The Washington Redskins’ surprise fourth-round selection of quarterback Kirk Cousins last April was one of the most controversial picks of the 2012 NFL draft. There was no denying that Cousins, a four-year starter at Michigan State, was a quality player. Some had projected him as a second- or third-round pick, a prospect who might compete for a starting job as a rookie.
But for Washington — a team that had mortgaged its future to land Robert Griffin III as its starting quarterback, a team hamstrung by an $18 million salary cap hit, a team in need of upgrades on its offensive line and in its secondary — a second talented rookie quarterback seemed like a bit of a luxury. Or worse.
“It can divide a team, and it can cause problems,” ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. said. “If RGIII is nicked up and Cousins lights it up, what are you going to do then?”
Added fellow ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski: “You’ve created more problems than you’ve solved.”
Today, Griffin’s sprained right knee is in a brace and Cousins is basking in the comeback he orchestrated to help the Redskins beat the Baltimore Ravens, 31-28 in overtime Sunday after Griffin was injured. If Griffin cannot play because of the Grade 1 sprain to his lateral collateral ligament, Cousins may have to start Sunday’s road game against the Cleveland Browns, with a Redskins playoff berth very much at stake.
The backup quarterback is “one play away from being the starter,” Shanahan said in April, a remark that looks even more prescient today. If the starter goes down with an injury, “I want to have the ability to still win. It’s hard. You can’t find quarterbacks. . . . If you can develop a couple guys and have three guys on your team, you feel like you have the chance to do something special in the long run.”
Shanahan and Redskins coaches factored in Griffin’s mobility, which subjects him to a greater risk of injury, and noted that 12 different teams had to turn to backups in 2011 after starters were hurt.
Other players whom the Redskins might have considered at the time they made their pick, have not had stellar seasons.
They include Mississippi State tackle Bobby Massie, who most draft gurus gave a second-round grade, Georgia cornerback Brandon Boykin, who some saw as a late second- or early third-round selection and LSU cornerback Rob Brooks, who projected as a third-round pick.
Massie, who went 10 picks after Cousins to the Arizona Cardinals, has started all 13 games, but has struggled as a member of a line that has yielded a league-high 51 sacks. Boykin (taken 123rd by Philadelphia) has had ups and downs as the Eagles’ third corner, but has fared well on kickoff returns, averaging 22.9 yards per runback. Brooks, meanwhile, has appeared in only six games for Buffalo, which drafted him 124th.
Cousins, on the other hand, could very well be the Redskins’ most important draft pick after Griffin and running back Alfred Morris. He shook off the disappointment of being drafted by a team that didn’t need him as a starter and beat out Rex Grossman for the second string spot.
“You can see through preseason that this guy earned the right to be the backup quarterback,” Shanahan said. “Being a backup quarterback, you get a chance to dress. You’re one play away from being in the game. You have to prepare yourself that the quarterback could go down on the first play and you have to step in and get the job done. He’s done that each and every week.”
Cousins is not flawless; he threw two interceptions, along with a touchdown, when he replaced Griffin, who had suffered a concussion, in Week 5 against Atlanta.
The Redskins don’t expect to know about Griffin’s availability for the game until later this week, but until then, they will develop game plans for both Griffin and Cousins. As Griffin works his way back, it is expected that Cousins will work with the first team in case he has to start or play Sunday.
“I have to approach it like I have since day one, when I came here in May,” Cousins said. “That is to think like I am the starter and prepare like I am the starter and if my number is called I am prepared to go, and if not, I am still ready to go.”
Cousins and Griffin’s other teammates are praying for a swift recovery as well. But because of their confidence in Cousins, they would rather see their quarterback remain sidelined this week rather than return prematurely and risk long-term damage.
“His health is far more important than any game we will play this season,” left tackle Trent Williams said. “His well-being is the only thing he should be worried about at this time. It really isn’t worth injuring more if he is at risk.”
“Cousins is a really good quarterback,” Williams added later. “Let’s get that out the way. He can run this offense just as well as anyone else can. Of course he doesn’t have the dynamic 4.3 speed at the quarterback position, but he is a smart quarterback, and as you can see, he came in off the bench, not much game experience in the season at all, and he still led us to a touchdown and a two-point conversion and ultimately the game-winning field goal.”