Jay Gruden was throwing passes to NFL receivers before he could drive. As the son of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' running backs coach in the early 1980s, as well as a teenage quarterback of some local renown - better, most folks thought, than his older brother, Jon - the youngest Gruden got the job of tossing warmup passes to the Bucs' receivers and running backs before practices. He has still never faced a more pressure-packed situation.
"The first 10 passes I threw were about 20 yards over [the receivers'] heads - I was so nervous," Gruden recalled once. "But those are the best memories I have."
Those days marked the beginning of a pro football education - and those first fluttering passes the beginning of a devotion to the art of quarterbacking - that has brought Gruden, now 46 years old, to a new pinnacle in his career.
Hired Thursday by the Washington Redskins as their head coach, Gruden brought much to the table as a candidate - including a famous last name, a deep and varied resume and a history of winning everywhere he has been. But perhaps nothing signaled Gruden's suitability for the job more noticeably than his understanding of the quarterback position.
"He sees offensive football through the eyes of the quarterback," said Cincinnati Bengals Coach Marvin Lewis, under whom Gruden served as offensive coordinator the past three seasons. "He's basically playing the game with them, through them."
In Washington, Gruden's most pressing task will be to connect - both in terms of offensive philosophy and personality - with Robert Griffin III.
If there is reason for reassurance on the part of Redskins fans, it is that Gruden has spent nearly his entire life preparing for this task - from his childhood days tossing footballs at tires that Jon hung from tree branches, to the three years he just spent developing Andy Dalton into a Pro Bowler and 4,000-yard passer.
"The luckiest guy in this whole deal is Robert Griffin," said Doug Williams, the former Redskins Super Bowl MVP. "Jay understands offense to its fullest, and especially the quarterback position."
Williams was the Buccaneers' quarterback in 1982, the first year Jim Gruden Jr. joined the coaching staff, the first summer young Jay Gruden started tossing footballs around the practice field. Two decades later, they would work together for the Buccaneers when Gruden was an offensive assistant on his brother Jon Gruden's staff and Williams was a front office executive.
"I've known this guy for over 30 years," Williams said. "He's going to get the best out of what Robert can do - and maybe some things Robert didn't even know he could do."
Entering the final weekend of the 1999 Arena Football League season, the Predators had a 6-7 record, two busted-up quarterbacks and a clear, if impossible, mission: win their last game, and they made the playoffs; lose, and they went home. A few days before the game, Gruden, at 31 the youngest head coach in the league, called Connell Maynor into his office.
Maynor, a 30-year-old who had been signed late in the season, had played quarterback in college and at a previous arena league stop, but with the Predators he was being used as a backup wide receiver-linebacker. He had two catches and one sack.
"Joker," Gruden told him, according to Maynor, using the nickname he had given Maynor, "it's your turn."
With Maynor at quarterback, and with Gruden altering the offense to fit him, the Predators won their regular season finale to make the playoffs, then beat the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds on the road to make the Arena Bowl title game, where they finally lost. A year later, with Maynor starting at quarterback all season, they won the championship.
Gruden became an AFL legend, bolstering the four Arena Bowl titles he won as a quarterbac with two more as a coach and gaining election to the league's Hall of Fame in 1999. Along the way, he acquired a reputation as one of the keenest offensive minds in the league.
"Brilliant football mind," said Ed Khayat, who, as coach of the Nashville Kats in 1997, gave Gruden his first assistant coaching job. "There was nobody better at calling and designing plays. He had played quarterback, and he could see things nobody else could."
When Jon Gruden got the head coaching job of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2002, he invited his brother to join his staff as an offensive assistant. The Buccaneers job gave Jay, at last, a taste of the NFL, plus a Super Bowl ring - the result of Tampa Bay's championship in January 2003. It also gave him some new insight into offensive football, as he spent most of his seven seasons with the Buccaneers in the press box, connected to his brother via headset, getting an education in the West Coast offense of which Jon Gruden was an adherent. All the while, he kept his AFL gig, pinballing down Interstate 4 between Tampa and Orlando depending on the day of the week or the month on the calendar.
When Jon Gruden was fired in 2008, sliding seamlessly into an ESPN analyst's job that has made him perhaps even more famous than he was as a coach, Jay decided he had put down enough roots in Florida (he and his wife, Sherry, had three boys) that he didn't seek to jump right back into another NFL job.
When Jim Haslett, then coach of the Florida Tuskers of the United Football League, offered Gruden a job as his offensive coordinator, Gruden jumped at the opportunity to stay in-state. And when Haslett departed to become defensive coordinator of the Redskins in 2010, Gruden took over as coach. In both of his seasons in the UFL, he guided the Tuskers to the league championship game, losing both times.
"He's had so many different types of quarterbacks," said Chris Greisen, who took the Tuskers to the UFL title game in 2010. "He figures out what a guy does best, and how to mold the offense around him."
By this point, Gruden's boys had begun to approach college age and Gruden had checked off the last missing item from his resume - succeeding as a head coach in "the outdoor game." He was ready to get back into the NFL, and no one who had played under him had any doubt he would succeed.
"Guys who have been in that world," said Brooks Bollinger, Gruden's quarterback with Florida in 2009 and the first part of 2010, speaking of Gruden's time in football's minor leagues, "have an easier time looking outside the box."
They came to Cincinnati together, Gruden and Dalton, the offensive coordinator and the quarterback, the former a football lifer, the latter a 35th overall draft pick that every team in the NFL passed on at least once.
Three years later, they had shared in two division titles and three playoff appearances, and Dalton, under Gruden's tutelage, had become the first player since Peyton Manning to throw for more than 3,000 yards in each of his first three NFL seasons.
Each season they were together, Gruden gave Dalton more responsibility, increasing, for example, the number of "packaged" plays - containing two or three options for the quarterback to choose from, depending on what he sees from the defense - in the game plan.
"We want to have the ability to give our quarterback the chance to get us out of a bad play, into a better play," Gruden told Bleacher Report last October. "It might be overwhelming for some quarterbacks. Luckily, [Dalton] can handle it. If we had a different quarterback in here, we'd probably be doing some things differently."
Gruden also fostered an atmosphere of openness, where input was welcomed and dissenters were encouraged to speak their minds.
"Everything you can think of you want to do, you can at least say [it]," Bengals quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese said in the same Bleacher Report story. "He is willing to allow for ideas to be spread and talked about. Not everybody likes to hear all those things. But he's either faking it or enjoying it."
"One thing that really helped make it smooth for me," Dalton told the Cincinnati Enquirer this week, "was that from the start, Jay was big on asking my input, what I'm most comfortable with and any ideas I had."
This is the background and the resume, and these are concepts and beliefs, that Gruden will be bringing to Washington, and into his first season with Griffin. They may have little in common on the surface - Gruden has been overshadowed his entire life, while Griffin has been considered a prodigy since his days as a track and football star in high school. But if there is one thing to be gleaned from Griffin's career, it is that he thrives when he has a strong rapport with his primary coach.
"It has to be genuine. He has to believe it," Gruden said Thursday of the coach-quarterback dynamic he hopes to foster with Griffin. "I'll let him know I'm a trustworthy guy. He also has to understand I expect a lot from the starting quarterback. I expect him to come in and prepare and work hard, and I expect him to take the blame on some throws. I expect him to be a great leader. . . . If he doesn't like a play, I won't call [it]. I will make sure he's comfortable with everything we're doing."
Some coaches might run from a situation like Washington's, with a strong-willed owner, a sagging roster and a quarterback in need of repair. But Gruden has spent a lifetime on football's fringes, and at this point, the Redskins, coming off a 3-13 nightmare, sit squarely on the fringes of the NFL. He is, in that sense, perfect for this job, and it is perfect for him.
"He will absolutely win," Bouchy said. "You're going to see a huge improvement, and you're going to see it immediately. Lots of people say he's Jon Gruden's brother. Five years from now, they'll be saying Jon is Jay Gruden's brother."
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