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Jay Gruden Bet Big and Won for the Washington Redskins

James Dudko@@JamesDudkoFeatured ColumnistDecember 28, 2015

Washington Redskins head coach Jay Gruden walks to the field before an NFL football game against the Philadelphia Eagles, Saturday, Dec. 26, 2015, in Philadelphia.  (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Matt Rourke/Associated Press

When Jay Gruden chose Kirk Cousins as his starting quarterback for the 2015 NFL season, he wasn't just gambling on a fourth-round pick with a history of throwing interceptions.

Gruden was also admitting to the Washington Redskins hierarchy that he couldn't do the job he was hired to do. Namely, develop 2012 second-overall pick Robert Griffin III into the franchise quarterback he's supposed to be.

By choosing the understudy over the face of the franchise, Gruden was also taking on the owner who was so enamored with RG3 he let his team trade away the farm to get him.

Those were very risky choices for a second-year head coach who endured a 4-12 baptism of fire as a rookie sideline general. Gruden bet his career on the call under center. He bet big on Cousins, and won.

Four months after naming Cousins his starter, Gruden no longer looks like a brash and naive young coach out of his depth. Instead, he's built a reputation as a bold and inspired risk-taker, whose insistence on doing things his way has earned the Redskins an NFC East title and an unlikely playoff berth ahead of schedule.

As Anthony Gulizia of the Washington Times has pointed out, it's "just the second worst-to-first turnaround in franchise history. The other was in 2012."

Gruden is reaping the rewards of making the right call at quarterback.
Gruden is reaping the rewards of making the right call at quarterback.Matt Rourke/Associated Press
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If you think bold and inspired are too lofty terms for a coach who blundered his way through his rookie year in increasingly heavy-handed fashion, then think again.

It was always going to take a very brave coach to stand up to ownership when it came to Griffin. The quarterback's failure to develop was strangling this franchise, keeping it locked in 2012. Washington was locked in a time when a fully mobile RG3 could run a specific offense tailored to his dynamic yet limited skill set. An offense the rest of the league had caught up with by 2014.

But turning their backs on an investment who cost three first-round picks and a second-rounder was never going to be easy for the owner and team brass. One head coach and his staff had already paid the price for trying to show how the Griffin experiment was doomed to failure.

Gruden was determined not to be the next victim.

But he didn't have a lot of credit after just four wins in 2014. Not after he started then benched Griffin. Not after he publicly took the chosen one to task.

When he made the switch from Griffin to Cousins, think about what Gruden was really asking. He was asking the front office and the owner to take a leap of faith on a QB who had only won one game he'd started and finished before this season, a passer who had thrown more interceptions (19) than touchdowns (18).

What other coach could make a demand like this and expect to be taken seriously?

Gruden convinced RG3's biggest fan, owner Dan Snyder (L), his team would be better with a different QB.
Gruden convinced RG3's biggest fan, owner Dan Snyder (L), his team would be better with a different QB.Steve Helber/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press

Maybe proven winners like Bill Belichick and Pete Carroll, guys who will never need to switch their current quarterbacks because of bad performances. Perhaps somebody with as much experience in the NFL wars as Andy Reid would get away with it.

But a young and unproven coach with a lone dismal season under his belt? Forget about it.

Yet Gruden not only got his way, he's since spun that decision into gold. He's done it by not only thrusting Cousins into the limelight, but also by ensuring he hasn't wilted under its glare.

Gruden has done with Cousins what he felt he couldn't do with Griffin. Specifically, he's patiently developed and refined a young signal-caller with plenty to learn into a quality NFL starter.

The process hasn't always been easy, but Gruden has stayed strong in his belief in Cousins, as ESPN's Jason Reid describes:

As Cousins had some bumpy moments while the team lost three of four during one stretch (he had six interceptions), Gruden and general manager Scot McCloughan kept Griffin on the bench. Cousins rewarded them, enabling the Redskins to emerge with an NFC East title and a franchise quarterbackthe foundation for sustained success in the NFL.

Cousins has been able to pay back the faith because of the work done by offensive coordinator Sean McVay and quarterbacks coach Matt Cavanaugh. They've ironed out his bad habits, especially those pesky interceptions, and maximized what Cousins does well.

Gruden's staff deserves credit for its work to develop Cousins.
Gruden's staff deserves credit for its work to develop Cousins.Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Specifically, that's meant quick-hitting inside throws based off smart reads and a natural flair for spreading the ball around. Cousins is now an accurate passer who knows how to use every one of a plethora of talented targets.

But it's been Gruden overseeing the whole show. The turnaround didn't happen overnight. It took some painful baby steps to get here.

Remember all those short, high-percentage, generally-gong-nowhere throws in the early weeks of this season? Those were designed to give an erratic and fragile quarterback confidence.

The death by 1,000 dumpoffs offense prevalent at the start of this season was the first step to improving Cousins' accuracy from the pocket. "It's all part of the process" to borrow a lyric from Morcheeba.

It's also exactly what Gruden was trying to do with Griffin at the beginning of last season. Think back to 2014's Week 1 outing against the Houston Texans.

Gruden knew he couldn't make it work with Griffin.
Gruden knew he couldn't make it work with Griffin.Gail Burton/Associated Press

Once Cousins had mastered the short game, Gruden knew he had a quarterback assured enough to open things up. The return from injury of premier deep threat DeSean Jackson, along with the surprising durability of star tight end Jordan Reed, meant Gruden had the right weapons to expand the playbook.

The culmination of that work came in the 38-24 win over the Philadelphia Eagles that clinched the division in Week 16. Cousins threw for 365 yards and four touchdowns on a night when he claimed records, enhanced a few he'd already set and kept pace with some of the best and most prolific quarterbacks in the league.

The Redskins Public Relations detailed these statistics from Cousins' star turn in Philly, per the team's official site:

Cousins added to his single-season team records in completions (367) and 300-yard passing games (seven).

Cousins extended his career-long streak of games with a touchdown pass to 15. He is the first Redskins quarterback to open a season with a touchdown in 15 consecutive games since the NFL instituted the 16-game schedule in 1978.

[...]

Cousins remains one of four NFL quarterbacks this season to throw a touchdown pass in every game this season (Blake Bortles, Tom Brady and Russell Wilson).

Those numbers, like Washington's whole season, have surprised many. NFL Network host Dan Hellie best summed up that sentiment after the win at Lincoln Financial Field:

Dan Hellie @DanHellie

Fun stuff. I was there when @KirkCousins8 got drafted and didn't think either 1 of us would be where we r now. #life https://t.co/STQhmAz4Nu

But the numbers are not only a personal reward for Cousins upsetting the odds this season. They are also a reward for Gruden's patience.

Coaches with a proven track record for winning can afford to wait for a risky project to come good. But an inexperienced one already on thin ice, and with a new general manager hovering over him, needs to make every game count.

Just speculate for a second on what things would look for Gruden had his gamble at the most important position on the team backfired.

First, the Redskins would certainly be looking for a new head coach at this point. As for Gruden, he'd be banished, written off as a former Arena League QB who got in over his head.

He'd be dismissed as a calamity who traded a few years working with some good talent for the Cincinnati Bengals, along with the name recognition of his older brother Jon, a Super Bowl-winning head coach, for a job he wasn't ready for and never will be.

Gruden would be back at the assistant level if his gamble on Cousins had backfired.
Gruden would be back at the assistant level if his gamble on Cousins had backfired.Al Behrman/Associated Press

If Gruden was cast out of Redskins Park accused of having permanently wrecked Griffin's confidence in favor of a turnover machine who never shed the mistakes, he probably wouldn't get another head coaching job.

But instead, he called his shot and won. Gruden rolled the dice that Cousins was the best fit on the roster to run the offense he wanted. But the league's scrapheap is littered with ex-coaches who made reckless gambles that blew up in their faces.

Gruden made his work because he didn't rest on his laurels. He patiently and meticulously emphasized Cousins' good qualities while finding ways to hide his weaker points.

His treatment of Griffin has often made Gruden an easy target for derision. But his critics, myself included, owe him an apology. At the very least, Gruden the younger is due respect for being brave enough to make the unpopular choice and take the risk that might so easily have cost him his job.

Gruden was originally hired to make sure Washington had its franchise quarterback. It may not be the quarterback the team's brass and its fans were expecting, but Gruden has finally delivered.

He's done it by betting big and winning.

Statistics and player information via NFL.com, unless otherwise stated.

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