Washington Redskins: In-Game Improvements Sign of Bright Future for Kirk Cousins

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistDecember 18, 2012

CLEVELAND, OH - DECEMBER 16: Quarterback Kirk Cousins #12 of the Washington Redskins drops back against the Cleveland Browns during the first half at Cleveland Browns Stadium on December 16, 2012 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
Jason Miller/Getty Images

This might have been Kirk Cousins' first start in place of Robert Griffin III, but it's extremely unlikely it will be his last. What we saw from Cousins Sunday was part of the reason Mike Shanahan spent a fourth-round draft pick on the Michigan State rookie, with the rest of that move easily being explained by RG3's inability to stay healthy on a constant basis. 

It's already been stated that if Griffin's injured knee isn't completely healed in time for the Washington Redskins' Week 16 game against the the Philadelphia Eagles, Cousins will get another nod. Certainly, what Cousins did in the victory over Cleveland has the 'Skins believing they have two rookies who can carry the load if required. 

The Redskins' offense ditched the zone read and the pistol and ran a more traditional offense against the Browns. The running game set up the passing game and Cousins had loads of success off of play action and while rolling out on bootlegs. 

It was yet another near-perfect offensive game plan from Mike and Kyle Shanahan, who knew the limitations of their rookie backup but also trusted him to make plays when it counted. That gamble paid off, as Cousins posted a 130.6 passer rating in the second half, completing all six of his third-down passes from halftime on.

It was amazing to see how much he improved just from the start to the end of the game. Cousins started 1-for-6 with an interception as the Redskins' first four drives all stalled without a single first down. His biggest problem was that he was locking onto top receiver Pierre Garcon. Well, he locked onto receivers in general, but Garcon was his crutch.

On this early passing play, he forced it to a blanketed Garcon without ever surveying the field for other options.

I also wasn't thrilled with Cousins' overall obsession with Garcon in the game, regardless of what read he was on during a particular play. Garcon was targeted on 32 percent of the passes Cousins threw. That'll have to change going forward as defenses adjust. In this example, Cousins throws a dangerous (and incomplete) pass in Garcon's direction, completely failing to see a wide-open Santana Moss in the slot. 

Yet in the second half Cousins was already working on the bad habit. The Fox broadcast did a very nice job showing Cousins' sudden ability to survey the entire field on a 19-yard completion at the end of the third quarter.

His decision-making wasn't perfect early either, but that seemed to improve as the game wore on. On his first interception he had a perfectly clean pocket...

But he forced a throw into strong coverage, delivering the ball quicker than was necessary. 

And his first-quarter touchdown pass was a thing of beauty, but his instincts were bailed out by his awesome arm on what could have just as easily been interception No. 2. Off a wonderful play-action bootleg, Cousins threw a perfect pass into extremely heavy coverage.

He made a perfect throw, though, so it's hard to criticize too harshly.

Later in the game, he was coming out of play action and taking his time in the face of the rush. In fact, only two quarterbacks held onto the ball longer than Cousins on a per-play basis in Week 15, according to Pro Football Focus. That might sound like a negative, but it indicates he wasn't making a classic rookie mistake by detecting pressure that didn't exist. That was indeed the case from the second quarter forward. 

I liked that when he couldn't see anyone clearly open on this second-quarter bootleg, he just tucked it in and showed the Browns that they can't assume Griffin's the only Washington quarterback capable of making big plays with his legs. He'd pick up 17 yards and a first down on the scramble. 

He also showed off his ability not to panic on a shorter touchdown pass to Hankerson in the third quarter, throwing hot while being approached by an unblocked rusher. Brave, focused and a nice touch on the ball for a guy better known for a rocket arm.

When Cousins was under pressure like that, he completed 67 percent of his passes and didn't throw a pick, according to PFF. 

That he didn't face a lot of pressure was still ideal. Alfred Morris did just enough in a battering ram role to keep Cleveland's defense guessing. The Browns entered Sunday's game determined to stop Morris, but that ended up costing them in terms of pass-rushing pressure and pass defense in general. They didn't expect Cousins to complete 15 of his 19 play-action pass attempts in his first career start, picking up 229 yards and two touchdowns off of play-fakes (according to ESPN Stats and Info., via the Washington Times).

And while he only went deep three times, per PFF, one was a game-changing touchdown and another should have resulted in a pass interference penalty against the man covering Garcon. 

That the Washington offense was able to put up 38 points and 430 net yards sans RG3 is simply amazing. Such a performance proves that Cousins could also be the real deal, but it also reveals that this team is much better than it is given credit for at complementary and supporting positions. It might hurt Griffin's MVP chances, but it drastically increases the Redskins' Super Bowl chances, which actually exist at this stage.

And if this offense could survive—arguably even flourish—with Cousins at the helm against the red-hot Browns defense in Week 15, there's no reason to rush Griffin back for a matchup with the embarrassing Eagles D in Week 16.