Lost in a barrage of big plays and defensive ridiculousness, forgotten amid the late-game “We want Dallas!” chants at FedEx Field, the biggest moment Sunday night came on a quarterback sneak. It started as a bold admission of who the Washington Redskins are — an offense-driven team — and ended with explicit reassurance that there’s nothing wrong with that.
Washington led Green Bay 29-24 with 6:12 remaining and faced a fourth down and one at its own 41-yard line. For many teams, it would’ve been time to play it conservatively, punt and hope the defense could stave off Aaron Rodgers. But the game was too crazy to be conventional. Punter Tress Way would’ve been kicking into a wind so strong that Coach Jay Gruden opted not to have Dustin Hopkins kick an extra point into it late in the second quarter. And the competition had turned into a shootout long before, including a seven-minute stretch that included four straight touchdowns — two by each team, all on long plays or easy drives — from late in the third quarter to early in the fourth. So, on fourth down, Gruden decided to go for it.
“It was a half a yard, and the wind was pretty strong in our face,” he said.
It was a daring decision, and considering both the situation and how this team is built, it was the only decision.
“I think you had to do it,” Cousins said.
Cousins got the first down on the sneak. About two minutes later, running back Rob Kelley scored his second of three touchdowns to provide a Rodgers-safe cushion. By the end, Washington had registered an emphatic 42-24 victory in prime time.
It was the best win of the season. It was proof that, under pressure, the Washington offense can resist self-destruction and lead the team. So much of this season, and so much of the future of this offense, is about proving that the unit can be an elite, team-carrying group. If so, it will be much easier to continue with a salary cap slanted toward the offense and its high-priced players. If it can’t, then Washington will need to balance its payroll.
What you saw against Green Bay was persuasive. Sure, the Packers (4-6) have lost four games in a row, and their defense had allowed 37 points per game over the previous three weeks. The Packers had given up 47 points to Tennessee their most recent time out. But linebacker Clay Matthews was back, and Green Bay, one of the NFL’s most consistent teams, was desperate. And despite all of the struggles, the Green Bay defense entered the game ranking 10th in the league in total defense.
No matter how you looked at it, this was a legitimate test for the Washington offense. For the entire team, too. If the Packers were really that bad, Washington needed to show it could dominate. If the Packers still had championship-caliber resilience, Washington needed to show it could stand up to an experienced group. Add this game to the mounting evidence that Washington is more solid than it appears during its seemingly obligatory bouts of erratic play.
A team with a long recent history of struggling in these big moments, Washington showcased its virtue. Cousins had the finest outing of his career. It wasn’t just about numbers, but those were stellar: 21 for 30 for 375 yards, three touchdowns, no turnovers and a 145.8 passer rating. What mattered most is that Cousins played like the best player in a stadium that included Rodgers, the most dangerous quarterback on the planet. Cousins won a shootout with Rodgers, who threw for 351 yards and three touchdowns.
If not for dropped passes, Cousins’s completion percentage would’ve been even higher than his 70 percent. Whenever Washington appeared to be in trouble, Cousins made big throws, releasing spirals so tight they pierced the wind.
“I just let it fly,” he said.
Early in the fourth quarter, he threw a 70-yard touchdown pass to Pierre Garcon, who finished with six receptions for 116 yards. The wind was blowing in his face, and it had such force that Gruden, a former quarterback, said, “I don’t think I could throw the ball 10 yards in that thing.”
This season, I’ve spent way too many words pointing out a key factor in whether Cousins, who is playing under a $19.95 million franchise tag this season, will receive as lucrative a long-term deal as he wants: Can he lead the offense, in points and yardage production, to reflect the investment?
Washington is already paying left tackle Trent Williams top dollar. It is already paying big money to tight end Jordan Reed. It has to make decisions on whether to re-sign pricey wide receivers DeSean Jackson and Garcon. It has invested high draft picks in other players. And, of course, Cousins is making just shy of $20 million this season.
The result? Washington spent the second most of any NFL team on its offense this season, according to OverTheCap.com, a site that tracks team spending. It has the offense, excluding dead money, costing Washington $84.583 million, or 64 percent of its spending. Only Dallas, at $84.855 million spends more. Defense, at $46.614 million, is the fifth cheapest in the NFL.
That’s fine, if you produce. General Manager Scot McCloughan will just focus on the draft and low-priced free agents to cobble together a better defense. The defense would probably never be great building that way, but if the offense is stellar, perhaps decent would be fine on that side of the ball. If the offense doesn’t produce, then something has to change. And whether fair or not, Cousins is being scrutinized because he’s the quarterback, the most scrutinized position in sports, and because he’s the one who is currently up for a payday.
Judging from Sunday’s performance, the offense is ready to explode. Washington finished with 515 yards. Kelley rushed for 137 yards. The team scored a season-high 42 points, a huge breakthrough after previously scoring between 16 and 31 points in every game.
And during the most tense moment of the game, Gruden trusted his offense to close. It rewarded his confidence.
“We feel good about our personnel, that’s for sure,” Gruden said. “We felt we need to put it together. It was good to see that.”
Afterward, Cousins celebrated on the field by slapping McCloughan’s hand several times. Then they hugged, and Cousins yelled “How do you like me now?” to his GM. Then Cousins rubbed McCloughan’s head, messing up the executive’s hair.
Yeah, how do you like him now?
How ya like the entire offense?
McCloughan smiled and patted Cousins on the back.
If the quarterback keeps this up, some palm tickling might be next.
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.