ASHBURN, Va. (AP) — If there was one particular decision, one particular moment, that allowed Jay Gruden to point his Washington Redskins — and, indeed, his very career as an NFL head coach — in the right direction, it was picking Kirk Cousins over Robert Griffin III as the team’s starting QB.
“It’s hard for a head coach to have one starting quarterback and then change so suddenly. But we just told Jay: ‘Hey, man, pick a quarterback and let’s roll with him. We have to put trust in him and confidence in him and make sure that quarterback keeps things rolling,'” defensive lineman Ricky Jean Francois said Thursday.
“It was done right,” Jean Francois added about the preseason switch to Cousins, coming off a 4-12 record in Gruden’s debut season in Washington.
“A coach just needs to pick. Don’t go through procrastination. Tell your team. ‘Kirk’s our quarterback? OK, cool. We don’t need to go back and forth.’ We weren’t going to mope around or disagree. If we had done that, we wouldn’t be in the playoffs.”
That is exactly where the Redskins (9-7) are, going from worst to first in the NFC East and hosting the wild-card Green Bay Packers (10-6) on Sunday in Gruden’s first NFL postseason game as a head coach.
Cousins, announced Thursday as the NFC Offensive Player of the Month, is a big reason for the turnaround. He set a team record for yards passing (4,166), set a league record for completion rate in home games (74.7) and threw for 23 touchdowns and only three interceptions over the final 10 games.
“You’ve got to give Coach Gruden some credit … for sticking with (Cousins) and giving him an opportunity to develop and get better as the season has gone on,” Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers said.
One thing everyone knew about Gruden, based on his work with Andy Dalton as Cincinnati’s offensive coordinator, was that he could help an inexperienced quarterback become a viable NFL starter.
“Maybe he deserved more credit in what he sees in a quarterback,” Bengals Pro Bowl left tackle Andrew Whitworth said. “He spoke highly of Andy before he’d done anything here.”
Aside from the monumental risk with Cousins at a football team’s most important position — which, it turns out, paid off with a big reward — Gruden won over his current club with an easygoing manner that has many Redskins referring to him as a “players’ coach.”
Explained Whitworth: “Jay has that demeanor of letting guys be pros. He has does a good job of motivating you and convincing you that you can do anything you set your mind to. Also, creating opportunities for his best players to be in the best situations possible.”
Said Jean Francois: “We know he ain’t fake. He’s Jay Gruden. He’s himself. He’s no one else. So whatever he tells us, whatever he wants us to do on that field, we’re going to buy into that.”
“He stayed out of the locker room, stayed out of the way. He put it on us, and it’s been on us all this year. We figured things out,” Washington defensive end Jason Hatcher said.
Gruden, whose brother Jon coached Tampa Bay to a Super Bowl title, kids around, in public and behind the scenes (remember that viral video of wideout DeSean Jackson grabbing the coach’s chest during a practice?).
He lets veterans “police” the locker room.
“If someone is late, he lets us take care of it. He coaches, and we can take care of that sort of discipline,” Jean Francois said.
“Jay shows his true personality. He’s sarcastic. He makes jokes. We like that. There are coaches who want to be ‘hard’ or ‘professional’ and all that. But Jay was himself — and he got us in the playoffs. And that’s all that matters.”
Notes: DL Chris Baker was the only player who missed practice Thursday; his wife gave birth to a daughter. “Hopefully,” Gruden joked, “she looks like his wife.” … RB Matt Jones (left hip) was limited in practice. Asked whether he would have played Thursday if that’s when the game was, Jones replied: “Probably not.”