What perhaps stuck out most about Robert Griffin III's NFL debut was that he never looked like a rookie. Bright lights, big stadium in New Orleans and the Washington Redskins starting quarterback oozed the poise of a veteran.
Kirk Cousins wasn't so lucky.
Cousins never got the aid of a week's worth of practice reps and an offseason and preseason's worth of hype about being the man.
He got thrown into his first professional game Sunday when Griffin suffered a concussion.
The results were predictably inconsistent: a 77-yard touchdown pass but two interceptions that ultimately prevented the Redskins from tying the score against the undefeated Atlanta Falcons. The 24-17 loss Sunday dropped the Redskins record to 2-3.
"As a quarterback, you have to take the good with the bad, but I would just call them two critical errors," Cousins said Monday. "Besides those two plays, beyond that, it was good football, but those two critical errors are what quarterbacks get killed on. You've got to avoid those. I will learn from those and be a much better quarterback after going through that."
Cousins may or may not be the man under center Sunday when the Redskins host the Minnesota Vikings, as Griffin is expected to return to practice Wednesday.
With matters up in the air, the fourth-round pick out of Michigan State insisted he will keep the same mindset even after going 5 for 9 in his debut.
"I think the fact that I played [Sunday] is probably the difference in the feeling. Going forward, I'll approach it very similar to the past few weeks," he said. "Maybe there's a heightened sense of need to be ready, but I feel like I've had to be ready all these other weeks, and I obviously needed to be ready this past weekend. That won't change."
Coach Mike Shanahan acknowledged it was "tough" for Cousins to come in cold after not taking snaps with the first unit at practice.
"It's difficult, but you don't sign up to play this game at this level not expecting it to be difficult," Cousins said. "The bottom line is I didn't get it done the way I wanted to."
He talked of "trying to do too much," a common theme for young signal-callers. After excelling in the preseason with 560 yards and three touchdowns, Cousins got an unpleasant dose of reality Sunday.
Cousins went to the huddle with a simple message in his first series after Griffin's injury, the Redskins up 10-7.
"He just said, 'Let's put it together here. Let's get the drive going and get something started and let's drive down the field and score,'" running back Alfred Morris said.
Cousins went three-and-out on that first drive, but after a long touchdown pass to Santana Moss, he tossed the two interceptions in the final two minutes.
"I think the first one he could've dumped it over the middle. The second one ... he really threw it when he was supposed to throw it; [the receiver] got jammed about 15 yards down the field," Shanahan said. "You've got to anticipate that throw and there's nothing you can about a throw like that. I was pleased with the throw, and obviously not the end result."
Neither was Cousins, but teammates nevertheless voiced support for what he did in a difficult spot.
"I think Kirk came in and did a good job. He almost led us to a win," left guard Kory Lichtensteiger said. "I think that's all you can really ask of your second-string quarterback. He knows the plays, he directed the offense well, he had confidence. I have a lot of respect for him."
Shanahan had enough respect for Cousins that the rookie has been Griffin's backup all season instead of Rex Grossman, who knows the offense and can manage the game.
"I've got a lot of confidence in both quarterbacks, Kirk and Rex," the Redskins' coach said. "Kirk has been No. 2 for a reason — because we feel like he earned that right. We feel very good about him and where he's at, but I also have a lot of confidence in Rex as well."
It could be Grossman against the Vikings if Griffin is held out, something Shanahan left open when asked Sunday and Monday about who would start.
"You've just got to go with your evaluation of your people. Like I said, I've got the utmost confidence in both guys. That's a great feeling to have," he said.
"I can't say that I've felt that way about my second and third string quarterbacks very often. A lot of times, you'll feel good about one, not two. I've got probably the best situation I've been in for a long time."
When Cousins was in tough situations Sunday and his interceptions sent fans at FedEx Field to the exits, he was reminded of an important lesson.
"The roller coaster of emotions, that's football, that's playing quarterback. You can never get too high and never get too low," Cousins said. "I need to just stay centered. That's the approach I've always taken and I'll continue to do that."
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