Columnist

It was easy enough to see downfield if you were sitting dry and inside. Not so easy for Kirk Cousins, with his shoulders soaked by the rain, the mist at Soldier Field making it hard to judge and threatening to wash away a lead. But somehow, Cousins saw his way clear. He made enough plays for a victory, one that should represent the definitive turn in his NFL career.

The more this one-step-up season wears on for the Washington Redskins, the more you have to admire the steel of Coach Jay Gruden for going with Cousins as his quarterback. And the more you have to admire the fortitude of Cousins for becoming a difference maker in the face of fierce criticism. Their 24-21 road win over the Chicago Bears “keeps our heart beating and pumping” as Gruden put it, and the resuscitator is Cousins. He has become their most essential factor.

There were other big factors against the Bears, of course — especially Jordan Reed — but it was Cousins who set the winning tempo from the outset with his zipline throws, going 24 for 31 for 300 yards and accounting for two touchdowns. At the head of a team that had gone a floundering 0 for its last 9 on the road, he was the one who established that this Sunday would be different when he completed 10 of his first 11 passes to help stake them to a 14-0 lead. And when they led by just three points throughout the fourth quarter and needed some tough, risky completions to keep the tensile, predatory Jay Cutler at bay, he made them.

None was tougher than the dodging, spinning, 18-yard “opportunity ball” he threw at Reed that was tipped a few times before landing in the hands of Matt Jones, giving Washington a first down at the Chicago 45 with a little over three minutes left. It might just as easily have made a goat out of him.

Washington Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins discusses his book “Game Changer: Faith, Football and Finding Your Way” and how he handles being the back-up to one of the most popular athletes in the world. (Jayne Orenstein/Post Sports Live)

“I couldn’t see where the defender was, and I wasn’t going to throw it blind,” Cousins said, “so I took off. . . . It’s not perfect, but maybe it’s an opportunity to make a play. It’s living dangerously, and I don’t know that you want to do that all the time. You’re going to die by that more than you’re going to live by that.”

It was a gutsy throw for Cousins, given how disparaged he has been for bad decisions in critical moments. Back in October I wrote that Cousins was “fool’s gold” after a two-interception performance in a 34-20 loss to the New York Jets and suggested he was “a negative difference maker.” That was Week 6. It was a premature judgment of a young player trying to master the nuances of his position. I couldn’t have been more wrong, and it’s a sincere pleasure to say so. In the seven games since, he has thrown just three interceptions to 12 touchdowns.

“It’s week to week and game to game,” he said Sunday. “I’ve had games where people wanted to run me out of town. The next week we win, and I’m the best thing since sliced bread. So I don’t know . . . I keep trying to grow and build on each experience that I have whether it’s positive or negative and trust that if I do that good things will happen.”

Cousins insisted all along that he just needed game experience to develop better situational awareness, and he was right. His performance arc now looks no different than a lot of quarterbacks, including some great ones. Troy Aikman, for instance, was in his third season before he threw more touchdowns than picks. Last week after a disheartening loss to the Dallas Cowboys, Gruden said he didn’t want to second-guess Cousins too much for his decisions with defenders bearing down on him. “It’s all a growing process for the quarterback,” Gruden said. “It’s easy to have the clicker and say, ‘Hey, you should throw the ball here,’ but you don’t feel that guy right in your face with the clicker.”

As Cousins outlines himself more sharply as a quarterback, one of the qualities beginning to emerge is that he’s a responder. Put him against the wall, and you’ll get a performance. That’s a terrific quality to have under center. After the loss to the Jets, he threw for three touchdowns against Tampa Bay. After a discouraging beatdown by the New England Patriots, he threw for four touchdowns against the New Orleans Saints.

After the ineffectual loss to the Cowboys loss last week, how likely was it, really, that this team was going to establish a new personality in just a few days? That’s why it was so striking when Cousins started as he did against the Bears, leading an assertive game-opening drive of 15 plays, with passes so accurate they seemed to be on a tether. It set a tone of competence, and they went on to convert on 7 of 12 third downs for the day. The word for that was leadership. “He was great,” Gruden said.

All day long, Cousins bounced back. In the third quarter, after a potentially killing delay-of-game penalty at the Chicago 1-yard line, he bailed out his coach. On third and goal at the 5, he bobbed lightly on his feet and drove the ball at a gorgeous angle right into the arms of Reed for a five-yard touchdown and a 21-7 lead.

Cousins had gone without an interception in three of his past four games. But late in the third quarter he had one of those blind spots: He went for Pierre Garcon along the sideline and failed to see Kyle Fuller, who snagged the ball out of the air at the Washington 21. After the Bears capitalized quickly and tied the game, however, Cousins did what is now becoming his pronounced habit — he responded. He made an on-a-dime deep throw to DeSean Jackson at the Chicago 35 just a few seconds before the quarter expired to help the Redskins to the difference-making field goal.

“If you never make those throws, it will be tough to make plays,” he said, “and if you always make those throws you’re going to turn the ball over a lot. So it is all about finding that balance.”

For more by Sally Jenkins, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins.