The moment quarterback Robert Griffin III walked into the Washington Redskins locker room Monday, he was engulfed by reporters, TV cameras and microphones. As the questions flew — about his struggles in Saturday’s preseason loss at Baltimore, his response to critics, his progression as a pocket-passer — a teammate shouted above the din, “We love ya’, Griff!”
Less than two weeks before the regular season opener, Washington’s offense went back to work Monday in the wake of its most hapless performance of the preseason — one that has touched off a spirited debate among fans and media about which quarterback gives the squad a better chance of winning, Griffin or backup Kirk Cousins.
But among the Redskins, there was no debate at all, as teammates who work with both daily spoke with unanimity about Griffin’s hold on the job and their faith that the offense will improve under his leadership.
And Cousins, for his part, remained the dutiful backup, at peace with the pecking order even as he aspires to a starting job.
“The approach I have had since the day I was drafted hasn’t changed,” said Cousins, 26, who stayed on the field for 20 minutes of extra reps with the second- and third-string receivers following practice, as he customarily does. “Robert is the starting quarterback. I’m the backup quarterback. And I’m going to try to be the best backup quarterback I can be.”
Cousins was impressive against Baltimore, with three of his four drives producing scores. He completed 14 of 20 throws for 122 yards and two touchdowns, with no interceptions or sacks. And both touchdowns capped sustained drives, of 13 and 10 plays.
Former Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann, commentating on the TV broadcast of Washington’s 23-17 defeat, touched off a firestorm by stating unequivocally that Cousins had played much better than Griffin through the preseason.
Asked about the remarks Monday, Cousins voiced admiration for Theismann’s achievements but noted he had plenty of room for improvement.
“You can point out the positives, but you can just as much point out the negatives,” said Cousins, who earned a 119.2 passer rating. “There are a lot of plays I can look back and say, ‘I’m better than that. I can do better.’ ”
Washington’s fans saw Cousins’ promise and limitations last season, when he was tapped to start the final three games following Griffin’s benching by then-coach Mike Shanahan. The Redskins lost all three, bringing their 2013 record to 3-13.
While Cousins said he feels he has improved since, he understands that his role in Washington is that of backup, not challenger, to the incumbent.
“I have aspirations to someday be a starter, but I can’t do that until I do my job as a backup,” Cousins said. “I can’t look down the road too far. I need to be ready as a backup, which means play well in the preseason and when called upon. Coming off the bench in the fourth quarter in December in a blizzard, I’ve got to be ready. And if I’m not, I’ll never be a starter. So one thing at a time.”
That attitude and preparation have earned the confidence of teammates, such as backup tight end Niles Paul, whom Cousins enlisted earlier in the offseason to help lead the second unit.
“He understands his role, ready to compete if Rob is not ready to compete,” Paul said of Cousins. “These guys love a guy like that. And he throws a nice, soft ball.”
But that doesn’t mean Paul views Cousins as a starter-in-waiting.
“We know who our starting quarterback is. It’s clear,” Paul said. “I feel lucky enough to have a guy like Kirk backing up Robert.”
Logan Paulsen agreed, calling Washington’s quarterback situation “an embarrassment of riches.”
“If you look around the league, a lot of guys get hurt,” Paulsen said. “The backup quarterback has to come in and win two or three games for you. Having Kirk is a great resource.”
Fullback Darrel Young called the first-team offense’s performance in Baltimore — amassing just 40 yards, a lone field goal, three sacks and interception in more than two quarters’ work — “embarrassing.” But in Young’s view, every offensive player had a hand in what went wrong, himself included, noting that he missed a block on a second and 20 that resulted in yet another futile third-and-long situation.
“The coach is up there doing a heck of a job up there coaching us,” Young said. “It’s about us players, like I said, just not being in the right technique, missing assignments here and there, lack of communication among receivers, backs and line.”
While giving credit to Baltimore’s defense, Young said he and his teammates needed to protect Griffin better (he was sacked three times) and keep the offense out of so many third-and-longs.
“He’s a heck of a football player,’ Young said Griffin. “I hate the criticism part of things — how it is now — because he has worked so hard to get where he is. I’m excited to see where we go from here.”