Redskins buy insurance picking Kirk Cousins to back up Robert Griffin III

Jason Reid
Columnist May 1, 2012

Afghan blankets have fewer holes than the Washington Redskins’ offense had last season. And the franchise incurred Greece-like debt in its high-stakes roll-of-the-dice last week to draft quarterback Robert Griffin III.

So after paying the steepest price in NFL history (three No. 1s and a second-round selection for the draft’s No. 2 overall pick) to ensure the Redskins would get the potential game-changer they’ve needed for decades, what in the name of Sonny Jurgensen was Coach Mike Shanahan thinking when he also used a fourth-round pick to acquire quarterback Kirk Cousins?

Jason Reid is a sports columnist with the Washington Post. He joined the Post’s Redskins team in 2007 after 15 years covering many beats at the Los Angeles Times. View Archive

Almost from the moment the pick was announced, Shanahan’s decision came under question on television and sports-talk radio. Because the NFL eclipses all in sports media — seriously, the war on terrorism isn’t analyzed as thoroughly as ESPN examines sixth-round picks — there was national debate about whether Shanahan wasted a pick in doubling down on the game’s most important position.

Griffin possesses the type of you-better-not-leave-your-seat-while-he’s-on-the-field talent the Redskins haven’t had at quarterback since Jurgensen wowed fans long ago during his Hall of Fame career. Griffin has a light-up-the-room personality and smile that has already drawn many Redskins fans (heck, most of them?) to him. Clearly, the Heisman Trophy winner from Baylor is the new face of the franchise.

It wasn’t crazy, though, for Shanahan to also bring in Cousins, the winningest quarterback in Michigan State history.

This doesn’t have the feel of another Rex-Beck debacle. For anyone who has worried, “Uh, oh, Shanahan is making another team-crippling mistake at quarterback,” get that out of your head. This was forward-thinking: In addition to getting a superstar prospect, the Redskins definitely could use a young backup considered to have better-than-average skills.

Actually, Shanahan explained his thinking rather well during the draft, telling reporters at Redskins Park, “We have to have depth to win.” Succinct and correct.

In the NFL, players’ bodies essentially absorb the effects of a car crash on every play. Injuries are as much a part of the fabric of the game as emotional on-field celebrations and passionate crowds. The first goal of every defense is to neutralize quarterbacks (or in the case of the New Orleans Saints, to collect bonus pay for sending them to the hospital).

Surely, the Shanahans, Mike and Kyle, Washington’s offensive coordinator, will do everything in their power to assemble a top-notch offensive line for Griffin. They’ve added playmakers at other skill positions to help smooth his transition to the NFL.

Regardless of their plans, however, it would be foolish for the Shanahans to possibly leave the team shorthanded at quarterback (again) if Griffin can’t do it at times for any reason (Mike Shanahan reportedly had Cousins as the third-best quarterback in the draft behind Griffin and top overall pick Andrew Luck). Call it RGIII insurance.

“Hopefully, [an injury to Griffin] doesn’t happen,” Shanahan told reporters. “But you want to be prepared.

Maybe the Indianapolis Colts wouldn’t have fallen so far last season if the gap between Peyton Manning and the team’s backups wasn’t so wide. The Chicago Bears probably still wonder about what could have been if they had more depth behind starter Jay Cutler, in the 2010 NFC championship game against the Green Bay Packers. After Cutler injured his knee, he missed all but one series in the second half of a 21-14 loss.

At 6 feet 2 and 223 pounds, Griffin would seem to possess the requisite size and strength to hold up physically under the NFL’s controlled violence. Of course, he’s no “Big” Ben Roethlisberger. Griffin must rely on his speed (with a 40-yard dash time of 4.41, he has a lot to use) to avoid harmful collisions whenever possible.

Even NFL people who believe Griffin could become a thrilling once-in-a-decade performer still have concerns about his durability over a 17-week season.

I spoke with two longtime assistant coaches recently; they had no issues with Shanahan selecting Cousins. Apparently, some teams had Cousins graded as high as a second-round pick. “I thought it was a steal for us at that position,” Shanahan said.

But the move, the coaches said, is risky for a team such as the Redskins, which seem to have so many areas of need after winning 11 games the past two seasons combined. The Redskins need to improve significantly along the offensive line, at safety and cornerback.

In the NFL, fourth-rounders are expected to contribute. Shanahan knows this. While leading the Denver Broncos, he selected eventual Pro Bowlers Brandon Marshall and Elvis Dumervil seven picks apart in the fourth round in 2006.

If Griffin remains healthy and produces, Cousins won’t play for the Redskins. That’s a costly insurance premium when the Redskins could have selected a player who might help them immediately.

Shanahan, though, is paid $7 million per season to build the roster as he sees fit. In picking two quarterbacks so high, Shanahan provided a not-so-subtle reminder that this is still very much his show.

During a private meeting in his office after last season, Shanahan told me he believed injuries were the primary reason the Redskins disappointed. I got the sense he didn’t care if I believed him. He was convinced.

Perhaps he’s as confident — if not more so — in Washington’s roster now. After picking two quarterbacks with Washington’s first three picks, Shanahan had better like what he sees.

For Jason Reid’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/reid

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