● Washington’s offense was without left tackle Trent Williams — perhaps the team’s best player — and wide receiver DeSean Jackson — one of its scariest weapons.
● The Redskins were facing a Minnesota defense that hadn’t given up more than 23 points in its previous 13 games.
● And Cousins was going head-to-head with the face of NFL quarterback desperation. Sam Bradford is a fine-enough passer. His preseason acquisition also cost the Vikings two draft picks, including a first-rounder. That should show you just how terrifying below-adequate quarterback play can be.
So how did Cousins respond? With 60 minutes of distilled competence: a beverage that won’t get you drunk, but will keep you nice and cheerful. He was 22 of 33 for 262 yards, two touchdowns, and no interceptions in a 26-20 win. He led a go-ahead fourth quarter drive for the third straight game — and for the fifth
sixth time in Washington’s nine games. And he sure didn’t seem outclassed by that former top overall draft pick, the guy who was worth a first-rounder this fall.
Am I wrong?
“You’re not wrong at all,” Coach Jay Gruden said. “He just keeps stacking game after game after game, and learning from each one. It’s been over a year and a half as a starter. And he can get better, but you’re right. I don’t know why there’s so much disbelief and doubt for what he’s done, what he’s accomplished already. I don’t know what people expect.”
The doubt was laid out by my friend Jerry Brewer last month. There’s a case, Jerry wrote, that Cousins “is an empty stat collector,” a product of a pass-heavy offense stacked with plenty of open receivers. There’s a case that Cousins’s gaudy numbers cover up a flimsier reality, that he makes too many mistakes and misses too many chances to justify a multi-year, mega-bucks deal. There’s a case that all those weekly edits in the media guides — Cousins has the NFL’s fifth-most passing yards since the start of last year and is on pace to shatter his own franchise record — are diminished by Washington’s won-loss record.
Skepticism is fine. Here’s the other side: a win next week would give the Redskins their best 16-game stretch since 1992. Even with the red-zone problems, Cousins is on pace to finish with 25 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. Just two years ago, Washington’s quarterbacks finished with 18 and 18. If you’re preoccupied with finding brilliance, you might miss the pleasures of extreme adequacy. For one of the rare times in a quarter-century of misery, the Redskins have a quarterback good enough to win every game on the schedule.
“I mean, I think it’s pretty obvious at this point,” said center Spencer Long. “People thinking they’re [bleeping] experts, it doesn’t surprise me at all. I think the smart ones know, they see it, what he’s doing, his production. They know how good he is.”
“What do you think?” Long then asked me. “I’m turning the interview on you.”
So I told him more or less what I think: that we joke about how every Redskins game comes down to a fourth-quarter coin flip, but that for a franchise so recently in ruins, this is massive progress. That the Redskins are now 14-10-1 since Cousins became their starter — the 10th-best record in the NFL. That they’re seventh in total yards in that span, and sixth in yards per play. That the quarterbacks whose teams have managed more yards per play in the Cousins era are named Roethlisberger, Brees, Ryan, Palmer and Brady. That the Redskins aren’t a consistent juggernaut yet, but they have a consistent quarterback who gives them a weekly chance.
“You said it,” Long said, before correcting one thing. “I think he’s more than just a guy who gives us a chance.”
The empty-calories argument focuses on pragmatic concerns. Could a non-superstar like Cousins really be worth the millions he’ll be owed? If he cashes in, would a salary-cap-heavy offense be powerful enough to drag a budget defense deep into the playoffs? Haven’t Denver and Houston demonstrated that you don’t need a top quarterback to succeed?
That all makes sense, but only if you ignore how long Washington has floated in the fetid pool of quarterback scarcity. If you watched the franchise’s decades of debacles at that position, it’s horrifying to imagine walking away from competence, dollar signs be damned. That $10 craft beer might be overpriced, but have fun celebrating your cost-conscious smarts when the alternative is a warm Coors Light.
“It’s a massive mistake to let Kirk Cousins go anywhere else but here,” ESPN 980’s Chris Cooley said during Sunday’s pregame show, angrily responding to leaks suggesting some in Ashburn still aren’t sold. “He is the quarterback for this organization. He’s the ideal, the epitome of consistency. That’s what you want at that position. He gives you a chance every single snap. So you don’t go away from him.”
Gruden isn’t the one signing the checks, and there clearly isn’t unanimity in the front office. But his position doesn’t sound terribly different from Cooley’s.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt that we want him here,” the coach said of Cousins. “We can tag him, we can sign him. We’ve got him. I don’t think he’s gonna walk. …
“This business is crazy,” he added. “You may think one thing and something [else] may happen. But I hope [Cousins stays]. It makes it easier when you have the same quarterback year in and year out.”
Cousins had a rare burst of on-field emotion on Sunday, when he sprinted down the field, incredulous about contact that didn’t draw a flag. He knows about his reputation as a drab robot, a reputation he insists is undeserved.
“That’s who I am,” he said of the outburst. “I try to temper it, but maybe I need to let it out a little more. A little more emotion, a little more passion. When I’m passionate, I play better.”
If Sunday was his evidence, it was a compelling case. The Redskins still struggled in the red zone, but those weren’t empty quarterbacking calories: 26 points against a strong defense, points on all four second-half drives, and a ninth win in their past 13 games — this time without Williams and Jackson.
Cousins played himself into a franchise tag over the second half of last season. Seven more games like Sunday’s, and he will play himself into something grander.