When the Washington Redskins announced quarterback Robert Griffin III would not play during the 2013 preseason, there was a collective sigh of relief among Redskins fans. Not only would Griffin remain out of harms way in games that do not matter in the standings, but the team's capable backup QB Kirk Cousins would play, and could lead the team effectively.
If you recall, the Redskins selected Cousins with the team's third pick in the 2012 NFL draft after selecting guard Josh LeRibeus in the third round. The selection of Cousins was questioned by some when other talented players the Redskins needed were still available in the draft.
Why, fans and media speculated, would the organization use a fourth-round pick, 102nd overall, on a quarterback after taking whatever measures necessary to insure RG3 would be their quarterback of the future? There was no question Griffin, that year's Heisman Trophy winner, would be the starter and the new face of the franchise.
So why Cousins, and why so high in the draft? Little did we know the crucial role Cousins would play late in the regular season last year—despite relatively unimpressive statistics in a backup role.
In his first NFL game, a Week 5 loss to the Atlanta Falcons, Cousins entered the game after RG3 sustained a helmet-to-helmet hit that resulted in what team officials called a mild concussion.
After going three-and-out in his first series, Cousins connected with Santana Moss for a 77-yard completion for his first NFL touchdown. He would later throw two interceptions late in the fourth quarter and finished the game 5-of-9 for 111 yards in the Redskins 24-17 loss.
His second NFL appearance occurred in Week 14 after RG3 sustained a direct hit to his right knee with 45 seconds left in the game and the Redskins trailing 28-20. Cousins and the Redskins faced 2nd and 20 from the Baltimore 26-yard line.
He completed a 15-yard pass and an 11-yard touchdown pass to pull within two points. Cousins rushed successfully for the two-point conversion, tying the game in the final seconds. The Redskins would win in overtime 31-28 in one of the more dramatic and exciting games of the year, in my opinion.
The following week, Cousins would start his first game in the NFL after the team decided not to play RG3. He finished 26-of-37 for 329 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. His play earned him the Pepsi Max Rookie of the Week honors, according to NFL.com.
Cousins final rookie appearance occurred in the NFC Wild Card Game loss to the Seattle Seahawks. He entered the fourth quarter with just over five minutes remaining in the game, the Redskins trailing 24-14 and RG3 seriously injured. He was unable to mount a comeback, finishing 3-of-10 for 31 yards.
While the quarterback is heralded as the most important person on an NFL team, it is difficult to imagine how it must be, or has been, for a backup quarterback such as Cousins who knows he will not be the starter unless something happens to Griffin.
The fact is Cousins has to be "that guy" this season, should anything happen to RG3. In addition, he would need to be fully aware of the Redskins offensive system, playbook, their opponents, etc. week in and week out.
This role is something Cousins has taken some time to grow accustomed to, as he told Mark Maske of The Washington Post August 2.
“I think that I have something I can offer this team, even if it’s just as a backup and in a limited role...The tough thing in my role is I do have a limited role. So if I go out there and lay an egg, it negates everything you’ve done in the past. You have to really take advantage of those limited opportunities.”
With Cousins named the starter in the first preseason game, the Redskins coaching staff has come to realize his true value as one of the premier backup quarterbacks in the NFL.
In his July 31 address to the media at Redskins training camp, seen on Redskins.com, coach Mike Shanahan emphasized the value Cousins has been to the organization.
We’ve run our offense with a lot of number of quarterbacks and you want quarterbacks that can execute, quarterbacks that can step up and execute your game plan. And Kirk [Cousins] has proven when he’s had his opportunities, he’s stepped up and played extremely well...Kirk impressed us and everybody last year when he did do what he did in the Cleveland game and the Baltimore game and he’s getting some valuable practice reps right now.
The praise for Cousins and his abilities both on and off the field impress his teammates as well.
ESPN.com's Dan Graziano reported in mid-June that left tackle Trent Williams called Cousins a "stud" and said of Cousins and RG3, "I just think it's funny -- everybody's looking for "that guy," and we've got two of them."
Wide receiver Josh Morgan seemed to be gushing over some of the things Cousins can do, telling The Washington Post last week Cousins is in control of the situation.
I see him taking more control over the offense. He’s getting more comfortable just being the leader, being more of a leader because he knows his role. He knows the whole offense. He’s like a computer. He knows everything. He breaks everything down at every position. He could tell you everything about the whole offense.
As for Cousins, who knows his time is limited and he will soon be standing on the sidelines come regular season, the entire process is about learning.
Cousins seems completely at ease and comfortable as the starter for the Redskins during the preseason, telling Rich Campbell of The Washington Times earlier this week, “Just the fact I know this offense so much more, understand the game so much more … all of that should lend itself to my being ready to face what I have to face this preseason.”
The selection of Cousins when and where they did in last year's draft gives the Redskins one of the, if not the, best 1-2 combinations at quarterback in the NFL. The team has depth at quarterback unseen in Washington, and the value of Cousins in the free-agent market is only going to increase—favoring both the team and Cousins in the long-term.