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EL-BASHIR: Yes, it was just one game, but Sunday showed Kirk's potential

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EL-BASHIR: Yes, it was just one game, but Sunday showed Kirk's potential

No game during Kirk Cousins’ three-plus seasons in Washington was more critical to the direction of his career than Sunday’s against the Buccaneers.

The Redskins came into the afternoon having lost two in a row and three of four, and Cousins found himself under increased scrutiny after underwhelming performances against the Falcons and Jets.

I’m not suggesting that Jay Gruden would have made a change a quarterback had Cousins not rallied the Redskins from a 24-0 hole for a scintillating 31-30 victory at FedEx Field. But the possibility existed, particularly with a bye week looming and two other options at quarterback on the roster.

Now, though, Gruden won't need to contemplate any of that. Cousins bought himself more time and the Redskins’ ‘code red’ alert has been canceled.

For the moment, anyway.

Let me be very clear about this: One performance doesn’t define a career or even signal the launching of one. We’ve all witnessed these fits and starts from Cousins before. So it’s prudent to remain in wait-and-see mode. I know I will.   

But what Sunday’s game did—for me, at least—is it underscored Gruden’s decision to continue to back Cousins in the face of outside criticism and after consecutive games in which poor decisions by Cousins led directly (the pick-six in Atlanta) and/or indirectly (the Darrelle Revis interception) to a defeat.

Indeed, there’s something there worth developing. Or, at the very least, something worth investigating further. And that much should be obvious to anyone what stuck around long enough to watch Cousins engineer the biggest comeback in franchise history.

Cousins’ 33 completions (on 40 attempts) tied a franchise record and marked his second highest completion percentage in a start. His 124.7 passer rating, meantime, was by far the highest for any start in his career. He tossed three touchdowns and no interceptions.

The effort also should have quelled any concerns that Cousins routinely crumbles under pressure and that he doesn’t possess enough talent to carry the offense when necessary. Because there’s too much evidence to the contrary. For the third time in four games, in fact, he produced in the clutch. He led his team all the way back against the Eagles. He directed a game-tying drive in Atlanta. Then he did it again on Sunday. Against the Falcons and Bucs, he did it without any meaningful contribution from the team’s rapidly evaporating run game (which is a column for another day).

MORE REDSKINS: KIRK ACCOMLPISHES A RARE FEAT

“Every team wants to see their quarterback be able to bring the team down the field, make consecutive throws when you need it,” Cousins said Monday during his weekly segment with Grant and Danny on 107.6 The Fan. “That’s a huge step in the process of developing as a player and as a passer. That’s what I’m going through right now; I’m in that development phase and I'm trying to continue to get better and learn and grow.”

He added: “These experiences are making a big difference for me and helping me gain confidence and experience that is only going to serve me and the rest of the offense and the team well going forward.”  

But now comes the hard part for Cousins, the part that has so far proven elusive over the course of his 16 NFL starts: playing at a high level consistently. Forget winning back-to-back games, which something he still hasn’t managed to do. He needs to start with simply stringing together back-to-back quality performances.

It’s the next phase in his development. It’s also going to be the difference between earning a full-time starting job (and a contract extension) and being viewed as a nothing more than a backup who can come in a play well for a week here and there.

Does that mean Cousins needs to outduel Tom Brady and the undefeated Patriots at Foxboro a couple of weeks from now? Not necessarily. But playing with poise, avoiding turnovers and producing a second straight triple-digit passer rating is important.

Again, it was just one game. And, yes, it came against Tampa Bay team that’s posted just one winning season since 2008. But it showed exactly what Cousins can be and, just as important, it allowed the entire Redskins' organization to stand down from high alert as their bye week begins.   

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Need to Know: Tandler's Take—Jay Gruden know the pressure is on him in 2018

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Need to Know: Tandler's Take—Jay Gruden know the pressure is on him in 2018

Here is what you need to know on this Sunday, June 24, 32 days before the Washington Redskins start training camp.  

The heat is on Jay Gruden

Jay Gruden knows that his Redskins need to win in 2018.

“This isn’t a two- or three-year process,” he said last week. “This is a one-year process and we have got to win right away.” 

Jay Gruden gave this answer to a question about Alex Smith, but his words should resonate with the whole team. He’s right. This is no longer a rebuilding team. It’s time for this team to get it together and make a playoff run. 

That puts the pressure on Gruden. 

This is his fifth year as coach of the Redskins. He is well beyond the point where he can credibly point a finger of blame at his predecessor for any problems that are lingering. Only five players who were around in 2013, Mike Shanahan’s last year in Washington. It’s Gruden’s show now. 

His tenure is now the longest for a Redskins head coach since Norv Turner made it nearly seven years, from 1994 through 13 games into the 2000 season. His 49-59-1 run with the Redskins spanned three owners in Jack Kent Cooke, John Kent Cooke, and Dan Snyder. 

It should be noted that Turner’s third and fourth years at the helm closely resembled Gruden’s past two years. Turner’s team went 9-7 in 1996 and 8-7-1 the next year, narrowly missing the playoffs both years. That looks a lot like Gruden’s 8-7-1 and 7-9 records over the past two years. 

Gruden does not want this year’s team to resemble the 1998 Redskins. Turner’s fifth team started out 0-7 before winning four of their last five to finish 6-10. 

Turner kept his job in part because of the team’s uncertain ownership situation after the elder Cooke passed away in 1997. Gruden will not have a similar set of circumstances to help him out if he needs a lifeline in January. 

Gruden wants his fifth year to turn out more like Turner’s sixth season. That team went 10-6, topped the NFC East standings and won a playoff game. 

To get there, he needs a lot of his decisions to go right. While the trade for Smith was not his call, every indication is that he was on board with it. 

Last year, it was his decision to say no, thanks to Wade Phillips, who wanted to be his defensive coordinator and promote Greg Manusky into the job. The results were mixed as the Redskins were sixth in pass defense DVOA but 29thagainst the run. It was viewed as a marginal improvement on defense but the unit still seeme to be more of a liability than an asset. 

This year, the Redskins re-signed inside linebackers Zach Brown and Mason Foster and added defensive lineman Daron Payne with their first-round pick after spending their first-round pick on DE Jonathan Allen in 2017. There will be no excuses for Manusky and, by extension, Gruden if the defense does not improve. 

Joe Barry, Manusky’s predecessor who also was hired by Gruden when Phillips was an option, was out after two years of failing to significantly improve the defense. Any reasonable analysis would have to conclude that Barry did not get an infusion of talent anywhere approaching what Manusky has received in his two seasons. Manusky is getting a second year but he probably won’t get a third if the defense is still considered to be an impediment to the team’s progress. 

And if Manusky has to go, you have to wonder if Gruden will get a chance to hire a third defensive coordinator. 

I’m not sure if there is a certain number of games that the Redskins have to win for Gruden to return in 2019. It feels like he would not survive a 6-10 season or maybe not even another 7-9 finish. On the other end of the spectrum, making the playoffs and winning a game when they get there would certainly punch his ticket for a sixth season. 

Anything in between would leave Gruden in some jeopardy and the call would come down to the vague “moving in the right direction” criteria. 

There are some holes on this team, to be sure. But every team has some and the ones that are well coached figure out how to overcome them. The pressure will be on Gruden to best utilize their strengths and minimize any damage brought about by the weaker points. 

From his statement, it’s apparent that he is well aware of that. 

Stay up to date on the Redskins. Rich Tandler covers the team 365 days a year. Like his Facebook page, Facebook.com/TandlerNBCSand follow him on Twitter  @TandlerNBCSand on Instagram @RichTandler

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I put out a tweet correcting the Super Bowl ring count to two.

Timeline  

Days until:

—Training camp starts (7/26) 32
—Preseason opener @ Patriots (8/9) 46
—Roster cut to 53 (9/1) 60

The Redskins last played a game 175 days ago. They will open the 2018 NFL season at the Cardinals in 77 days. 

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Need to Know: The Redskins week that was—Roster competition, Brown vs. Pryor

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Need to Know: The Redskins week that was—Roster competition, Brown vs. Pryor

Here is what you need to know on this Saturday, June 23, 33 days before the Washington Redskins start training camp.  

The Redskins week that was

A look at some of the most popular posts and hottest topics of the week on Real Redskins  and NBC Sports Washington.

Post-minicamp Redskins 53-man roster projection—Defense—NFL coaches and others like to tell you that competition determines who wins roster spots in the league. And that may be true to an extent. But many roster spots are predetermined by a player’s contract situation and/or draft status. It is unlikely that an undrafted player like Fish Smithson will win a roster spot over Troy Apke even if the former outperforms the latter in every way during training camp. Apke was a fourth-round pick and they aren’t going to give up on him in favor of an undrafted player. It would cost $3.2 million in dead cap to cut Stacy McGee and only $150,000 to move on from Ziggy Hood so McGee will win a “competition” that is even remotely close. (Offensive projection here)

Redskins will 'have it out' for Terrelle Pryor at training camp—While this is something that could add a little spice to the Jets’ visit to Richmond, don’t look for much of anything to happen. Zach Brown might give a little extra shove to Pryor here and there but he’s not going to do anything that will draw blood or even cause a deep bruise. If nothing else, a big hit on Pryor would invite retaliation by the Jets on Josh Doctson or Paul Richardson. And that might lead to more retaliation and you end up with a brawl like the Redskins and Texans had a couple of years ago.

Trent Williams very much of approves of Smith and Guice—Williams is going into his ninth NFL season and he has yet to be on the winning side of a playoff game. He thinks that Alex Smith and Derrius Guice can help change that. 

The curious case of Alex Smith and the NFL Top 100 list—I normally greet this list with a big yawn and this year was no exception. But I do find the omission of Smith, who led the NFL in passer rating and was third in adjusted net yards per attempt, odd. In an update to this post, the NFL released the names of the top 10 players and Smith is not on it. He shouldn’t be, but he should be somewhere on the 100, perhaps in the middle of the pack. The only Redskins player to appear on the list was Trent Williams at No. 57.

The Redskins' best players who are 25 or younger—It’s likely that nine players who are 25 or younger will line up as starters for the Redskins this year. I don’t have a rundown of how that compares to the rest of the league but it’s notable that in the last two years six of them have replaced players who were either approaching age 30 or over it. I’ll engage in some speculation here and say that five of the young players—Daron Payne, Derrius Guice, Preston Smith, Jonathan Allen, and Montae Nicholson—are good enough to potentially make a Pro Bowl at some point in their careers. 

Stay up to date on the Redskins. Rich Tandler covers the team 365 days a year. Like his Facebook page, Facebook.com/TandlerNBCSand follow him on Twitter  @TandlerNBCSand on Instagram @RichTandler

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Timeline 

Former Redskins defensive tackle Dave Butz was born on this date in 1950. 

Days until:

—Training camp starts (7/26) 33
—Preseason opener @ Patriots (8/9) 47
—Roster cut to 53 (9/1) 70

The Redskins last played a game 174 days ago. They will open the 2018 NFL season at the Cardinals in 78 days. 

In case you missed it