Whisper it very, very quietly, but Kirk Cousins may prove to be the better fit for the Washington Redskins this season than Robert Griffin III. Specifically, he may fit head coach Jay Gruden's offense better than Griffin ever could.
That's the reality the Redskins are facing after Griffin sustained an ankle injury during the first quarter of their 41-10 home win over the Jacksonville Jaguars. ESPN reporter Adam Schefter confirmed the dislocated ankle and offered a grim prognosis:
That's a cruel blow for a 24-year-old who hasn't even played three seasons yet and has already undergone major knee surgery since entering the NFL in 2012. Of course, that was the same year the team drafted Cousins, using a fourth-round pick to acquire him as insurance for Griffin.
That's something that now looks like a very wise move, as ESPN Redskins reporter John Keim noted:
But the truth is, it wasn't only Griffin's injury woes that encouraged Gruden and general manager Bruce Allen to keep Cousins around. His comfort running a pocket-based passing game also played a huge part in that decision.
This offseason featured more than faint murmurings that Cousins makes Gruden's system work, while Griffin merely flounders in it. After several organized scrimmages and a preseason encounter, players from the New England Patriots thought it was clear Cousins was the better fit, per ESPN Boston reporter Mike Reiss:
One of my biggest takeaways from Patriots-Redskins joint practices was surprise that Robert Griffin III didn’t look like the best quarterback on his own team. In fact, I thought Kirk Cousins was better than him, from the perspective of running the offense, fine-tuned mechanics and how decisively the ball came out of his hand. I wondered if I was alone, and then heard the same sentiment echoed by some others in the Patriots organization.
As the preseason rumbled on, the murmurings that Cousins is better for this team than Griffin became full-throated shouts. The voice that was heard loudest belonged to Redskins Super Bowl winner Joe Theismann.
He was very clear about who should run Gruden's offense for him, per Dan Steinberg of The Washington Post:
Now, if there was a quarterback competition, it wouldn’t be a competition. Kirk Cousins would be the man I believe he would have to go to, because of the efficiency with which he has run [the offense]. Now Kirk, like I said, is basically a drop-back quarterback. I see Andy Dalton in Cincinnati, I see Kirk Cousins that way.
The idea that Cousins can run the type of offense Gruden wants better than Griffin has always been lurking beneath the surface. Sadly, it took an unfortunate injury to put the theory into practice.
Like it or not, the results were very encouraging, albeit against a woeful Jaguars defense. Cousins completed 22 of 33 passes for 250 yards and two touchdowns.
More important than the actual numbers, though, was his command of Gruden's playbook. He made quick and smart reads to find his targets.
That's not something Griffin has managed to do very often in his first two pro seasons. But the way Cousins routinely picked holes in Jacksonville's coverage schemes spoke of a quarterback perfectly at home in the system.
Perhaps the most telling evidence of Cousins' aptitude for the Gruden offense was in the distribution of his passes. Cousins connected with seven different receivers, spreading the ball around to include playmakers at every level:
Only the solitary throw to DeSean Jackson and one of Paul's receptions came from the arm of Griffin. Once Cousins took over, he got everyone involved.
What probably pleased Gruden most is that aside from a couple of bootleg passes early on, Cousins did the majority of his work strictly from the pocket.
Creating a pocket-based version of Griffin has been Gruden's main focus this offseason. It's probably the reason he was hired.
But it's never looked like a comfortable fit, or even close to it. If you want proof, all the evidence you need was provided by the way Washington started the game with Griffin under center.
One week after laboring through a tiresome display against the Houston Texans, when Griffin couldn't make meaningful strikes from the pocket, Gruden completely overhauled his system.
He went back to read-option, play-action offense Griffin dominated the league with as a rookie in 2012. It was the right move, one called for in this previous article.
However, it was a choice born out of necessity and one that carried an inherent risk. Putting Griffin on the move, the way Gruden did twice on Washington's first two drives, exposed the quarterback's frailty.
There was always a risk that a running Griffin would break down as his surgically repaired knees struggled to carry the load. But Gruden simply had to roll the dice on Washington's brittle, dual-threat ace surviving.
With Griffin under center, there's no other offense to run than one packaged around option designs. The reality is that's how limited the player, whom the team gave away consecutive first-round picks to draft, really is.
Too often, finding the formula that works for Griffin becomes what this offense is all about. For instance, it's no coincidence that the running game led the way with Cousins on the field.
One week after not featuring it enough, Gruden's offense ran the ball 42 times for 191 yards. This should always be a run-first offense. Yet with Griffin under center, the play-calling often seems as though it's designed to try out what he can and can't do, rather than what works best for the whole unit.
But with Cousins on the field, the team's offense looked more like an actual, coherent system, instead of a bunch of plays stitched together to suit Griffin.
That's a reality Gruden is already keenly aware of, even if he can't acknowledge it, according to Mike Wise of The Washington Post:
Let’s not sugarcoat the past two months: Gruden was having a hard time getting Griffin to grasp the principles of the drop-back passing system he was teaching. If Cousins and Griffin had come to camp as undrafted rookies, Cousins may have opened the season as the starter.
Again, according to the person with knowledge of Gruden’s thinking, he actually believed Cousins could succeed in the system better than Griffin but also acutely understood it was going to be near impossible to make a change.
Whether Wise's assertion—and indeed even this article—read like opportunism is going to be a personal choice for every reader to make. However, there are two inescapable realities: Griffin has struggled with this offense, and Cousins led the unit to 41 points despite also missing Jackson and Jordan Reed.
Perhaps the most telling words belong to Gruden himself. Wise pinpointed one quote in particular:
I feel like we can win any game with Kirk Cousins . . . Kirk is a special guy. He started four games last year and didn’t have great success, but obviously has a skill set that I feel like is very much suited for what we do. He can handle it mentally, and obviously, physically. I feel that he can make every throw in the book and we are going to move forward with Kirk.
Of course, some of that is natural coachspeak to put a positive spin on losing a starting quarterback. But there's one line that reads as being more significant than a mere platitude.
Wise rightly pounced on the phrase referencing Cousins' specific skill set and how it fits what Gruden wants to do offensively. That's the clearest indication since Griffin tumbled awkwardly out of bounds against the Jags that Gruden is confident he now has a quarterback suited to his particular system.
Of course, that doesn't mean Griffin will be forgotten anytime soon. The full extent of his injury isn't even known yet.
Liz Clarke, Chelsea Janes and Mike Jones of The Washington Post corralled the opinions of several orthopedic specialists. Benjamin Shaffer, the physician for the Washington Capitals, offered this possible timetable for recovery:
Under the best-case scenario, Griffin’s ankle would be immobilized in a boot for about four weeks, Shaffer said. He’d then undergo rehabilitation to regain strength and range of motion, which would likely take two months.
Fellow surgeon Kenneth Jung's speculation for the length of Griffin's absence was very similar:
You’re essentially treating a severe soft tissue or ligamentus injury, so you’re looking at least six to eight weeks. You have to let things stabilize, work on range of motion, but before they can really start stressing the joint again you have to make sure the soft tissue has healed adequately.
Of course, if these are the best-case scenarios, the team also has to prepare for losing Griffin for the whole season. But if he does make a quick return, Gruden's problems won't go away. In fact, they may only be starting.
Griffin's place as the ordained franchise quarterback is rarely questioned. Gruden himself made that clear this offseason, per Zac Boyer of The Washington Times:
Owner Dan Snyder is also known to be enamored with 2012's second overall pick. He's unlikely to warm up to the idea of ditching that considerable investment so soon, unless he's compelled by Griffin's failing health.
Snyder's wishes and considerable influence will be a major problem if Cousins thrives in Griffin's absence. If he directs four or more wins, can Gruden really be expected to push Cousins aside for the next attempt at making Griffin whole? Should he even have to make such a decision?
Obviously, there's no guarantee that he will. Cousins won't be facing the generous Jaguars every week. The schedule reveals upcoming games against the Philadelphia Eagles, New York Giants, Seattle Seahawks and Arizona Cardinals.
That's a tough slate for any quarterback. It's also worth remembering that Cousins is not without his faults.
The most obvious is the nasty habit of stockpiling interceptions. He has thrown 10 in just nine appearances and four full starts.
The ex-Michigan State star also has a tendency to fluctuate between unerring accuracy and erratic delivery. However, this particular foible could likely be erased by increased playing time.
A great example came on a 3rd-and-5 on the last play of the third quarter. Under inconsiderable pressure from ends Andre Branch and Chris Clemons, Cousins still floated a pass to the outside for rookie Ryan Grant to snare for 21 yards.
It was a pressure pass demanding a quick read of the coverage and an accurate throw into a tight window. It was the kind of clutch pass Griffin hasn't made in his short NFL career, but one Cousins is capable of. That's the dilemma Gruden and this franchise can't avoid but will struggle to solve.
The only thing certain at this point is that Gruden's vision of a West Coast-style passing game directed from the pocket works better with Cousins running it instead of Griffin.
With Cousins as his quarterback, Gruden can use every page of his playbook to help this team win now. With Griffin, games would resemble more on-the-job workshops where wins and losses are a secondary concern compared with Griffin's overall development.
Cousins will show what the team's immediate prospects look like. As for the future of these two quarterbacks, and the franchise as a whole, your guess is as good as mine.
All statistics via NFL.com.