The Washington Redskins weren't supposed to win on Sunday. Without their so-called franchise quarterback, the 'Skins were on the road facing a Philadelphia Eagles team that had won five straight regular-season home games and is widely expected to repeat as NFC East champion in 2014.
The fact Washington lost a shootout under those circumstances is a strong indication that with Kirk Cousins at quarterback, this team is on the right track.
In fact, if it weren't for shoddy special teams play—they gave up a kick return touchdown, and kicker Kai Forbath missed a 33-yard field-goal attempt in the fourth quarter of what ended up being a three-point defeat—the 'Skins probably would have beaten the Eagles to move into a tie for first place in the division.
Cousins wasn't perfect, but he again looked better than the injured Robert Griffin III did last season and early this year. The third-year quarterback has gone from backup to spot starter in place of Griffin, but if he continues to put together performances like these, he could have a legitimate chance to steal that "franchise quarterback" label from RG3.
On Sunday, he completed 63 percent of his 48 passes for 427 yards, adding three touchdowns and one interception.
As you can see, it's a night-and-day difference from last season, when Cousins posted a dismal 58.4 passer rating in relief of Griffin, which—if he qualified—would have ranked dead last in the NFL by a huge margin.
|Kirk Cousins stats: 2013 vs. 2014|
It's possible he's taken a huge step forward in his third season, which wouldn't be surprising. New head coach Jay Gruden is a quarterback guru who has introduced a West Coast-oriented offense that it would appear is tailor-made for a cerebral pocket quarterback like Cousins.
When Cousins has been under center this season, everything has had a more natural look and feel to it. He's not just another custodian-type backup who can manage the game—he's got the arm and the instincts to lead this offense consistently.
We got proof of that Sunday when the 26-year-old hit wide receiver DeSean Jackson in stride on a beautiful 81-yard touchdown strike. The pass traveled 60 yards in the air and was right on the money.
With Cousins under center the majority of the time the last two weeks, the 'Skins have scored a total of 75 points. Prior to that, they had only 110 points in their previous eight games, dating back to last November.
Washington went three-and-out just twice on 12 offensive series, and Cousins completed six passes for 19 or more yards. Sean Kennedy of The Virginian-Pilot highlighted the Redskins' offensive success under Cousins:
He didn't have starting left guard Shawn Lauvao for most of the afternoon, and the Redskins threw the ball uncharacteristically often—51 throws and only 25 designed runs, officially making them one-dimensional—but because he gets rid of the ball so quickly, the 'Skins took zero sacks Sunday for only the second time since the start of the 2013 season.
Hell, Gruden even suggested after the game that Cousins could have afforded to wait a little longer on a few occasions, which is a much better problem to have than the alternative (Griffin holding on way too long, causing turnovers and/or injuries).
Again, Cousins hasn't been perfect. But you must consider that the guy has thrown only 284 career passes and has started just a handful of NFL games. His accuracy can betray him at times, and that was certainly the case when he missed Jackson and Pierre Garcon on two of his final three throws to finish Sunday's game...
And although he's generally been a good decision-maker, he knows he can't force passes like the one intended for tight end Niles Paul that was intercepted by Philly's Malcolm Jenkins in the fourth quarter Sunday.
There was absolutely a communication mix-up on the play, but that doesn't completely get Cousins off the hook for making this throw without pressure...
Cousins on the costly mistake, per the Redskins' YouTube channel:
If I could do it over again, I would throw it to Andre Roberts who was standing all by himself in the flat. And even if I'm going to throw to Niles Paul, I need to look off the safety more, because if I'm going to look that way the safety's going to go that way.
Every rep you get, every play you make, you learn something. And what's important now is that I learn from that and that it doesn't happen again, and that I get better from it. In only my fifth career start, I need to get better so that two years from now those mistakes aren't still happening.
Cousins won't become a star overnight. Those mistakes come with being the type of quarterback he is, and it has to be noted that he completed 12 of his 13 passes Sunday before going just 18 of 35 the rest of the way. The majority of the throws he was making early were part of the scripted portion of the game plan. Once the leash was off, he came back to earth a little.
Still, the good is outweighing the bad, which is something we haven't been able to say about Griffin since that magnificent 2012 rookie season. And so long as that continues to be the case going forward, we can't rule out the potential for Cousins to keep this job long term.
Brad Gagnon has covered the NFC East for Bleacher Report since 2012.