The signature drive of Washington’s division-clinching victory Saturday night took 13 plays and more than half a quarter. It ended, like so many recent Redskins drives, with a feathery Kirk Cousins touchdown pass.
You can call the Redskins‘ offense methodical or boring depending on your mood. But you have to call it successful. After Washington’s 38-24 triumph on a rainy night in Philadelphia, you can call the entire team NFC East champions.
“This is the happiest I’ve ever been as a football player,” Cousins told NFL Network after the game, which is saying something.
The mood was similar throughout the Redskins locker room. After two years of drama, dysfunction and defeats, Cousins has brought stability to Washington. He’s the biggest reason the team has eight wins after winning only seven combined in the last two years, and he’s going to get paid handsomely for it.
Cousins timed his breakout year perfectly with free agency around the corner. Redskins owner Dan Snyder, never one to keep his wallet in his pocket, is not about to let a solid starter get away. So what if Cousins isn’t the class of 2012 quarterback Snyder expected to give a big second contract?
We are now almost four years removed from Mike Shanahan drafting Cousins with the No. 102 pick of the NFL Draft, exactly 100 spots after Robert Griffin III. It was the first time in 23 years a team took two quarterbacks in the first four rounds, a decision that caused then-Redskins coach Shanahan to take a lot of grief. He looks vindicated now. Both Shanahan and Jay Gruden chose to bench RGIII for Cousins, but Shanahan did it too late. Gruden did it before the 2015 season even started. That decisive move set the table for this division title, as did Cousins’ newfound ability to overcome mistakes.
It would have been easy for Cousins to dwell on the disastrous end to the first half on Saturday night. With the ball on the seven-yard line and six seconds left in the half with no timeouts, Cousins took one of the most inexplicable kneel downs in NFL history, inspiring glee from a nation with a bad case of NFC Eastenfreude.
“Six seconds left, we were going to throw a fade to Pierre Garcon,” Gruden told CBS before halftime. “I have no idea why Kirk took a knee.”
Cousins essentially had a brain freeze for millions of viewers to see. But he came out calmly after halftime and led two more long touchdown drives while avoiding any turnovers. Cousins tops 300 yards routinely these days, and has thrown for eight touchdowns in the last two weeks.
“I’m very proud of Kirk. We had the debacle at the end of the half. He kept his composure … like he has his whole career,” Gruden said after the game.
Cousins’ fatal flaw in his first three years as a pro were his turnovers. Even worse: He struggled to recover when a game started poorly. Cousins was the opposite of a cornerback with a “short memory.” He seemingly couldn’t forget his mistakes, but now routinely shows resilience late in close wins.
This is not a Super Bowl-contending team. The Redskins haven’t beaten a squad with a winning record all season, and they are 2-5 on the road. If they played in any other NFC division, they would be watching the playoffs from home. But that shouldn’t take away from their accomplishment or joy Saturday night.
This was a team ranked dead last in many preseason power rankings. Their methodical offense mirrors general manager Scot McCloughan’s methodical approach to team building; he’s just getting started. The long-term optimism is not as unrealistic and sky-high as in 2012, but McCloughan has a real chance to establish lasting success for the first time in the Snyder era. Gruden and Cousins fit each other perfectly. Being an average team is a huge improvement, and Cousins has been far better than average down the stretch.
Over the last nine weeks, Cousins has thrown for 2,570 yards with 20 touchdowns, three interceptions and 8.6 yards-per-attempt. He specializes in long drives and passes under ten yards. You don’t see those eight-yard conversions on third-and-seven on highlight shows, but those touch passes fuel these wins. That’s why the team’s never-ending march through the rain to eat up clock was so telling. The Redskins were third in the NFL on points scored on 10-play drives entering Week 16, and added two more touchdowns in the second half Saturday.
Way back in 2013, Chip Kelly and the Eagles inspired a wave of NFL teams playing at a breakneck pace. It was supposed to revolutionize how offense is played. Two years later, one of the slowest teams in the league ended Kelly’s season. Just don’t call this Redskins squad a smashmouth offense. They have a lousy running game and Gruden knows it. He put nearly the entire gameplan on Cousins on Saturday night, calling 46 throws. That’s the kind of trust Cousins has inspired in his coach, although it’s taken time to build that confidence. Even Cousins admits he used to struggle with belief.
“Yeah, I had a lot of failure,” Cousins said after the game. “A lot of times I questioned, ‘Are you good enough?'”
On Saturday night, Cousins left no doubt. He’s going to get a long-term contract. He’s going to start a home playoff game, quite possibly against the Seahawks. The last time the Redskins hosted the Seahawks in the playoffs, Griffin tore his ACL and changed the course of the Redskins franchise. After a lot of pain and melodrama in the intervening years, Cousins has made sure it’s his team now.