Coaching Staff’s Play Calling Becoming More Aggressive

Sep 18, 2016; Landover, MD, USA; Washington Redskins wide receiver Jamison Crowder (80) is unable to make a catch against the Dallas Cowboys during the first half at FedEx Field. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Sep 18, 2016; Landover, MD, USA; Washington Redskins wide receiver Jamison Crowder (80) is unable to make a catch against the Dallas Cowboys during the first half at FedEx Field. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

For better or for worse, Jay Gruden and the coaching staff have been more aggressive in their play calling.

In the case of gutsy play calling, the results determine their legacy — and for Jay Gruden and the Redskins’ coaching staff, the offensive aggression paid off against the Packers but fell short against the Cowboys on Thursday.

Sep 18, 2016; Landover, MD, USA; Washington Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins (8) throws the ball against the Dallas Cowboys at FedEx Field. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Sep 18, 2016; Landover, MD, USA; Washington Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins (8) throws the ball against the Dallas Cowboys at FedEx Field. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The Redskins’ offensive strategy has undoubtedly become more risk-friendly. Kirk Cousins is letting the deep ball fly with increasing frequency. The Redskins have had 8 plays on the season of 40 or more yards — a whopping four of which came against the Packers. Gruden and Offensive Coordinator Sean McVay made those gutsy calls last Sunday, and they certainly paid off.

Against Dallas, not so much. Cousins missed DeSean Jackson deep on more than one occasion. The Redskins could not convert big plays, though not for lack of trying.

The aggressive play calling went past dialing up the long ball, however. Many applauded Gruden’s choice to go for fourth-and-one at a crucial juncture against the Packers. The Redskins converted and did not look back.

Gruden and McVay took the same gambles on Thursday, but this time, they did not pay off.

Most notably, Gruden attempted to get creative in the red zone. He ran a Wildcat play on first and goal that the Cowboys stopped almost immediately. He elected to have Dustin Hopkins take a 55-yard field goal, which would have been his career high, had he made it. Finally, Gruden called for a surprise onside kick in the fourth quarter that ended up giving Dallas good field position and an eventual Ezekiel Elliott score.

Had those gambles worked, the Redskins would have likely won the game. However, they did not, and Gruden has to live with the decisions he made — especially in the face of criticism.

Nov 20, 2016; Landover, MD, USA; Washington Redskins head coach Jay Gruden looks on from the sidelines against the Green Bay Packers in the third quarter at FedEx Field. The Redskins won 42-24. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Jay Gruden has faced a lot of criticism in the days since the Dallas game.

One such critique came from CSN Mid-Atlantic analyst Brian Mitchell, a former Redskins running back (per CBS Sports’ Jamie Oakes).

Jay Gruden, [Bill Callahan], [Sean McVay], get off your butts and get better. This is not just a player thing. This is a coach thing and you have a scheme, and to me, when they get inside the red zone, the coaches seem confused. And if the coaches are confused, the players can not not be confused.

Mitchell’s focus on red zone efficiency is definitely warranted — the Skins converted on a measly 2 out of 5 trips to the red zone, whereas Dallas went 4 for 4.

The Washington Post’s Jerry Brewer was also disappointed in Gruden’s decisions.

Hopkins has not performed lately like a kicker capable of making a 55-yarder nine times out of 10. Gruden made that decision out of context, same as that fourth-quarter onside kick that didn’t vibe with the flow of the game. And when Hopkins missed, the Cowboys turned a short field into an easy six-play, 55-yard touchdown drive to take a 17-3 lead. Washington had to chase them for the rest of the game.

Brewer went on to write, “The disappointment isn’t in losing to a team that is clearly in an upper tier. It’s in the self-inflicted wounds that repeatedly keep this team from playing better in every game, regardless of the caliber of competition.”

Nov 20, 2016; Landover, MD, USA; Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) talks with Washington Redskins cornerback Josh Norman (24) and Washington Redskins head coach Jay Gruden after the game at FedEx Field. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Jay Gruden still clearly believes in himself, and the team he has behind him.

For his part, Gruden defended his aggressive move of sending out Hopkins for the 55-yarder.

I think he can make it, and I think he can make it nine times out of 10, to be quite honest with you, so I’ve got to take the points. Those are chances that, if we see something that’s there and we practice it and we like it, we’ve got to take chances to do it. It can change the course of the game, the momentum and everything. I thought it was worth a chance.

Key to that quote was the phrase “we’ve got to take chances”. That appears to be the Redskins’ motto going forward, and they will live and die by their ability to convert on these gutsy play calls. As for the players themselves, they seem to be in favor of this new direction. Said safety Donte Whitner, per ESPN:

Nov 20, 2016; Landover, MD, USA; Washington Redskins wide receiver Jamison Crowder (80) catches a touchdown pass as Green Bay Packers cornerback Quinten Rollins (24) defends in the third quarter at FedEx Field. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

You want aggressive. We want that. You want an aggressive coach. Whenever he makes the calls that he made, we still had an opportunity to go out and get a three-and-out. We just have to make plays.”

ESPN’s John Keim offered this take:

Gruden is an offensive coach, and if you’re going to be aggressive, you stay that way. That’s what he did, right or wrong. It’s what he’ll do next game, too. It worked out against Green Bay. It did not work out against Dallas…The Redskins, at 6-4-1, remain in good position to fight their way into the playoffs. If they get there, one reason will be Gruden’s aggressiveness. It just didn’t help them Thursday.

We will now wait and see if the play calling remains aggressive heading into Week 13 against the Arizona Cardinals.

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