For all the wrong reasons, Mike Shanahan has finally given backup quarterback Kirk Cousins the opportunity he apparently wanted to give him all along. And although the showdown between Shanahan and team owner Daniel Snyder could continue after the Washington Redskins complete their schedule, the stakes are clear for Cousins and Robert Griffin III in the final three games.
If Cousins plays as well as Shanahan thinks he will beginning Sunday when the Redskins visit the Atlanta Falcons, it would validate the belief of some franchise officials that the disappointing team’s most important player also was the offense’s weakest link. That could lead to a quarterback controversy entering the offseason, or Cousins could be traded for draft picks — Shanahan said Friday he could possibly fetch a first-rounder — to help restock shelves emptied when the team dealt away four selections in order to pick Griffin in 2012.
But if Cousins struggles behind Washington’s porous offensive line and winds up as battered as Shanahan’s reputation, it would be clear Griffin is the best in-house candidate to lead the team as it transitions to new on-field management. Determining a winner will be the easy part.
The Redskins average only 21.5 points, which ranks 23rd in the league, and mostly have been ineffective on offense (on defense and special teams, too). Griffin, last season’s NFL offensive rookie of the year, often has appeared lost in the pocket.
The NFC East’s last-place team has faced more complicated alignments than it did while winning the division a year ago. Why? Because opponents weren’t worried about Griffin sprinting 70 yards for touchdowns after his second reconstructive knee surgery. Griffin did not adjust well to doing more in terms of surveying the defense, cycling through his progressions, making decisions and getting rid of the ball.
Still, for weeks Shanahan maintained Griffin needed to play to improve. Shanahan never expressed concern about Griffin’s well-being — he has been sacked 16 times the past three games — until he initiated his shameful plan to exit Washington while trying to collect the final $7 million on his contract. Shanahan hoped to bait Snyder into firing him by threatening to bench Griffin, some in Redskins management believe, and is eager to prove the team would have been better off if it hadn’t rushed Griffin back for Week 1.
Enter Cousins. Shanahan showed how much he thought of Cousins when he used a fourth-round pick to select him in the 2012 draft, even though the Redskins traded four draft picks — three first-rounders and a second — to choose Griffin with the No. 2 overall pick that same year. Shanahan’s favorable opinion of Cousins only has grown stronger the past two seasons. I can’t count the number of times Shanahan has praised Cousins when we’ve spoken privately about the Redskins’ quarterback situation.
Shanahan couldn’t wait to drop an “I told you so” after Cousins shined in relief of Griffin late last season. The Redskins won two of three games in which Cousins took over after Griffin suffered injuries (this fall, Cousins only has had a couple of mop-up appearances).
In Week 14 against the Baltimore Ravens last year, Cousins came off the bench in the final two minutes of the fourth quarter. He ended Washington’s final drive of regulation with an 11-yard touchdown pass to Pierre Garcon and then ran for a tying two-point conversion with 29 seconds remaining. The Redskins won in overtime. Starting for Griffin in Week 15, Cousins passed for 329 yards and two touchdowns in a 38-21 road victory over the Cleveland Browns.
Perhaps Shanahan wouldn’t have needed a get-out-of-town-quickly strategy had he yanked Griffin in favor of Cousins last January in the playoffs.
Cousins isn’t suited to thrive in the option-style offense that helped Griffin have the greatest season for a rookie passer in NFL history. Thing is, Griffin may no longer be, either. Shanahan’s eventual successor could scrap the zone-read stuff, and Cousins is further along in his development as a pocket passer. Shanahan is doing all he can to help Cousins prove it.
Cousins makes his first start against the lowly Falcons, who like the Redskins are 3-10. The Falcons have given up the fifth-most points in the league and rank 20th against the pass. In Week 16, the Redskins host the Dallas Cowboys, whose defense ranks last in the NFL.
Shanahan’s moves are transparent. Cousins sees through them, too. He knows he’s as much a pawn as Griffin in Shanahan’s game. “It is what it is,” Cousins said after the change was made last week. “I’m going to submit to the authorities above me.”
That’s what he has to do. Cousins wants to be a longtime starter for the Redskins or another team. He works hard each week. Regardless of reasons behind Cousins’s sudden opportunity, he must attempt to seize it.
“These are not the circumstances you necessarily want to be in when you start the season,” Cousins said. “But good or bad, I’ve got to be ready to go.”
For more by Jason Reid, visit washingtonpost.com/reid.