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).
“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.