Coach Mike Shanahan making the right decisions in the building process

The Washington Redskins backup QB Kirk Cousins leads the team to their fifth straight win in a row to put them on top of the NFC East igniting playoffs hopes in the Washington region. (The Washington Post)
Mike Wise
Columnist December 16, 2012

Day 3, NFL draft, Saturday, April 28, one of Roger Goodell’s underlings says, “Washington, please announce your selection.” And with the seventh pick in the fourth round, No. 102 overall: “Kirk Cousins , quarterback, Michigan State” — less than 48 hours after Mike Shanahan sold the farm for Robert Griffin III .

Prevailing thought: What? Why? How many draft picks are you gonna spend on QBs? You already dropped a second and fourth for Rent-a-McNabb. And then you told us that you staked your reputation on Rex and Becks. Does the leader of the organization even know football and the position of quarterback anymore?

Mike Wise is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. View Archive

Dec. 16, past 4 p.m., about 50 yards from a deserted Dawg Pound on the shores of Lake Erie. That wasted draft pick, the one so many of us thought should have been a defensive back or an offensive linemen, threw for 300 yards and two touchdowns and, most of all, made Coach Mike Shanahan look more prescient than past his prime.

Yes, he knows what he’s doing. We just had to wait a good, long while to believe.

The Washington Redskins won a road game they almost had to have Sunday, with a backup rookie quarterback and a depleted, duct-taped defense that hobbles onto the field each week in a one-size-fits-all walking boot.

Cousins is channeling Griffin, London Fletcher is channeling a young linebacker from another decade and the Redskins are now putting away other teams with major quarterback deficiencies.

Meanwhile, the New York Giants and the Chicago Bears lost Sunday, meaning the hottest team in the NFC is two wins away from hosting the franchise’s first home playoff game since 1999.

Shanahan’s reborn players are just victories over a fork-in-’em Philadelphia team and Dallas from winning their first NFC East title in 13 years, a division they currently sit atop. Well sit tied atop anyway.

Redempskins 38, Browns 21.

Two words: first place.

Let the first five-game win streak since 2005 simmer for just a second. Just seven weeks ago, the Redskins were a god-awful club whose coach mistakenly said they were in offseason evaluation mode. Now, the Redskins are a complete, next-man-up team. They are on the cusp of becoming the first NFL franchise to start 3-6 and secure a postseason berth since the 1996 Jacksonville Jaguars.

On Sunday, rookie running back Alfred Morris looked at wounds on his shins, both still bleeding 30 minutes after the game in a jubilant locker room you couldn’t recognize less than two months ago.

“Aw, it’s nothing,” Amtrak Al said. “Cleats and helmets and other body parts just kept smacking ’em. When you win, it really doesn’t hurt.”

This was a complete and thorough victory against a team that was playing well lately, proud of its young defense and hoping beyond hope its first round rookie quarterback, taken 22nd overall, would outplay Washington’s backup rookie quarterback.

Except that Jim Haslett’s defense brought the house, then dropped back in a two-deep zone. Then came hard again. Brandon Weeden was flummoxed, confused — he had no idea what looks he would see and when.

You think Weeden was hit from the blind side? Did any of us really see this coming? No one, that’s who. Okay, I will give one person the benefit of the doubt.

Shanahan believed all this was possible. And whatever he meant after what he said at 3-6, the bottom line is — inadvertently or not — it worked.

His decision to start Cousins and rest the injured Griffin also was validated, although I never felt it needed any such support. Even if the Redskins had lost Sunday, this was the kind of grand-scheme view that franchise architects make. Coaches toiling week to week in the middle of a gripping playoff push might try to siphon every last down out of their spectacular rookie, sprained knee ligament or not.

But Shanahan knows Griffin is too valuable over the long haul, too important in three to five years to even think about risking further injury now. That’s doing it the right way. That’s making sure the foundation doesn’t crack.

Part of that strategy is taking Cousins in the fourth round, just in case.

Yes, the leader of the organization knows what he’s doing. For the second straight game, Cousins further verified Shanahan and his franchise-building.

Instead of toying with another rookie’s confidence — a theory widely debated in April — Cousins has used the last two Sundays to become the next Matt Flynn or Matt Cassell — the backup behind the unquestioned starter who is too good to keep forever, but so badly needed in a tight spot.

This was a tight spot.

After he had worked his way out of it, Cousins said: “If I die tomorrow, I can say I started a game in the NFL and we won. So it’s a good feeling.”

And not just for him.

For previous Mike Wise columns go to washingtonpost.com/wise.

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