- The Washington Times - Monday, December 17, 2012

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

All you can do is laugh when your team goes 20 years without stable, high-quality quarterbacking — and then suddenly finds itself with two QBs to get excited about. The Grid Gods have a real sense of humor, don’t they, Redskins fans? They strand you in the desert for a generation, make you subsist on a diet of Gus Frerotte, Mark Brunell, Jason Campbell and Guys Only Mike Shanahan Seems To Like, and then, amid the sandstorm, you spot an oasis in the distance. And as you get closer, you can see Robert Griffin III and Kirk Cousins lounging around a water hole, sipping umbrella drinks (while Rex Grossman fans them with a gigantic palm leaf). 

It’s too early too tell what kind of career Cousins will have, just as it’s too early to tell how long a career Griffin will have. But we’ve seen enough of Kirk, in his cameos against Atlanta and Baltimore and his extended action in Sunday’s 38-21 battering of the Cleveland Browns, to know he can be quite functional at quarterback — and I mean that as a compliment.

After all, there are plenty of QBs in the NFL, starting QBs even, who give their clubs no realistic chance to win, week in and week out. Cousins, though, has been a huge part of the Redskins’ success the past two games, helping them keep their once-improbable playoff dreams alive. As much as anything, he’s shown the ability to step into a situation, be it a final-minutes fire drill or a spot start, and not be overwhelmed by it. You don’t find that in every rookie.

His shaky beginning against the Browns — incompletion, incompletion, interception (to set up a Cleveland touchdown) — might have unnerved another young quarterback. But as he reminded the media afterward, “This isn’t my first rodeo. I played a lot of football in the Big Ten, and I had games like that where you start slow. We found a rhythm, got a good tempo going, and it made all the difference.”

Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III tosses a ball during warmups before an NFL football game against the Cleveland Browns in Cleveland, Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012. Kirk Cousins will start in place of Griffin who is sitting out with a sprained knee. (AP Photo/Rick Osentoski)
Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III tosses a ball during warmups before ... more >

That’s the thing about these rookie QBs now. Many, like Cousins at Michigan State, have had extensive experience in pro-type offenses before coming to the NFL. They’ve also played as many as 14 games a season at the college level — and often have started 40-plus before they graduate. They’re just exposed to so much more than the QBs of old.

Naturally, there’s plenty Cousins still has to learn. That’s the fun part — watching him now, as he takes his first pro steps, and trying to project what his ceiling is. Is he a Pro Bowler? A solid starter? A reliable backup? And what, exactly, is his future with the Redskins? Will they keep him around for a couple of years as RG3 insurance and then trade him, the way Atlanta did with Matt Schaub and Philadelphia did with Kevin Kolb? Or how about this scenario: Kyle Shanahan gets a head job somewhere as a reward for his fine work with the Washington offense and takes Cousins with him (kind of like Scott Pioli did with Matt Cassel when he left New England to become general manager in Kansas City)?

Maybe we’re getting ahead of ourselves. The Browns defense that Cousins sliced and diced (26 of 37 for 329 yards and two touchdowns) isn’t exactly the Steel Curtain. On the NFL’s Immovable Object Scale, it ranks somewhere in the middle. But here’s the thing: If Kirk turned out to be no better than, say, Frerotte, wouldn’t that be pretty good value for a fourth-round pick?

Gus, we shouldn’t forget, had some nice moments for the Redskins and others, including Mike Shanahan’s Denver team. He threw for 462 yards (then a club record) and five TDs one day for the Broncos, and in his last six seasons — when he was basically a rent-a-quarterback — he went 20-11 as a starter. His biggest problem might have been that he was a really good No. 2 QB who, because of circumstances in Washington, had to be a No. 1 QB. Happens all the time in this league. There aren’t nearly enough championship-caliber QBs.

Speaking of learning, as we were a few paragraphs ago, I asked Cousins what he took away from Sunday’s game. “I’ve got a lot more respect for Robert, for Rex Grossman and what it takes to be a starter in this league,” he said. “It’ll test your soul every week. This game takes a lot out of you.”

Indeed it does. Just as it has taken a lot out of Redskins fans, tested their souls, to endure two decades of trial and error by a succession of not-good-enough quarterbacks. But a single draft has changed all that. In the first round, the team got Griffin, who’s second in the league in passer rating and a dangerous runner to boot, especially when his right knee isn’t sprained. Further down, it got Cousins, who’d be a candidate for the Rolaids Relief Man Award if they gave one out in football.

It might be the best rookie QB combination ever. And if they stay together awhile, they might develop into one of the best QB combos period, a duo to rival, among others, Sonny Jurgensen and Billy Kilmer. For the moment, though, what Cousins provides is peace of mind — in the event RG3, ever the swashbuckler, is hurt again. As the Redskins have demonstrated, not once but twice, they can win with either quarterback. It might take their fans some time to get used to the idea, however, after all these years of Doing Without.