Four years have passed since the most recent such date between the rivals. Thanksgiving Day 2012 seemed to represent the full-on introduction of Robert Griffin III who, after using his legs to confound opponents for the first half of his rookie season, seemed to blossom fully. He completed 19 of 27 passes for 304 yards and four touchdowns , and the Redskins beat the host Cowboys, 38-31 .
That victory helped jump-start Washington, which closed out the year on a seven-game winning streak to capture its first division title in 13 years. It looked like the start of a dynamic era.
But things started to crumble less than two months later when Griffin’s surgically repaired knee gave out on him in the first round of the playoffs against Seattle, requiring another surgery. His relationship with then-coach Mike Shanahan disintegrated. Following a miserable 3-13 campaign, owner Daniel Snyder and then-general manager Bruce Allen decided to blow the whole thing up.
Gone are Griffin and the Shanahans (Mike and his son, offensive coordinator Kyle). So is running back Alfred Morris, another key factor in that playoff run. He now serves as a backup for the Cowboys.
Only five players on Thursday’s game-day roster (Chris Baker, Kirk Cousins, Ryan Kerrigan, Pierre Garcon and Nick Sundberg) remain from that 2012 Thanksgiving Day Redskins team. Left tackle Trent Williams is suspended, and three others — Kedric Golston, DeAngelo Hall and Kory Lichtensteiger — are on injured reserve.
“It’s kind of crazy to think about that,” said Kerrigan, an outside linebacker and one of only two lingering starters from that Thanksgiving Day lineup, with the other being Garcon.
“Obviously,” Kerrigan continued, “a lot has gone on here since then — some good and some bad. But it’s kind of crazy to think that we’re back in a similar spot and both the Cowboys and us are pushing for tops in the division, and there’s a lot riding on this game just like it was four years ago.”
Both Dallas and Washington hovered around .500 on Thanksgiving 2012. This year Dallas (9-1) owns the best record in the league and hasn’t lost since Week 1. Washington (6-3-1) has won six of its past eight.
The Cowboys, then, are the hunted. And instead of long shots needing a magical run to reach the postseason, the Redskins would be an NFC wild-card team if the season ended today.
Yet the Redskins remain in search of long-term stability at quarterback, with Griffin’s former backup trying to fill that need. After usurping Griffin last year and leading Washington on another improbable quest to a division title, Cousins received a big — but short-term — payday, the one-year, $19.95 million franchise tag.
“You never really know what’s going to happen,” Cousins said, reflecting on his drastically different standing this time around. “That’s why we don’t ever look too far forward beyond the next game because we don’t know. Four years from now, who knows where we’re going to be? You’re only going to waste energy trying to think too far forward. You just focus on the next game.”
More than halfway through his prove-it campaign, Cousins is gaining momentum. In his past three games, Cousins has averaged 365 passing yards and a 68.1 completion percentage while throwing seven touchdown passes and just one interception.
Sunday’s 42-24 win over the Packers represented Cousins’s most dynamic outing with three touchdown passes, no interceptions and a season-best 145.8 passer rating.
“He’s definitely stepping up, and last game he really showed us that he wants to be that guy and that he can be that guy,” Redskins linebacker Su’a Cravens said. “With a performance like that, I don’t know how anybody can say he can’t be.”
Intoxicated by the emotions of Sunday night’s big victory, Cousins greeted General Manager Scot McCloughan as he came off the field, asking “How do you like me now?”
The quarterback later said that he understands he’s under constant evaluation and that he meant no disrespect.
But in reality, Redskins officials ask themselves that same question daily. Although Cousins put up yardage numbers in the first half of the season, his coaches and their higher-ups wanted to see more aggression — and, most of all, more points.
He displayed a good command of the offense but played it safe at times. Washington’s offense lacked a consistent deep-ball element and ranked among the worst in the league in the red zone.
“He started out a little bit slow,” Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon said in an interview this week. “I don’t know if it was the weight of the numbers he was being paid was getting to him and he was pressing a little bit or what. But the last three weeks . . . he’s playing really good football right now at the right time. You’re just hoping he continues, and I’m sure the Redskins are looking for that before they start talking long-term extensions. We’ll see if he continues this through the end of the year and leads them to the playoffs. I’m sure that’ll have a lot to do with it.”
Cousins’s recent hot streak began at the midway point of the season, and his upward trend seems to resemble the pattern he displayed last year. After a modest start, he caught fire in the second half of the season, throwing 19 touchdown passes and just two interceptions while leading the Redskins on a 7-3 finish.
Cousins has said there’s no conscious switch he flipped, but with time, comfort and continued work, his confidence, recognition and execution have improved.
“I think it’s been a combination of factors,” Cousins said. “I don’t think it’s been one thing or even two things. We’ve got to have a great game plan. Sean McVay has to not only design the plays, but he’s got to call them at the right time. Then we have to execute them. We have to throw with accuracy, make the catches and protect. . . . It’s just so many factors that have to go together.”
Coaches do, however, see growth in Cousins’s game. The increase in production — over the past three games, Cousins is up to 9.2 yards per attempt from 7.5, and the offense is scoring 31.6 points per game instead of 22.7 — hasn’t come by chance.
Cousins has been doing more of the little things that add up.
“You can see it. It’s ‘Eye in the sky don’t lie,’ so to speak,” Coach Jay Gruden said. “He’s going through progressions. He’s hanging in there. He had a couple plays in that [Green Bay] game that really — the first touchdown to DeSean Jackson, that was his fourth progression. He hung in there and threw a great pass to DeSean. The check-down to Chris Thompson on third down — which he had to scramble out of the pocket, buy time, Clay Matthews came on a stunt, was unblocked — he made him miss and got two hands on the ball and threw a great pass to Chris Thompson for a big first down. Those plays are really difference-makers as far as the game’s concerned.
“The more comfortable he gets and the people around him and the system, the better he’s going to be. We like where he is, we like where he’s going, [and] he’s going to continue to work, which is also why we like him,” Gruden said.
Such play — and victories — will go a long way toward setting up the Redskins nicely, while also answering any remaining questions Redskins officials could have about Cousins.
A win Thursday would be a challenge, given Washington’s short turnaround and Dallas’s momentum.
“I’d like to see him down the stretch. That’s really when you see a quarterback at his best,” Moon said. “He’s got some divisional games coming up, starting with the Cowboys on Thursday. That’s where you can set yourself up in the division because you don’t want to give the Cowboys any more space. . . . This could really pull them back into the division race if [the Redskins] could win this game, and he’s going to have to play big for them to do that. I’d say over the course of the next three or four weeks, he’s either going to play himself into a long-term, big deal or there’s still going to be some questions.”