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Jay Gruden bet big on a quarterback, and saved himself

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Stephen A. goes off on Skip for Rodgers-RG III comparison (2:18)

Skip Bayless compares Packers QB Aaron Rodgers' loss of confidence to that of Redskins QB Robert Griffin III. Stephen A. Smith takes offense to that comment and lashes out on Skip for it. (2:18)

Back in August, Las Vegas oddsmakers predicted that Jay Gruden would be the first head coach fired this season, which seemed like a safe bet.

"It definitely did, especially when you look at everything that transpired with the Washington Redskins," television analyst and former longtime Redskins player London Fletcher said by phone on Monday. "As a first-year head coach, Jay was under the spotlight. He made a lot of mistakes. It didn't look good."

But by making a big gamble, Gruden defied the odds.

The Redskins coach benched quarterback Robert Griffin III -- who is owner Daniel Snyder's guy -- in favor of Kirk Cousins and hit the jackpot: Cousins had a record-setting season while leading Washington to the NFC East title.

In the defining moment of his career, Gruden stood up for the signal-caller who gave Washington the best chance to win. As the Redskins prepare to face the Green Bay Packers in the NFC wild-card round, the single biggest factor in their turnaround is clear.

"To Jay's credit, he went with Kirk, and it really worked out," said Fletcher, who spent his final seven seasons with the Redskins. "You think about the timing of the situation. He decided to make a change at the beginning of the season -- and stuck with Kirk no matter what. A lot was invested in Robert, so you can definitely say [Gruden] was putting his job on the line.

"Everybody knows what Mr. Snyder gave up to get Robert and, obviously, what he thinks of him. And then you say, 'No. We're going to go with Kirk.' I mean, Jay really took a chance. If it didn't work out, then this could be a much different conversation we're having. But it did work out. And it says a lot about how much Jay believed in Kirk."

That's the point. Here's what you need to understand about NFL head coaches: Picking a quarterback is the most important part of their gig. The person who gets the QB job will determine, largely, how long a coach retains his job. Is personality sometimes a factor in the decision-making process? Absolutely. But seldom, if ever, is it the deciding factor, because there's just too much at stake for coaches to do business that way.

Throughout the Redskins' drama-filled 2014 season -- they went 4-12, and Gruden often appeared overmatched trying to manage a quarterback carousel -- the perception among many fans was that Gruden was playing favorites: He simply liked Cousins and Colt McCoy more than Griffin, the thinking went. Supposedly, for Gruden, it was personal. The truth is, at least initially, it was merely business.

Early on last season, Gruden determined Griffin was not the best man for the job. Hired to win games and fix Griffin -- and not necessarily in that order -- Gruden pushed forward under management's edict despite his reservations. To say the least, it wasn't an ideal situation.

Eventually, Gruden buckled under the strain of trying to fit a round peg into a rectangular hole. By eviscerating Griffin to reporters, Gruden erred badly. That's on him. It doesn't change the fact, though, that Gruden's frustration had less to do with personality differences than Griffin's failure to properly read defenses.

"Obviously, the quarterback is one of the important positions in all of pro sports," Gruden said. "You've got to have a good one, one that can function, one that can lead your team."

That's why Gruden backed Cousins despite the potential danger to his career. Gruden couldn't go through a repeat of last season's nightmare. With Cousins atop the depth chart, he figured he wouldn't.

During training camp and the 2015 preseason, Griffin continued to make the same mistakes (holding the ball too long was his biggest deficiency) in his attempt to become primarily a pocket passer. Cousins, who was turnover prone during his first three seasons, clearly made a big jump in the offense.

Gruden wanted to start Cousins. After Griffin suffered a concussion in the preseason, it became an easy decision, though the likelihood is Gruden would have pushed for the change regardless of Griffin's medical status. Gruden felt that strongly about Cousins, who validated his faith with the greatest single-season performance by a passer in franchise history.

Cousins set a Washington record with 4,166 yards passing, led the NFL with a 69.8 completion percentage and ranked sixth with a 70.1 Total QBR. In Washington's past 10 games, Cousins excelled on passes of 20-plus yards down field, completing 56.3 percent of such throws and averaging 20.0 yards with four touchdowns and only one interception, according to ESPN Stats & Information data.

Washington won only its third division title in the past 24 seasons. Cousins delivered, and his "development has been a huge reason why we're in the position that we're in," Gruden said.

Gruden's progress has been no less important. This season, Gruden was much better at concealing his emotions -- a must for any coach who aspires to continue coaching.

"I've grown a lot," Gruden said. "I think that's a process that you're going to have to go through as a football coach. Your first year, you're going to have your ups and downs.

"Every day, every year, you have to grow."

General manager Scot McCloughan has had a positive influence on Gruden. For Gruden, McCloughan has been a rock-solid partner. The support he received from McCloughan enabled Gruden to turn to Cousins before the season and continue to roll with him despite some uh-oh moments before the Redskins' four-game winning streak to end the season.

"You think about Scot McCloughan being added to the mix, and what a great addition he has been," Fletcher said. "From a roster-building standpoint, he's the type of guy you want.

"And when you have a guy who can get players for your head coach and support him in the things he wants to get done, especially something big, like making a change at quarterback, that's just something that helps your whole football team. That's what every coach wants."

With the right quarterback in place and a trusted ally in the front office, Gruden is in good shape. And although there's no guarantee things will stay that way, it seems the odds are finally in his favor.