes. I want to thank Zena Lewis and Tony Wylie from the Redskins media office for making this possible.

You were with the Nashville Kats as their offensive coordinator?

JG: Right. Then I went to Orlando as the head coach I played for Tampa and Orlando then I came back to coach for Orlando.

I recently spoke with Jeff Bouchy from the Jacksonville Sharks, and he said when Orlando hired you as head coach the team received death threats?  

JG: I don’t know about all that, but Tampa, and Orlando was a big rivalry, as good a rivalry as there is in AFL history. It was kind of odd for someone from Tampa to be the head coach in Orlando. It’s like someone from Dallas becoming head coach here, just to a smaller extent. After we won it all in my first year, I think they started liking me a little bit better. Had I lost I probably would have been out of there pretty quick.

Has the experience of coaching in arena football helped you in the NFL?

JG: I think coaching or playing no matter what sport you’re in; you have to motivate people and try to get the best out of them. Whether it’s 8 on 8 or 11 on 11, you try to get players who fit your scheme. At the end of the day, in my opinion, it’s all about personnel. You do the best job you can scouting for and getting the best players on your team and then coach in the best way you can. We teach them how to play situational football, and sound fundamental football and let them play. We have more players here, but it’s similar. Obviously, the concepts of offense and defense are totally different. They don’t carry over whatsoever, but as far as getting guys to play the game fundamentally sound and all that stuff it’s pretty much the same.

So really, coaching is coaching at all levels of football. Have any arena guys made your team?

JG: We have Attauyo “Ty” Nsekhe who is our backup tackle. He’s played a lot of minutes for us. He’s bounced around a bit. He’s been on like 4 or 5 different teams. Other than that I don’t think we have anybody that’s played arena ball. We worked out a guy, the running back from the Arizona Rattlers (Darrell Monroe) this past year. They won the championship in the IFL. We ended up not signing him, but he’s on our short list, and we may bring him back. Other than that we haven’t got anybody else.

You won championships as a quarterback and a coach?

JG: In Tampa, I won four, and I won two as a coach in Orlando.

Why did you quit playing?

JG: Back then the players got paid pretty good but the coaches made more money, and the insurance was better. As a player, if I got hurt, the injured reserve money cut your salary in half, and I had a family, so I thought it was more important to try and get the insurance and a better salary. Then as the CBA kicked in the players started getting better benefits, so I came back and played two years. The 401K was better and the money was just as good, so I played two more years, then I broke my leg and went back to coaching.

Owe! A broken leg?  

JG: The guy who broke my leg was Kelvin Ingram, and he played for Orlando and I cut him when I was a coach. When I came back and played he was with the Charlotte Rage and the sumbitch did it on purpose. So Kelvin I know where you are.

Players have told me the speed of the game on the arena level helped them transition to the NFL.

JG: That is a little true. I think Kurt Warner is the exception, but I don’t think he would have developed into the guy he was without playing. If he was a third-string quarterback somewhere, or if he had been sitting out that entire time I don’t know that he would have got the same opportunity. Since he went to the arena league and made those tight-window throws, those anticipation throws and showed people how accurate he was; he may not have gotten his chance in the NFL. He went to NFL Europe and made that look easy, and then he got his chance with the Rams, and he was able to take advantage of his opportunity. Anytime you’re a player, and you get a chance to play instead of just sit it’s a great opportunity. Being a quarterback you’re under duress, you need to make those tight third-down throws the Red Zone throws, and you’re competing with a pass rush. There’s no substitute for that, and I don’t care what the level is.

In arena football, for the quarterback, it’s like you’re in the red zone at all times?  

JG: It is, you’re right. You’ve got to make the throws you got to lead your team. You got to make the plays necessary so it’s a good experience for those guys.

Where did you make the transition from Arena into the NFL?

Fortunately for me, my brother got the job in Tampa with the Buccaneers in 2002. Had he stayed in Oakland, I wouldn’t be here, but when he got the job here I did double duty (He stayed with Orlando for three more seasons and led that team to the playoffs each year). I was an offensive assistant on his staff for 7 years, and I was able to study and learn the outdoor game from the best with John. When we got fired, the arena league had also shut down but then Jim Haslett called me. He was the Head Coach with the UFL Florida Tuskers. I coached there as offensive coordinator for a year. When he left to become the defensive coordinator here with the Redskins, I got the Head-Coaching job with the Tuskers. After that I went to the Senior Bowl and met a bunch of people. A little while later Cincinnati Bengals Head Coach Marvin Lewis called me to interview for the Offensive Coordinator’s position. I was kind of surprised when he gave me the job.

It was unexpected?

It was really unexpected. I interviewed with Todd Haley to be the Quarterback Coach out in Kansas City. I interviewed with Mike McCoy to be the Quarterback Coach out in Denver and I kind of had those in the works. McCoy ended up hiring Adam Gace, which was a good hire. I was waiting to see what would happen in Kansas City, when Marvin interviewed me, and I ended up going with Marvin.

You didn’t know coach Lewis before then?

I didn’t know Marvin before that, no. Playing for my brother helped a lot. My role increased a little bit in Tampa my first year I was just an assistant; I really didn’t know anything. My second year I had a little input and by the end, I was helping out Red Zone and third-down and stuff I was talking to John directly on the headset. That was a lot of good experience. Then we all got fired.  

Over the years, I have interviewed many people from the world of Arts entertainment and sports. Coach Gruden was a pleasure to speak with because he is both open and good-natured. The bit about the broken leg and hunting down Kelvin Ingram was hilarious as was the look on his face when he said, “then we all got fired.” He was very clear that outdoor football is nothing like indoor football, but as he readily pointed out, coaching is coaching and with the success he has demonstrated at all levels of the sport it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Redskins excel under his leadership.