Progress is rarely linear in the NFL.
Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins, given the chance to start three games late this season after the benching of Robert Griffin III, was unable to take a step forward Sunday against the Dallas Cowboys.
The turnovers were kept to a minimum this time after Cousins' season starting debut on Dec. 15 against the Atlanta Falcons. Cousins threw one interception and didn't fumble against Dallas. He had three in the game against the Falcons.
But he also hit few big plays downfield and the Washington passing game managed a meager 197 yards in the 24-23 loss to the Cowboys at FedEx Field. Eleven of 21 completions went to one man, Pierre Garcon.
"Every game is going to come down to the last two minutes," Cousins said. "There is going to be a battle week-in and week-out and we're going to have an emotional roller coaster throughout the season. If you don't like it, if it's too tough, then you can't hang."
But the complications are many for Cousins. Even if he'd played well in all three of the Redskins' final three games against Atlanta, Dallas and the season finale this weekend against the New York Giants, Griffin remains in front of him on the depth chart and almost certainly will even if coach Mike Shanahan and his staff are fired. Their team is 3-12 entering the last week and has lost seven games in a row.
So far Cousins has shown flashes of the talent that enticed Washington to choose him in the fourth round of the 2012 draft, exactly 100 spots after Griffin, who went second overall that year. It wasn't going to pass up talent even if it had a franchise quarterback already in the fold.
"Kirk is doing good," Garcon said. "He's been given a tough job to do and he's doing well — no complaints about that."
And who knows? Maybe Cousins plays well enough these last three weeks to boost his own trade value in a league desperate for competent quarterbacks, let alone stars at that position. But it's doubtful that's happened with these two recent performances. Cousins threw three touchdowns in the 27-26 loss to Atlanta, but fumbled and was intercepted twice. He faces growing pains, too.
"Any time a person plays in a game, every general manager, every decision-maker gets to see him against starters and playing against people they have a lot of respect for," Shanahan said. "They can evaluate his performance against the better players in the National Football League. That not only helps us as an organization, to see how Kirk plays, but as people evaluate Kirk, it gives them a more honest opinion of what he can do in tough situations."
Aside from Garcon's performance, which helped him set the franchise record for receptions in a single season, Santana Moss, Logan Paulsen, Darrel Young, Roy Helu, Fred Davis and Aldrick Robinson combined for 10 catches for a measly 53 yards. Shanahan insisted that Cousins didn't become more conservative this week after those turnovers in Atlanta. He was simply taking what the Dallas defense was giving him.
Cousins lamented the one interception against the Cowboys, a pass just behind Moss that might have gone for a touchdown if he'd anticipated the receiver's break better. That's where repetitions come in and Cousins just doesn't have many at true game speed.
"I consider myself to be an accurate quarterback," Cousins said. "I think that's one of my strengths. If at times throws are inaccurate, it has something to do with having poor mechanics on that play or a poor understanding of where the ball needs to be thrown. Certainly, there are some things I can go back and be hard on myself about."
There is also no disputing that sacks have gone down recently and the offensive line hasn't changed at all, remaining stable and healthy. Cousins has been sacked just once in his two starts and has shown a nice ability to step up into the pocket to elude pressure and get rid of the ball quickly. Those are skills that remain a work in progress for Griffin, who was sacked 33 times in just 13 games despite his mobility.
"We're going to run an offense that people are comfortable with. Robert's got certain things that he does well. Kirk's got certain things that he does well," Shanahan said. "... We run different types of drop-back plays with Robert than we'll do with Kirk. So everybody's got a few things that we feel that they're better at or a little bit more comfortable with and we'll always try to go in that direction."
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