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Jay Gruden has Washington thinking differently

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It's been a bumpy ride, but Jay Gruden's plan is paying dividends.

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Change was inescapable. Jay Gruden knew that would have to be true for a Washington team that was 3-13 before he touched it and 4-12 last year after his first contact. His prime change as head coach this season -- moving from quarterback Robert Griffin III to Kirk Cousins as starter -- sent punctuating jolts throughout his locker room and the NFL.

But it was the local sting Gruden felt most.

"It's been a unique situation here," Gruden said from his office via telephone on Tuesday morning. "From the pulse of the people here in this city, I could feel the divide over the quarterback thing. But for the most part the fans have stayed passionate and loyal. We are 6-2 at home. A part of that is because they have come out in droves and given us a homefield advantage. I appreciate that."

Now they "Hail" Gruden.

He has given them only their fourth NFC East crown in the last 26 years and only their fourth playoff appearance in the last 16 years.

They like that.

Few expected it and fewer in the Washington fan base expected his leadership, his decision-making to matter. To leap from 4-12 to 8-7 with a regular-season finale at Dallas on Sunday and a home playoff game to follow has made Washington fans understand that Jay Gruden has a plan, a strong mind, a definitive will and has the guts to make daunting decisions.

Like to play or rest starters against Dallas.

Sit them and keep them healthy or play them and ride the wave?

"I think we need to play," Gruden said. "The health of the football team is important. Some guys are banged up. But this is not the preseason where you have 80 players. We have 46. They are going to play. I'll make determinations throughout the game. You've got to have fuel in the tank for the playoffs. But you also have to keep the momentum going. If you are up and dressed, you are playing. And besides, it's the Dallas Cowboys. Postseason, preseason, flag football -- you want to beat them. It's not the end of the world, but we want to get to 9-7 and keep the momentum going and in the right frame of mind. There is so much importance on positive thinking."

He has sold that throughout the franchise.

He has sold that to Griffin.

"I talk to him," Gruden said of Griffin. "He is one of our quarterbacks. I still coach him. He works with the scout team stuff. He has limited reps and that would be the case for any backups especially this time of year. But we still coach him. He's one of us."

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It is a stunning feat. This team was considered a preseason dud and Griffin an injury-prone malcontent disconnected with Gruden. Its backup quarterback, Cousins, surely an inadequate option. It all looked and sounded dreadful and hopeless to the Washington fan base and beyond. But Gruden and his staff have coached them all, watched them all grow and compete and watched Cousins rise. Cousins has made winning, difference-making plays at quarterback. He has commanded the offense from the pocket and on the run.

Coaching is about growth. As Gruden often says, it is not first about the plays, it is about the players first. A successful coach helps them get their minds right, coaches them hard and watches them grow. This has happened for Washington across this team, from Cousins to extraordinary tight end Jordan Reed to a defense that is tied with Carolina and Arizona for the most fumbles recovered (14 apiece).

"Kirk has a willingness to get better," Gruden said. "Every day is a new challenge for him. He knows he is not a finished product. He has put some great stuff on tape, some great games. But it has not changed his approach. He is a perfectionist. He talks about the six or seven plays he wishes he would have made, not the touchdowns.

"The defense has been steady. They play hard and grind and compete. The fumbles they have earned are man-made. They are flying around. It's growth. We've all grown together. We've improved offensively on third down and red zone. We've drilled the crap out of that. And the defense has improved most in the red zone.

"For our offense, Sean (McVay) is a young coordinator who concentrates on the Xs and Os and we work together to put it together. Matt (Cavanaugh) as quarterbacks coach is the calming voice behind the quarterback. He's helped Kirk with base, balance, footwork, emphasizing those things on a daily basis. I view the whole production. I do step in and make calls. I jump in there when I want to pull us back a little bit and be a little more conservative or vice-versa. Most of the time, we are on the same page, in the same language."

Gruden has never coached an NFL game like this one on Sunday in Dallas. Division won. Playoff seeding set. Home playoff game assured. Handshakes and hugs. In this his 32nd game as NFL head coach, Gruden gets to breathe, survey, continue the growth, maybe even enjoy it all a little more.

He talked about the plane ride home from Philadelphia on Saturday night, how his players were in the back celebrating and how his coaches were up front "having a good time, reflecting, a lot of stress relieved." Fans greeted them when they landed at 2:30 a.m., he said. He arrived home and celebrated with his family "until about 4:30 a.m. -- we shot the breeze and had a few cocktails."

What Gruden asks of his team he demands of himself.

There is a clear reflection.

"This sport does not allow a lot of time for celebration," Gruden said. "I still have to make sure our people are doing what they are supposed to do."

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