But now Cousins gets to occupy at least a sliver of the spotlight Sunday in Atlanta when he makes his second NFL start with Robert Griffin III watching as the deactivated third quarterback. If Cousins plays well over the final three games, Shanahan’s likely exit would leave his successor, along with team owner Daniel Snyder and General Manager Bruce Allen, with either a potential quarterback controversy or the offseason prospect of trading Cousins for a badly needed draft choice.
“That’s the problem you want to have. You want everybody playing good,” Shanahan said. “If [Cousins] lights it up, we’ve got a lot of options with Kirk. I hope that’s what happens.”
Others see some potential peril in the move.
“If Cousins plays well and they get a second-round pick for him, great,” said a front-office executive with another NFL team, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he did not want to be viewed as prying into another franchise’s affairs. “The next coach can come in and tell Robert Griffin, ‘You’re my guy,’ and try to put it all back together.
“But that team is a mess right now. What if [Cousins] looks bad? What if they can’t get what they want for him and he stays around? Then you’ve got Robert Griffin looking over his shoulder. You’ve got the fans and media calling for Cousins every time Robert Griffin has a bad game. You’ve opened that door. This could turn out bad.”
Shanahan surprisingly used a fourth-round selection in last year’s NFL draft to take Cousins after the Redskins had chosen Griffin with the second overall pick. Why use another pick on a quarterback with other needs to address, it was asked, especially after the Redskins had traded three first-round choices and a second-rounder to the St. Louis Rams to move up in the draft order to get Griffin?
The criticism quieted last season. Griffin led the Redskins to an NFC East title and was named the NFL’s offensive rookie of the year. Cousins engineered a victory at Cleveland down the stretch when Griffin was hurt. And when Griffin underwent knee surgery days after the Redskins’ playoff loss to the Seattle Seahawks, the team appeared fortunate to have Cousins as an insurance policy. He worked with the starting offense in offseason practices, training camp and the preseason, then gracefully gave way to Griffin to return to this season’s opening-night lineup.
But little has gone right for the Redskins since then, and Cousins takes over with them on a five-game losing streak and with a record of 3-10. Wide receiver Santana Moss said Thursday he hopes for the best but “it’s kind of tough to put him into this situation right now and hope for him to be excellent. It’s almost like setting a guy up for failure.”
Said left tackle Trent Williams: “He’s played and he’s played well. I don’ t think he has anything to prove. But of course, people are gonna expect him to play well.”
Cousins said in training camp he expected to be with the Redskins for the duration of the four-year contract he signed as a rookie. The timetable for him getting his starting chance with another team could be accelerated, however, if he enhances his trade value in the next three games.
“I felt like every time I get a rep in practice, I’m auditioning. I’ve never felt safe,” Cousins said. “So whether it’s here or somewhere else where I’m auditioning, that feeling of challenging yourself, being tough on yourself and putting pressure on yourself, I don’t think that ever goes away regardless of the circumstances you’re under.”
Cousins said that, in his mind, Griffin remains the team’s franchise quarterback.
“Certainly [these are] difference circumstances than when I got my first start last year against Cleveland,” Cousins said. “These are not the circumstances you necessarily want to be in when you start the season. But good or bad, I’ve got to be ready to go. I can’t control a lot of things going on. But I can control my preparation. And I can control how I lead this team this weekend. So I’m gonna do that.”
Some online message-board commenters and radio talk-show callers seem ready to award the starting job to Cousins if he proves himself worthy in the coming weeks, given Griffin’s failure this season to duplicate his rookie-year exploits.
But Shanahan’s son, Redskins offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, called it “ridiculous to act like this is a quarterback competition” and added: “Robert just had the best year as a rookie in NFL history. He didn’t do that again this year. We didn’t do that again this year. [But] to give up on him like that and say you’re gonna play someone else — I mean that’s, to me, that’s fun for people to talk about, all right? But that hasn’t entered my brain one least bit. That’s not even a possibility or an option, to me.”
Kyle Shanahan said the franchise could only benefit from Cousins succeeding.
“I think that’d be awesome for the Washington Redskins,” he said. “I mean, when you have a franchise quarterback like Robert, there would be nothing better for us than for Kirk to come in and light it up. Then, worst-case scenario, you have a very good backup quarterback or you’ve got a guy that you can get a lot for.”
What are the chances Cousins will shine? He will be playing behind an offensive line that allowed Griffin to be sacked 24 times in the past five games. Mike Shanahan said his shutdown of Griffin is to safeguard the second-year quarterback. Cousins isn’t the running threat that Griffin is. His assignment will be to make quick decisions in the pocket and get rid of the football before the pass rush arrives.
The Falcons are ranked 20th in the NFL in pass defense. The Dallas Cowboys, the Redskins’ next opponent, are last in the league in that category. The New York Giants, who play the Redskins in the season finale, are 15th.
There is no time for the Redskins to make major changes to their offense but they say that isn’t necessary. They will emphasize things that play to Cousins’s strengths.
“Not much of a big difference,” wide receiver Pierre Garcon said. “Same playbook. Same calls. You can’t put in anything new now with being in the season, 3-10. . . . You’ve just got to be on the same page, just seeing the same things and being where he wants you to be at the time he wants you to be.”
The Redskins remain interesting even though they aren’t very good, although not everyone was ready to ponder all the ramifications of what happens if Cousins thrives as Griffin’s stand-in.
When that question was posed to Williams, he said: “You’re asking the wrong person.”