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Washington can't move forward until Jay Gruden solves Robert Griffin III

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Despite every addition that Washington has made this offseason, its 2015 fate still depends on whether Jay Gruden and Robert Griffin III can finally learn to work together.

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

RICHMOND, Va. - Jay Gruden's offensive roots stem from whiz offensive coach Howard Schnellenberger (Gruden was his quarterback at Louisville in the late 1980s) and the sling-it bling of the Arena Football League (Gruden is an AFL Hall of Fame coach and quarterback). The forward pass to Gruden is beauty, art, science and wonder. It is joy.

He came to Washington a year ago to fix this team, fix its quarterback, Robert Griffin III, and return it to NFC East division relevance. His 4-12 first season as head coach, however, fell wretchedly incomplete.

So, in his encore, as his training camp unfolds here, Gruden is hearing it.

Each team in the rest of the NFC East -- Dallas, Philadelphia and the Giants --finished among the NFL's top 10 in rushing attempts. Washington finished 21st.

Whispers are turning into shouts: RUN THE BALL MORE, GRUDEN!

"I'd love to run the ball more," Gruden said, shifting in his seat, grinning in that cat-ate-the-mouse way he effuses --loose and spirited, eager and lively.

"Of course," he continued, "I'd also like to get the lead more so that we can run the ball more. Before, the personnel here was an outside/stretch running team. The linemen for that are smaller and quicker. That is not what you want for downhill, pounding and short-yardage running. So, we've made some adjustments along the line to try to be able to do both and improve our overall running game.

"If you run the ball efficiently, you control the clock. It's hard for the other offense to do anything if they are not on the field. That is the intent. Especially in this division when the cold settles in about Week 10 and when that wind starts to blow."

Gruden is 48. He won four Arena Bowl championships as a player and two as a coach. He was the Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator from 2011 to 2013 before arriving here.

As a coach, he has maintained an open door policy with his players.

"I've got a bunch of talented receivers here," he said, laughing. "It's tough. They drop in. DeSean (Jackson) comes into my office after a game and says, `C'mon man! Are we really going to play this way without pushing the ball up the field?' Pierre Garcon comes into my office and asks, `Do I really have to block this safety one more time?' You want to keep them happy and productive. You want to run it and throw it. You want to be versatile."

His office door may be open, but Griffin does not often walk through it.

Jackson said: "We (he and Gruden) have a relationship that I feel very comfortable with and respect. I do stop by his office when I need to. When you play this game, you see things a little differently. Robert? He should be going in there, too. The quarterback and the head coach have to jell."

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Photo: Robert Deutsch - USA Today Sports

Washington has a new general manager in Scot McCloughan. It has new assistant coaches including defensive coordinator Joe Barry, offensive line coach Bill Callahan, in from Dallas, and defensive backs coach Perry Fewell, in from the Giants. It has a new defensive force in nose tackle Terrance Knighton. Linebacker Junior Galette, booted from the New Orleans Saints, was recently signed. It is a revamped operation in many ways from top to bottom.

But the focus remains on the Gruden/Griffin relationship.

The crux of this team, its present and future, centers on the two -- on scrutiny if they are clicking, if they can truly co-exist and if Gruden can get Griffin to play winning and healthy football.

Their first season together was full of shots fired and eye rolls back and forth.

Griffin was the 2011 Heisman Trophy winner at Baylor. Washington traded three first-round draft picks and a second-round pick to move up and nab him at No. 2 in the 2012 NFL Draft. In his rookie season he led the team to a 10-6 record and NFC East title while throwing 20 touchdown passes to just five interceptions. Griffin was named the NFL's offensive rookie of the year in the process, but suffered a knee injury that required postseason surgery. In his last two seasons he has won only five games in 20 starts and thrown nearly as many interceptions (18) as touchdown passes (20) while battling injuries. Last year, he thornily learned to live with and play for Gruden.

This is quite clear: Gruden and Griffin are still cementing common ground.

"You hope it's growing," Griffin said of his relationship with Gruden. "I don't know that. It's not something we talk about. People have talked about it and there is a lot out there and so many perceptions. I don't really know him and he doesn't really know me. But how could that be any other way in only one year? It takes more time than that when you are talking about any great head coach/quarterback situation including the historical ones like Walsh/Montana and Belichick/Brady.

"People are complex, football is a game of complexities and I hope we will in the future continue to move in that kind of direction. It's a lot about me learning more about the offense and performing well in it and doing what he wants done. I do understand that for me and for my teammates."

Gruden said: "You look at Robert's first year and his success but he got hit a lot. He got hit beyond obvious injury. We don't want that for him and for any of our quarterbacks. He's just gotta make plays. The ball just has to come out and go where it is supposed to go."

Griffin prefers a freer style; Gruden wants a pocket passer. Griffin wants to play on the edge; Gruden wants a more buttoned approach.

Griffin, 25, the son of military sergeants, is intelligent, charismatic, philosophical and bold in his point of view. Gruden is a football lifer, the son of Jim, a former college and NFL assistant coach and scout, and brother of Jon, a Super Bowl-winning coach and current TV analyst. Gruden wants his quarterback to process, to have a feel for space and depth, to read coverages and understand how they rotate, to throw the ball where it is game-planned to go, to throw it accurately, to play beyond intelligence and moreso with football savvy, to work harder than any other player.

These two men live across the street from each other in a Loudoun County development near Washington's headquarters in Ashburn, Va. There is a fine line between strangers and neighbors.

Washington's players look at the head coach. They look at the quarterback. They are watching it all. They see the strengths and flaws of both. They are expecting common ground and production to supersede all.

"Jay is a great dude," veteran cornerback DeAngelo Hall said. "The total package. Hell of a coach and leader. He comes from a good place. You want to win for a coach like that. Jay is one of those guys you can sit down with and be down-to-earth with. Now, that is exactly how I feel. That's me. But I don't really see him and work with him every day. I'm not coached directly by him every day. Maybe I wouldn't feel that way if I did. But I do know this: at the end of the day, Jay wants Robert to be the best quarterback he can be. And Robert wants to start to evolve into becoming a great quarterback."

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Photo: Thomas J. Russo - USA Today Sports

Gruden's father, Jim, said Jay was the peacemaker among his older brothers Jim and Jon.

He said Jay grew up around sturdy coaches including Dan Devine at Notre Dame, Lee Corso at Indiana and John McKay at Tampa Bay, all coaching stops for Jim and training grounds for Jay.

"Football has always been important to him," Jim said. "He has always been good at it. He has been around it his whole life. Jay was always a little more laid back but very competitive and tough. Jon could get ticked off just by breathing hard. Jay was a tremendous kid. A great kid. I used to joke with Jon to not get mad at Jay because he's perfect. Of course, he's not perfect. But he is a good man in a good job who needs time. He has to get on the same page with all of the new coaches. Teams in the NFL follow the quarterback. He's got to get the kid (Griffin) to play well and we'll see what happens. It's all about winning. If Jay wins a lot of games he will be there. If Jay doesn't they will find someone else."

Washington owner Dan Synder is on his eighth head coach in 16 seasons.

Washington personnel executive and Super Bowl-winning quarterback Doug Williams thinks Gruden has a chance to stick.

"Last year was tough," Williams said. "Four-and-12 is tough. He has a lot more experience on his staff now. And maybe a little more talent, which he has, will help. Jay listens. He is not one of the guys driven solely by ego. I think he is building a hell of a trust down here with this team. He is all of the things we need."

"When you take a job like this in the NFL, there are reasons you are brought in," Gruden said. There usually is work to be done. Changes to be made. Football is such a business. In the Arena League you had to learn to handle adversity. Sometimes the hotel rooms when you traveled weren't actually booked. Sometimes your check might be a little late. Adversity. I worked with Jon in Tampa as an assistant while also working in the Arena League. We won the Super Bowl in Tampa. Then Jon got fired and the Arena League folded. I said, well, 'I guess I gotta go to work now.'"

He eventually found his way to the Bengals and to head coach Marvin Lewis. Lewis said Gruden came through the door planning to work with quarterback Carson Palmer and receiver Chad Johnson. But both were gone before Gruden's first play call.

"We got rid of those guys and he winds up working with a rookie quarterback in Andy Dalton," Lewis said. "He has to make it up from there. And he did. He is such a football junkie. He loves watching tape and building supporting video of how he wants to see his offense unfold. It is one of his many talents. He is always finding a way to improve, get better. He sees offense through the eyes of the quarterback. He does not want him under undue duress. Jay is a smart guy. So, there is a lot he puts on the quarterback.

"Jay wants his quarterback to see it like he sees it."

Gruden is absorbing the art of trust in leadership. The art of when to let the rope go and when to yank it.

That is his dance with Griffin and beyond.

"I have been fortunate to meet many fans and see many reactions and the great passion that surrounds this franchise," Gruden said. "Our football team wants to reward them. Not for myself, but for them. Last year I tried to manage everything. I didn't have as much patience.

"Now I've learned to delegate. I have coaches and people around me who can do some things and get some things accomplished that I don't' have to grind in every detail. I know I am still responsible for every decision, that they are all still a reflection of me. But I've learned that if you don't delegate and trust, you just can't do this job."

★★★

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