Jay Gruden remains grateful for the Cincinnati Bengals originally giving him his shot as an offensive coordinator. Six years later, he prepares to defeat them in a key matchup Sunday in London.
To say the Cincinnati Bengals gave Jay Gruden his big break would be an understatement. Despite not having any experience as an offensive coordinator in the NFL, and not having been on an NFL coaching staff for two years, the Bengals made Gruden their offensive coordinator in 2011. Three years later, Gruden became the head coach of the Redskins. Three more years later, Gruden is preparing to face his old boss, Marvin Lewis, and the Bengals for the first time as a head coach in a pivotal game for both sides.
"I have the utmost respect for [Bengals owner] Mike Brown and Marvin obviously," Gruden said. "They gave me a great opportunity and I had a lot of fun over there. So, yeah, it's going to be special to see those guys again. We did a lot of great things over there, we thought, but come game time it's going to be another game that we have to win. We have got to find a way to win."
The Bengals' offense progressively got better under Gruden, finishing 18th in total points in 2011, then 12th in 2012 and sixth in 2013 – Gruden's final year as offensive coordinator. However, Gruden wasn't the only talented coach on staff. The 2013 coaching staff featured three future NFL head coaches working under Lewis.
Following the 2013 season, Lewis lost both of his coordinators as Gruden joined the Redskins and defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer took the head coaching job in Minnesota, where he's excelled. Also on the staff was Hue Jackson, who coached the running backs and is currently in his first season as head coach of the Cleveland Browns. Gruden's first season with the team in 2011 began an active streak of five straight playoff appearances by Cincinnati, although the team has yet to win a postseason game in that span.
"I think we had a lot of success," Gruden said. "We went to the playoffs, you know, three years in a row, we went there. Unfortunately we didn't win a game and then they went two more years after I left… and in a very tough division, the AFC North. We had some good players come through that program. I think you start off by drafting the right people, building your football team through the draft, which we did, and then as you win games, I think everybody gets rewarded. Players get rewarded with big contracts, coaches get head coaching jobs."
Gruden got his start in the NFL under brother, Jon, in Tampa Bay, serving as an offensive assistant for seven seasons until Jon's tenure with the Buccaneers ended. Gruden moved on to the United Football League, where he was an offensive coordinator then head coach and general manager with the Florida Tuskers for two seasons before earning his big chance with Cincinnati.
Lewis appreciated how easy Gruden was to work with – something that has been echoed by players and coaches in Washington – and his ability to make changes when necessary. When Gruden underwent a difficult 4-12 campaign in his first season at the helm of the Redskins, Lewis was there with support. Like Zimmer in Minnesota, Gruden became a division champion in just his second season as a head coach.
"Well, just kept encouraging him because he has such a way of knowing what he wants, you know what I mean?" Lewis said. "But yet he is conscious of the big picture as well. That was why I thought he was so valuable to me coming here. Jay had basically, he'd been the head coach, he'd been the GM. He's done everything. And so, he'd been the coordinator, so it was great that he saw a lot of things through my eyes."
"Yeah, he's always been supportive, he always will be," Gruden said. "He's a great person in that regard. But, you know, those are the type of times you've got to fight through yourself, really. You get a lot of comfort from a lot of different people feeling sorry for you and all that stuff, but it's just a matter of fighting your way out of it. But Marvin's always there for you."
Sometimes the people athletes and coaches are most competitive with are their friends. This was a notion Gruden acknowledged Wednesday. Add on traveling to London, and there's plenty to be excited about for Gruden, who has his focus on only one thing.
"I mean, I can't wait," Gruden said. "Really, it sounds funny, it's such a big game for us, really. I really don't care where we play them. I just can't wait to play the game. We've got to get this taste out of our mouth and get ready to strap it up and play against a team that's been in the playoffs five years in a row that I know extremely well. It's going to be fun to play against them, no matter where it is, when it is. We look forward to the challenge."