The Redskins head coach talks about his professional aspirations, growing up with his older brother Jon and reflects on the joys and struggles of the 2016 season. *
What did the Gruden family Christmas look like last Sunday?
Well, it was fun. We had our older son come in from Boca Raton and his fiancée and our grandson, who is two years old, Trey, wake up in the morning and open some presents. I came into work a little bit to watch the game film, come back home and we played some games and played with my grandson. That was it.
So you still have to work a little bit.
Yeah, still gotta work a little bit. Really, I get a little antsy at home so I have to come in and do something to get a little work in, watch the tape, but I went back there and spent a bunch of time with my youngest son, Jack, who is obviously here, too. He goes off to college next week I guess.
Is that how you always have to be – just a little antsy whenever you're comfortable at home?**
That's hereditary. My dad was like that, my brother Jon's like that. It's hard for us to just sit still in one spot when you feel like you have work to do. When the season's over, I'll be able to calm down a bit, I'll be able to sit around a little bit more and relax. With a huge game coming up Sunday and a big game we just played Saturday, I like to watch film and get ready for the Giants.
How would Sunday have gone had you lost to the Bears?
Not good [laughing]. It would have still been Christmas, still very grateful for the family and all that good stuff, but it would have been a tough one.
How do you manage stress levels, especially around this time of year with the playoffs in sight?
I think really, to me, the stress level is the same. Once training camp starts and the regular season starts, you know how important each game is, you go back to some of those games we lost at Detroit, tied at Cincinnati, if we just had one of those games back we'd be in a much better position, so they're all stressful, you just try to the best you can, try to put the players in the best position possible and try not to screw it up on gameday by making a poor decision. But really at the end of the day, if you feel you did your best, you just got to live with it.
You mentioned recently that if you don't make the playoffs, the year isn't successful. Are two straight winning seasons, which you've accomplished now, still good steps for this team?
The expectations around here are so high. We should thank Joe Gibbs for that. I mean, really. That's just the way it is around here, that's what the fans expect, that's what we expect. You take a job at the Washington Redskins, you're not looking for winning seasons, you're looking for championships. That's all that we can set our goals towards. Anything less than that, around here, [owner] Dan Snyder, [President] Bruce Allen, that's not what we want. That's what we have to strive for every year, regardless of how old our team is, how young our team is. We've got to strive for championships and for ways to get them done.
You mentioned Joe Gibbs setting a standard. Who did you look up to when you took this head coaching job?
Oh Joe Gibbs for sure, obviously my brother, I learned a lot from Jon. My dad was a coach so I was able to follow along with his career path and John McKay and some of the guys he worked for. But really, guys that I coached with and played for, Howard Schnellenberger, even some of the coaches I played for in the Arena League, I have a lot of respect for. But really, my brother, Joe Gibbs, I have a lot of respect for Bill Parcells, and what he did, Marvin Lewis, and obviously, "The Don," Bill Belichick, you have to always kind of keep an eye on what they're doing over there. What he's done for so many years in a row is incredible and if you're not looking to see what they're doing, you're blind.
Is there something you aspire to as a head coach, aside from winning championships?**
Well, you want to try to do the best you can and try to develop good people in here so that when these guys leave football, maybe they're just a little bit better of a person. That's easier said than done, but you try to do that. Ultimately it's about winning. You don't have a job in pro football if you don't win. That's what our goal has to be, that's the only goal we can have, otherwise we'll be doing something else in a couple of years.
What was the biggest difference in having Jon as an older brother and having Jon as a head coach?
It wasn't any different really. I understand my role, and I've always been pretty good at that as far as coaching and playing. You have to understand your role, you have to relish it, you can't always be looking ahead -- "I want to be this, I want to be that" – you do the best you can in the role that you're in. That was an offense assistant at the time. I helped with down and distance, I helped him with third down and playing in the red zone plan, but when it was time to shut up, I shut up. When he needed help I tried to help him. We never had any brotherly issues. We got along extremely well. I'd like to think I helped him a little bit but he didn't need much help, he was very good at what he did.
Did you get along as kids?
We got along pretty good. We had our fights like all siblings. But he's fun, he's a fun guy to grow up with. He's three and a half years older than me and we played a lot of sports -- nerf basketball, football, baseball, everything. He jerry-rigged them, he announced, he was a good announcer back then.
We'd do the nerf basketball, we'd have the whole NCAA tournament, he knew every starting five on every team and he'd announce each game and do the brackets. Of course his team always won at the end.
Did you win any games?
He let me win a couple games but when it came down to the final game, he'd always figure out a way to win and then make fun of me and I'd be mad, but he was great in that regard. Really helped me out with the competition, really got my competitive juices flowing. I think he made me a pretty good competitor.
How would you assess his Monday Night Football announcing?
He's the best. He's fun to listen to. I don't really enjoy listening to people talk. I don't like talk shows or any panel shows or all that stuff. When he talks, it actually makes sense to the people who know football. So, it's fun to watch him. He knows the game between offense and defense, he can go a lot of different ways and be hard on some people, but he usually explains the game for everybody to understand.
When I listen to him, it's easy to see that he loves players. I get that from you, too. Is being a "player's coach," or having that label, a negative thing in the league?
I don't think it's negative. I think you have to respect and love your players, otherwise they may not play as hard for you. But he loves the game, he likes good football, he likes well-coached teams, he likes good execution. When he sees it, he gushes about it, there's no doubt about it. You can go a different way. If one team gains 30 yards, you can say that's a great play by that team where you can say that's horrible by the other team. He always chooses to put a positive spin on the game, which is good. You hear the negative enough in our profession – the next day in the media and the fans. To hear a positive spin on things is refreshing.
As someone who likes to run around on the field and be a part of drills, did that come naturally or did you have to gain players' trust doing that?
I always run around. That's just who I am. I've held it back a little bit, my knee's been sore, my shoulder's been sore, I'm getting old, but it's always fun to go out there and run around with the guys, talk a little trash and try to get them going.
I enjoyed your Kevin Gates lyrics in one of your post-game locker room speeches this year.
[Laughing] Really, really?
Yeah. Is listening to that genre of music something you do through osmosis and being around players so much?
It's my music taste, too. I like it, too. I listen to a lot. My youngest son, all my kids really, they have a wide variety of songs that I like, so I hear them and then I put them on my phone. There were just a couple of things he said in that song that I liked and I took off and used it in a talk the night before. Just quote some of the lines every now and then. Because really, there's some motivational stuff in those words if you really listen to it. There's stuff you don't want your kids to hear sometimes, but there's good stuff in there, too.
What other stuff do you have in your phone?
I listen to hip-hop, I listen to country a lot. I listen to 80s, 90s rock -- Gun 'N Roses, Van Halen -- that stuff. But a lot of country, and I try to stay up to date with Kevin Gates and all them cats.
When you do a postgame locker room speech, how naturally does that come for you? Did you have to figure out what and how you might say something through your years in football?**
That's something you can't predict in my opinion. You just have to go with what your gut tells you and what the feel for the game was. So, sometimes these guys lay it on the line and we come up short. And for me to go and bash them because we lost a game sometimes isn't the right thing, sometimes you need to get on them a little bit, stick your foot up their [butt] a little bit. It's just a feel. When you stand on the sideline you can't really do too much but you can get a feel for how they're playing, how hard they're playing, their effort, and that's something we really have to continue to monitor and make sure they're giving us their best. Which is the good thing about this team, is the majority of the time, I get that from them, so it's hard to get angry with them when they lose a game and they're playing as hard as they can.
Do you still have a chip on your shoulder about not playing in the NFL?
No, I think that's over [laughing]. I see some of these cats play, I'm like golly, I should play. No, I think that's gone, it's long gone.
Did you think of yourself as the Michael Jordan of the AFL when you returned to playing in 2002?
I did! No, I didn't. I just wanted to come back and play because of a couple reasons. Our assistant coach, line coach at the time, was ready to be a head coach and he was looking at other places to leave, and I didn't want him to leave, he was a really good friend of mine, a really good coach. Our quarterback Craig Whelihan just blew his knee out in a playoff game the year before. We needed a quarterback, so I said I'll come back and play a couple years and make you the head coach and it's a winning situation.
What's one thing about the AFL not many people know about?
I think how competitive it was, how good these players were. The coaches, too, how seriously we took it. Everybody looked at the walls, the nets, they said this game is a joke. We prepared our [butt] off for that thing. We had some unbelievable games. We played a 16-game season and I'll bet you 13 of them came down to the final 30 seconds. It was crazy. It was a great game.
So all of these close games are pretty standard fare for you.
Yeah, I'm used to them. All the strategy at the end of the half, you're trying to hold the ball and wait for the last second so the other team doesn't get a chance at the end of the game, same thing. All these scenarios have come up for me many, many times before. It really helped prepare me as far as clock management is concerned and all that good stuff. I don't think people really understand the competitive nature of those games and those players and coaches.
When you look at the 2016 season as a whole, what do you take away?
Ooh, I tell you what, I think overall, every team can say they faced some kind of adversity, but I just think handling situations – we started out slow, smashed by Pittsburgh on Monday Night Football, we lost a very close game to Dallas, we bounced back in a big way and got our first road win against the Giants, had some good runs, had some tough luck, but for the most part I think I'll just take away the way these guys stayed together, which I'm most proud of, especially in this market like I mentioned before where, people try, for whatever reason, to tear you apart. They want to tear the ownership apart, they want to tear me apart, they want to tear the team apart. But these guys have stuck together and stayed with the plan and have been fun to coach.
Would you rather coach in a place that's passive or the opposite of that?
No, I like the firestorms. I think it makes you stronger as a group. I really do. I think you have to handle it. Sometimes if you're in a smaller market and things happen and nobody knows how to react, I think now it's like the norm, it's just water off the duck's back. You just shake it off and move on, let's get to work and get better.
You turn 50 in March. I'm not sure if you've thought about that number, but how do you feel about it right now?
My body feels 50, my mind doesn't feel 50. I don't know what you're supposed to feel like. It's shocking how fast time has gone. I look around at people who are 40 and 35 and I'm like, there's no way I'm older than these people. I still feel young at heart. I still have a lot of energy and still feel good. That's a good thing I guess, but just shocking how fast time has gone by.
Do you think you'll get one small vacation in to celebrate or are you just always too busy?
I'll get something. We'll get out to California, play some of those golf courses out there. I've got a couple friends going out there with us, me and my wife. We'll do that for a little bit. And then maybe take another one eventually, probably in summertime.
That's the best way to relax is golf?