Kirk Cousins did not hesitate. With victory hinging on his decision, he saw the slightest opening to throw Pierre Garcon the football, and he let loose. He let it all fly — the pass and the past — every mistake, every disappointment, every criticism unleashed in this moment. His moment.
As the quarterback’s spiral reached the goal line, Garcon hopped and lunged for the pass, ignoring the safety on his hip and making himself vulnerable to a cornerback eager to dislodge the ball from his hands. The two defenders crunched Garcon, but he held on and landed in the end zone.
The Washington Redskins, the team that often chokes in the fourth quarter, finally could celebrate. This was different than putting away St. Louis in Week 2 after leading all game. This drive — a 15-play, 90-yard masterpiece — sealed a 23-20 comeback victory over Philadelphia in a game that saw Washington take a 13-point lead, lose it and recover by unveiling a level of resilience it hadn’t shown.
It was a performance that Cousins admits he couldn’t have orchestrated until now. At last, the hardships he suffered while losing nine of his first 12 career starts and throwing dreadful interceptions led to a triumph of persistence and experience.
“I wasn’t capable of doing that when I came into the league as a rookie,” Cousins said. “It takes time. It takes failures. It takes learning from experiences and a combination of three-plus seasons’ worth of work to get me to a point where I was able to make the necessary plays on that drive. It’s a process, and I’m going to keep working and keep learning from these experiences and keep getting better.”
On a day in which the Eagles shut down Washington’s rushing attack until the final drive, Cousins dropped back to pass 47 times without committing a turnover. He completed 31 of 46 passes for 290 yards and took just one sack, which Coach Jay Gruden laughed off afterward because “he gained a half yard.”
It’s not often you go gaga over a quarterback producing 6.3 yards per pass attempt. Cousins managed to be outstanding not by attempting the spectacular, but rather by exhibiting the patience to make solid decision after solid decision, completing short passes and taking calculated risks down the field, without making a fatal mistake. It’s difficult for an NFL quarterback to do, and it’s been especially hard for Cousins.
In this game, however, Cousins kept the same approach all the way through the game-winning drive. Goodness multiplied can equal a great result. Cousins can stay within himself and deliver when winning quarterbacks must deliver.
If the Redskins stay on task, this game might prove to be a season-defining development. As I’ve been preaching lately, successful NFL teams have to be able to grind out wins in the fourth quarter and also show composure and fight when they fall behind in games. Washington accomplished both Sunday at FedEx Field. And while a 20-16 fourth-quarter deficit at home isn’t exactly daunting, it was a huge test for this team after years of failing to mount comebacks of any sort.
“In the past, when stuff happened like it did in this game, we would’ve folded as a team, and Philadelphia would’ve been up 21,” said defensive lineman Chris Baker, who sacked Sam Bradford twice. “This is a big, big confidence builder for us.”
Or, as free safety Dashon Goldson emphasized, “We can face adversity.”
Baker went a step further. He said the victory validated Cousins as the team’s starting quarterback and certified that Gruden made the right call with his controversial decision to bench Robert Griffin III.
“Give Coach Gruden credit for making a hard decision, but making the right decision,” Baker said. “This was the game that showed you why he went to Kirk. We all love Robert, and we hate to see him not getting the chance he worked so hard for. But you see the production with Kirk, and now you see he can lead us to victory in the fourth quarter.”
The game won’t settle the public debate about the team’s quarterback situation, but Baker is certain it moved the needle in the locker room. The Redskins haven’t been divided over Gruden’s quarterback decision. However, the quarterback instability has made some players leery of the team’s direction.
On Sunday, Cousins did what usually brings teams together: He rewarded their fight and reflected their will to win by thriving at the end. There’s a certain magic to a quarterback leading a comeback, and, well, maybe Cousins gets to levitate for a while.
It wasn’t about the quarterback being the hero. It was about him matching his teammates’ perseverance. Cornerback Chris Culliver played despite multiple injuries that kept him off the practice field all week. Tight end Jordan Reed left the game with a concussion. Linebacker Ryan Kerrigan injured his hip and returned. Washington was already a banged-up team, but it badly wanted this game. It wanted to finish the season’s first quarter with a 2-2 record, not 1-3. It needed redemption after blowing a 13-0 lead.
On the game-winning drive, Cousins kept it simple. He completed 6 of 10 passes for 44 yards, but he converted two key third downs through the air. After a rough afternoon, Alfred Morris did his part, rushing for 38 of his 62 yards on that drive. And Garcon made three big catches in the series, including two improbable snags that left his teammates buzzing about his toughness.
“That’s the mentality,” nose tackle Terrance Knighton said. “We’re going to be a tough, hard-nosed team. We’re not accepting anything else.”
On Saturday night, Gruden spoke passionately to his team about being resilient, and then the players went out and played their most resilient game. They showed that they have learned from past mistakes. They don’t always follow a linear path, but they are making progress. It starts with the quarterback.
In Week 3, Cousins missed a sure touchdown pass to Reed because he didn’t adjust the offensive line’s protection to give him time to make the throw. On Sunday, he encountered the same situation. He knew to adjust this time.
“It’s going out there and learning from failure,” Cousins said.
And then he reveled in success.
With the protection set, he drilled that pass to Garcon, who said he didn’t know he had scored until he “felt hits from all over, hits from everybody.”
They were hits from his jubilant teammates.
Amid the celebration, the man who directed the comeback trotted over to the sideline and hugged his quarterback coach, Matt Cavanaugh.
For this rebuilding team, it was a great afternoon for the students and the teachers.
More on the Redskins:
D.C. Sports Bog: Watch Garcon’s gutsy game-winning catch