The dirty little secret in Ashburn is that Coach Jay Gruden actually thought Kirk Cousins was better suited to his offense, that Robert Griffin III wasn’t getting it and there was no way to delicately make a change at any point this season without causing major problems throughout the organization. So the new coach was resigned to doing everything he could to develop Griffin into a pocket passer, though he really feared Griffin might not be the guy to lead the team over the long term.
For obvious reasons, Gruden can’t say that and won’t publicly admit to those sentiments. And all those reservations notwithstanding, he is still very committed to doing whatever he can to develop Griffin’s pocket presence, accuracy and field leadership.
But a person with knowledge of Gruden’s thinking, speaking on the condition of anonymity, conveyed Gruden’s thoughts about Griffin in the past week.
At no point am I saying Gruden wanted Griffin to get hurt. That’s foolish talk. But I am saying, amid the crippling reality that Gruden’s most important player and star wide receiver were taking turns with X-ray exams in the training room just seven minutes into the home opener, there is a harsh reality to take from Sunday’s game:
This was the only circumstance Cousins was ever going to see the field without causing major political problems for his first-year coach.
As reaches for silver linings go, Griffin going down with at least a dislocated left ankle and perhaps worse, as agony-ridden as it was to watch, was the only way Gruden could have Cousins flourish in his offense without polarizing management and possibly rattling a young player whose confidence he was essentially hired to restore.
Even if he wanted to experiment with Cousins as the starter, it was going to come at such a high price for Gruden, a price including a fractured fan base, the angst of an owner banking on Griffin to be his meal ticket for a decade or more and, of course, alienating Griffin, who was rehabbing an image while simultaneously learning to play effectively in a pro-set offense before he went down
I wanted to confirm those sentiments with a few more people either inside the organization or on the near periphery before writing it. But when Griffin went down in a heap, it just felt like piling on at a bad time.
Then I walked in the postgame locker room. Back-slaps. Everybody cutting up. A very jubilant scene, really.
“You ever see a postgame locker room this happy after the face of the franchise and the number one free agent in the offseason went down?” I asked a longtime team employee.
“No,” he said, adding he’d rather not elaborate.
Maybe this is every locker room after a 41-10 thrashing of an inferior opponent. Maybe Griffin’s and Jackson’s injuries happened so early in the game that they almost were pushed aside after a convincing victory.
But from Gruden to Cousins to even Griffin, even the postgame news conferences bordered on jovial, almost obscuring the fact that a player once seen as the most exhilarating performer to hit this town had just three hours earlier suffered the second major injury of his NFL career in just two-plus seasons.
“We’re sick about it, but now we have to move forward,” Gruden said. “That’s what you do in the NFL when people go down, you have to have good backup plans. That’s why Kirk is here. We feel very strongly about his role as a quarterback.”
A few minutes later he added: “I feel like we can win any game with Kirk Cousins . . . Kirk is a special guy. He started four games last year and didn’t have great success, but obviously has a skill set that I feel like is very much suited for what we do. He can handle it mentally, and obviously, physically. I feel that he can make every throw in the book and we are going to move forward with Kirk.”
Obviously has a skill set that I feel like is very much suited for what we do.
Look, Griffin’s injury may very well be awful for Gruden and everyone associated with the team. Griffin going down meant the new coach’s dual mandate — winning and re-branding a tarnished franchise quarterback — would be deferred by however many weeks or months Griffin would be out.
Bottom line, none of us is going to learn soon whether Griffin can cement his face-of-Washington-sports stature. But we do get to learn whether his replacement has the genuine tools to take that mantle.
Let’s not sugarcoat the past two months: Gruden was having a hard time getting Griffin to grasp the principles of the drop-back passing system he was teaching. If Cousins and Griffin had come to camp as undrafted rookies, Cousins may have opened the season as the starter.
Again, according to the person with knowledge of Gruden’s thinking, he actually believed Cousins could succeed in the system better than Griffin but also acutely understood it was going to be near impossible to make a change.
Further, the coach was never on the clock to begin with this season. The man who really had to show he still had the goods in 2014 was Griffin. After he went down, the entire season became a free play for Gruden.
He develops Cousins and wins, he’s a genius who forces the general manager and owner to truly evaluate the future at quarterback. He develops Cousins and loses, at least there is a non-brittle quarterback he can trust to run the offense while Griffin gets healthy and learns from afar. The worst-case scenario — Gruden loses and Cousins is exposed as not a bona fide starting NFL quarterback — Gruden still has an alibi until Griffin comes back to prove whether or not he can be the guy.
There is no win-win for a team that just lost its starting quarterback for maybe the season. But the truth is, even before he was injured, Griffin may have unknowingly already been fighting to keep Cousins at bay in Gruden’s mind.
Now we all find out if the new coach’s hunch, which he cannot admit to, is right.
Game summary: Washington 41, Jacksonville 10
Boswell: For Cousins, time for his close-up
Bog: Best and worst