ATLANTA — Kirk Cousins is a mercy in some ways, but he’s no cure for wilting arm tackles, fumbles and other acts of fatigued desperation. If the behind-the-scenes machinating among the Washington Redskins’ front office this week was unseemly, it was a lot more watchable than their football.
Let’s put to rest the idea that the Redskins are a good team in bad circumstances, that they are better than their 3-11 record. They aren’t. How do you lose, 27-26, to an Atlanta Falcons team that turned the ball over twice and has one of the worst defenses in the league? By surrendering seven turnovers of your own, that’s how, a damningly careless and self-sabotaging performance that nullified every good and promising thing they did. If Mike Shanahan proved a small point in starting Cousins over Robert Griffin III, if he earned an I-told-you-so, all it did was further underline that he has lost the larger point, which is the fractured, conceding nature of this team.
Yes, the offense under Cousins made some big downfield strikes they had been missing, and when he led them 80 yards to score on a pass to Santana Moss with 18 seconds left in the game, this monkish-looking young man showed he’s a competitor to be reckoned with. But the Falcons have given up the sixth-most points in the league. Anything Cousins did had to be kept in the context of the sheer haplessness of these two teams, who played in a Georgia Dome that was just half full — the loudspeaker blared piercingly in the empty spaces — and who produced a charming second-quarter sequence in which they combined for fumbles on three straight plays. Cue the cartoon music.
What is undermining the Redskins over six straight losses is hard to pinpoint. There is no pattern to their mistakes — they are simply committing blunders in every phase of the game. The Falcons took the opening kickoff straight downfield to the Redskins’ end zone, where Steven Jackson charged headfirst into Josh Wilson and knocked him into a somersault. In the first quarter, the pocket collapsed around Cousins like a sand castle, and he was sacked and stripped at his own 36. DeAngelo Hall committed a stupid late hit out of bounds. Moss was thrillingly clueless on a fair catch of a punt and allowed the ball to hit him. The normally reliable Alfred Morris gave up two drive-killing fumbles. Shanahan presided over it all like an angry red elf lord.
“Sometimes when you are in traffic and fighting for it you can get a little careless,” Morris said.
The statement summed up the whole flailing season. There is bickering and distrust all around — Shanahan is trying to wrest Griffin away from the influence of owner Daniel Snyder, Griffin has taken shots at the play-calling of Kyle Shanahan, the offensive line is seething with resentment for being blamed for sacks. All season long, this team has been a matter of awkward, forced alliances with no cohesion. The Redskins came into the game leading the league in yards per rush at 4.9 and ranked ninth in total yards. Yet none of it adds up to a healthy whole.
All game long, Griffin stalked the sideline in his sweats, holding a white play card, fiddling with his earpiece and trying to look as supportive as a benched and undressed quarterback could. What stirred in Griffin as he watched Cousins get the ball away quickly enough to take only one sack and complete a 53-yard scoring bomb to Pierre Garcon, we can’t know. But when it was over and Cousins’s two-point conversion attempt flew incomplete out of the end zone, Griffin dropped a cuss word and then sat still and glaring on the bench, grimly chomping on a piece of gum.
Shanahan’s public reason for deactivating Griffin and starting Cousins was to safeguard Griffin’s health. But you have to wonder whether Shanahan wanted to see whether Cousins could change the chemistry, too. They are two completely different characters. Griffin is all sleek, supercharged energy and showy superiority but lags in sophisticated reads and, frankly, team-building etiquette. Cousins is all deference and self-deprecation, slump shouldered and relaxed until the play comes in, when he suddenly knifes into the huddle and issues orders.
“He was very poised and did a phenomenal job commanding the huddle and standing in there overcoming adversity,” Morris said. “He drove us down the field at the end despite all of the things that came before that.”
Interestingly, Cousins seems aware that one of the roles suddenly thrust on him is that of conciliator, a fosterer of better chemistry. Otherwise, why would he go so out of his way to praise his line and to throw a specific apple-polishing compliment at Kyle Shanahan? Cousins called his 381 yards passing “just a credit to the play-calling,” he said. “I threw to receivers who were wide open. And the offensive line gave me time to make my progressions. That was a team effort. I was given a chance to succeed.”
On the final drive, he said, “The message from the other 10 guys was that we can go do this.”
If that’s what Cousins comes to represent to his team, a player who can get them going again “despite all of the things that came before,” as Morris aptly put it, then he will be worth the experiment. But he’s not the whole solution. Their problems are too all-pervasive.
For more by Sally Jenkins, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins.
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