Mike Shanahan may be gone in Washington, but the West Coast offense remains as another branch of the WCO tree, former Cincinnati offensive coordinator Jay Gruden, takes over the Redskins.
And while much of the offense will remain the same—for starters, a solid ground game and a pass-catching tight end—there will be differences that both Redskins fans and RG3 owners hope bring out the best in Washington’s young franchise quarterback.
Just don’t expect the Redskins to lock into the WCO quite as rigidly as Shanahan did. Gruden is well aware of the need for more flexibility.
“I don’t think any offense in the NFL anymore is just, ‘We are this’,” Gruden said at his introductory press conference. “I think we have to adhere to what we have offensively, talent-wise. We can do the read option. We can do naked bootlegs. We can run outside zone. We can run bubble screens. We can run deep balls. We can do play-action deep things. I think the whole idea to be a successful offense is to be diverse and be good at a lot of different things and not just one.”
That flexibility has served Gruden well in previous stops—particularly in Cincinnati, where he boosted the offense from 22nd in the league to sixth and developed young quarterback Andy Dalton in the process. And certainly, after the widely publicized rough spots in the Shanahan-Robert Griffin III relationship, Gruden’s recognized ability to relate to his quarterback will be a key to the team’s success.
It’s no surprise, then, since the previous regime also ran a WCO-based offense, that the Redskins’ existing personnel is a good fit for the scheme.
“I want to really study the offensive personnel that we have in place,” Gruden said at his introductory press conference. “They’ve done some good things here offensively in years past. I think they’re in the top 10 the last couple years, so they have a system in place that’s very good. They’re an outside zone blocking team that can do inside zone. I like the power plays. I like the gap blocking plays. So there’s a little bit of everything.”
While both Shanahan and Gruden use zone-blocking philosophies, Shanny relied heavily on the stretch play; Gruden prefers to zone block on inside running plays and pull linemen when running outside—usually in front of the speed back in his stable. That likely means a somewhat lighter workload for Alfred Morris, with increased touches for Roy Helu Jr.—not quite to the point of the BenJarvus Green-Ellis/Giovanni Bernard split, but certainly a more equitable share than we’ve seen the past couple of seasons.
The offensive line will need to be retooled a bit as well, with the lighter linemen Shanahan favored giving way to more strength up front—an area Washington will likely address via free agency, the draft, or both. And expect Gruden to be more creative with his formations; he used multiple looks in Cincinnati, everything from jumbo packages to empty backfields to spread shotgun formations, all with the intent of creating an advantage for one of his better players to exploit.
Of course, the marquee player in Washington is RG3 and the obvious hope is that Gruden has the same effect on him he did on Dalton in Cincinnati. The WCO is ideal for a mobile quarterback, and with a healthy knee Griffin is certainly that. A return to health should also allow RG3 to step into the deep ball that seemed to abandon him last year, and Gruden isn’t afraid to take his shots down the field—both off play action and out of straight drops.
Griffin has demonstrated he’s capable of the short-game accuracy the WCO requires, completing 65 percent of his passes as a rookie. Two good knees and Gruden’s golden touch should push him back towards that number after it slipped to 60 percent last year, and the run-pass rollout threat could bump RG3’s rushing yards northwards as well.
Gruden’s new squad doesn’t have an A.J. Green, but in Pierre Garcon they certainly have a talented wideout capable of both the home run and the WCO-staple shorter routes that rely on a receiver’s ability to pick up YAC. Jordan Reed is a developing tight end with tremendous upside—another typical WCO hallmark. And while Morris isn’t known as much of a receiver, Helu is certainly capable of providing Gruden with a pass-catching threat out of the backfield.
Shanahan’s tight ends coach, Sean McVay, stuck around in DC and was promoted to offensive coordinator, though Gruden has already indicated he plans to call the plays. Keeping McVay should help with the transition, as he’s familiar with the players and can help build a bridge between Shanahan’s playbook and Gruden’s.
And, ultimately, McVay agrees that, more than impose a scheme on the Redskins, Gruden will work with the cards he’s been dealt.
“Jay isn’t by any stretch tied to one thing,” McVay told the Washington ESPN radio affiliate recently. “It kind of goes into… what do we do best? These guys, what is their skill set, and how can I put them in the best position to succeed? We’re built to run and stretch people up front… [but] you might see a little bit more mix in of some of those vertical double-teams, those gap-block plays that people talk about… that Cincinnati ran. But I think it’ll be a healthy mix of figuring out what they do best, and that’s in my opinion what makes Jay such a great coach.”
So long as he can squeeze the same improvement out of RG3 he got from Dalton in Cincy, Gruden will put to rest any speculation that owner Dan Snyder thought he was hiring the other Gruden brother.