The drama is over: Kirk Cousins will start for the Redskins when they play Cleveland on Sunday, the team announced Saturday night.
Robert Griffin III suffered a Grade 1 sprain of the lateral collateral ligament in his right knee in Sunday’s 31-28 win over Baltimore. Cousins finished the game and completed both of his passes, the second for an 11-yard touchdown. He also scored on a two-point conversion. But this will be his first NFL start and even Cousins knows there’s a difference between entering in relief and starting. And he’ll start knowing that the 7-6 Redskins need a win to keep pace in the playoff race. They can still reach the postseason with a loss, but it could make life more difficult.
“That’s a lot of time to screw up, a lot of time to be exposed,” Cousins said. “I said to my brother, Kyle, [on Sunday], ‘I went 2-for-2. Let’s not get carried away.’ … When you go the distance, you have a chance to show your true colors, so I don’t think going 2-for-2 is a convincing argument to say I know what I’m doing or I’ve proved that I know what I’m doing. I still have a lot of football, and I need to show that.”
Griffin was limited in practice all week and there have been varying reports of how many reps he even took with the first team. A big sign of trouble was the fact that he did not take any reps with the starters on Friday. Yes, they had to get Cousins ready just in case. But if they know a guy is going to start — or even likely to start — then he will get all the reps.
The Redskins’ offense will change with Cousins in control. A big part of their offense has been the zone read option, but that’s likely to be scrapped under Cousins. Griffin’s ability to run has made the offense go, causing the defenders’ eyes to constantly be fooled. They also hesitate often, not knowing if the back will get the ball or if Griffin will run it himself. And then when he pulls up to pass, it can be even tougher.
With Cousins, they’ll likely run a more traditional offense featuring their stretch zones and play-action passes. Cousins has improved in his ability to move in the pocket. He’s not immobile, but with a 4.93 time in the 40-yard dash, he’s also not a threat to run. However, on the touchdown pass last week he slid out of the pocket to the right. He also showed good pocket awareness from the time the preseason began. The Redskins can use rollouts, slide the pocket and use bootlegs to give him time. Having Alfred Morris at running back helps, too. Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan called him a “security blanket”.
Before the season coach Mike Shanahan said any rookie quarterback needs to get help from the run game and the defense. The Redskins’ defense has received a boost from the offense for most of the season, but it has played better for stretches in recent games. They excelled in the first half vs. Dallas and the second half in wins over the Giants and Baltimore. The Browns’ offense is not dynamic, but they do have some weapons and the ability to go long with receiver Josh Gordon and quarterback Brandon Weeden. But Weeden has thrown 15 interceptions and been close to a number of others. If the Redskins cause turnovers, they have an excellent chance to win; they have faced much better offenses.
But it’s also about limiting turnovers on the Redskins’ end. One reason they’ve won four straight is because they’ve only turned the ball over three times in those games (while creating eight).
In his other relief appearance vs. Atlanta, Cousins threw two interceptions. The first came when he eyed the receiver too long and the second occurred because he went to his primary target — a tightly covered Santana Moss. But he learned from the second pick vs. Baltimore. On the touchdown, he again was supposed to throw to Moss, who was covered. So Cousins pump-faked and drew the corner away from the outside. That’s when Cousins slid to the right and dumped a pass over the corner to Pierre Garcon. Cousins also threw a 77-yard touchdown pass vs. Atlanta to a wide open Moss.
Cousins threw 30 interceptions in college and has shown a willingness to make aggressive throws. That could lead to big plays or trouble Sunday.
“Kirk will come in and sling it around,” Redskins offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan said. “He reads defenses and lets it go. He doesn’t sit there and hesitate. But when that does happen, like a couple times in the Atlanta game, he made a couple mistakes. I know he learned from them, and hopefully if he does get more reps this week, he’ll be better.”
Cousins, a fourth-round pick, has impressed the Redskins and his teammates with his preparation and poise.
“Cold as ice,” Redskins receiver Joshua Morgan said of Cousins after the Ravens win, “like they used to say about Larry Bird. He was like nothing was going on…. Once he hears the play call, he starts thinking like a mad scientist. [Receivers coach] Ike Hilliard said it best, he’s like a human computer.”
With Griffin, the Redskins clearly didn’t see what they wanted to from him. Griffin took part in individual work during practice time that was open to the media. He dropped back and planted and threw. He executed some stretch zone handoffs and bootleg action. But he did not go full speed nor did he plant-and-cut violently as he would have to during a game. Considering he’s only a rookie and a major part of the future, it makes sense. Griffin made it clear he wanted to play, but the Redskins opted for long-term thinking.
One person who once worked with Shanahan said Thursday that, based on Shanahan’s actions — allowing the media to report what was seen during practice, for example — he anticipated Cousins starting. But one player said that same day he honestly did not know who would start.
Meanwhile, a defensive coach said that even though the Redskins wanted to keep everyone guessing as to who would start, it wouldn’t be hard for the Browns to shift their focus from Griffin to Cousins.
“It makes it way easier because you’re preparing for the other 99.9 percent of the quarterbacks you face week in, week out. It’s the same offense that Rex Grossman ran,” the coach said.
As for Griffin, he tweeted Saturday night: “The decision was not my own… But I will be there for my team!!! In every way I possibly can.”