Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins makes no secret about his desire for a starting job in the NFL.
But while he insists the Redskins remain Robert Griffin III's team, now and in the future, Cousins has two more opportunities this season to prove to teams around the NFL that he isn't far away. Even Mike Shanahan, his own coach, openly acknowledges that a strong finish from Cousins could net the organization a first-round pick in a trade.
The games may be meaningless in the standings, but they are critical to the growth of a fourth-round pick in 2012 who believes he can run his own team sometime in the next two or three years.
"I've always felt that pressure and, fortunately, I'm in a position right now where I'm not fighting to keep my job as much as my perspective is trying to fight to earn an even better opportunity," Cousins said. "I think that's a good spot to be in. You certainly do feel the pressure and it's not so much whether or not you feel it, because I think we all feel it. But how are you going to perform under it?"
Cousins, starting the final three games for the deactivated Griffin, had an up-and-down game in Atlanta on Sunday. He threw three touchdown passes and sustained several long drives. But he also fumbled once and threw two interceptions.
Shanahan downplayed Cousins' numbers (29-for-45, 381 yards), saying it was just one game. There are two remaining against Dallas and the New York Giants and Cousins has every incentive to play well.
"It's even harder, right?" backup quarterback Rex Grossman said on Sunday. "You're trying to get a reputation as a great quarterback and establish yourself, so everything's magnified. So it's even harder in that regard. I thought [Cousins] did a good job."
But Cousins insists he must live in the present for the next two weeks. Even with the uncertainty about the status of the coaching staff during what's become a disastrous 3-11 season, Griffin will go into next season as the presumed starter. The franchise has invested too much to give up on him after one rough season following major knee surgery. But teams around the league will be watching and Cousins knows that.
"You have to make the most of your opportunities in this league. You never know when you're next chance is going to come," Cousins said. "I also feel like you're only as good as your last performance. That's the way I've always felt about my career.
"I want to put a good product out there every Sunday, but I do know that walking off the field against the Giants in a week and a half, whatever I've done over these last three weeks, specifically most recently, is going to be how people remember me going into the offseason. I want that to be a positive thing."
And these chances have Cousins going against some of the worst pass defenses in the NFL. Atlanta ranks 25th overall after the Redskins hit several long pass plays against them on Sunday, a 27-26 loss. Dallas is even worse, allowing 297 yards per game. That is the worst mark in the NFL. Cousins took advantage of the Falcons, but needs to cut down on the turnovers this week. In all, Washington had seven turnovers against Atlanta.
Shanahan and Cousins insisted the team ran the same base offense on Sunday it would have used with Griffin in the game, save for fewer read-option plays. Even though he'd only made two limited appearances this season in relief of Griffin and one start last season against Cleveland, Cousins says opposing teams won't be caught off guard.
Lack of film doesn't matter. He still has to execute throws and, at least in a few cases on Sunday, that didn't happen. Cousins, notoriously hard on himself, has two more chances coming his way. Is he up to the challenge? And will it at all change how he is viewed around the league?
"Some people embrace it, other people run from it," Shanahan said. "I think Kirk is a guy that embraces it and the only way you feel good about embracing pressure is you have to be prepared. ... But you've still got to go out there and do it on game day."
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