BALTIMORE — Kirk Cousins has been handed opportunities before. This one, it seems, is his for the taking.
With Robert Griffin III’s immediate future unsettled as he continues to recover from a concussion, Cousins was tabbed to start the Washington Redskins’ preseason game against the Baltimore Ravens on Saturday, giving him his first extended run with the first-team offense since last October.
Cousins responded by completing 20 of 27 passes for 190 yards with an interception and a touchdown, the first scored by the Redskins’ top offense in a preseason game in over two years, in the 31-13 victory. His task now will be to follow a productive preseason with another strong week — and if he can, it could potentially force the coaching staff to scrap its plan to have Griffin enter the regular season as the starter.
“For me, it’s about controlling my attitude and my preparation and my effort and playing the best I can play, and then let the chips fall where they may,” Cousins said after the game. “There’s too many things in this league that you can’t control. You’ll drive yourself nuts if you worry about those things, so you just worry about what you can control and not worry about the rest.”
Cousins has played in 14 games over his first three seasons, appearing in all of them with Griffin either injured or ineffective. The start on Saturday occurred no more than 24 hours after an independent neurologist determined Griffin was not ready to play in the game, which would have been his final tune-up before the opener on Sept. 13.
Although Cousins struggled early, he gradually settled down. His first drive ended abruptly when a screen pass intended for Pierre Garçon was intercepted by outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, who read the play from the snap. Cousins said afterward that he should have immediately thrown the ball away rather than force the pass, which was low and snagged by Suggs over right tackle Morgan Moses.
In the past, such mistakes would have haunted Cousins, who has thrown 19 interceptions over his career. Instead, he moved the ball 50 yards before the next drive stalled on a failed fourth-and-1 conversion, and a subpar series preceded a pair of touchdown drives — one that ended in a 22-yard reception by rookie Jamison Crowder on a fluke deflection, and one that Chris Thompson finished with a one-yard run to cap a two-minute drill.
By the end of that drive, Cousins had completed nine consecutive passes for 90 yards. When he exited the game at halftime, he had converted five of seven third-down opportunities, was not sacked, completed passes to eight different players, pulled his team back from a 13-point deficit and did it all with a running game that, expected to be the focus of the offense this season, generated only 27 yards on 12 carries.
“I thought it was awesome, man,” coach Jay Gruden said after the game. “That’s what was I was most proud of him about. We’ve had issues in the past with that situation, but he bounced back, didn’t blink an eye, didn’t bat an eye.
“He was fired up to get this opportunity. Nobody wants to start when your starter is unable to play, but he was excited about this opportunity, making the most of it, and to see him have a slowish start, throw an interception and bounce back to get those two drives at the end of the half was impressive.”
Cousins took 30 snaps with the second-team offense in the preseason opener against the Cleveland Browns, then deferred to Colt McCoy in the game against the Detroit Lions on Aug. 20, entering late in the third quarter to take another 28 snaps. All told, he’s completed 75.5 percent of his passes over the three games, picking up 435 yards with two touchdown passes and the interception.
It remains uncertain if Cousins will play in the preseason finale against the Jacksonville Jaguars on Thursday. Gruden hasn’t shared his plan for that game, when the first-team offense and select key contributors typically rest.
What Gruden potentially has now, though, is the quarterback competition he intended to host throughout the offseason before abruptly anointing Griffin the starter in February. Griffin, who went through a workout routine Saturday before the game, still figures to take a majority of the first-team repetitions in practice this week; McCoy, for his part, was also efficient on Saturday, going 10-for-12 for 95 yards and leading three scoring drives, including two that ended with touchdown passes to wide receiver Rashad Ross.
“I’ve said all along, I believe we have three NFL-caliber quarterbacks on our team,” Gruden said. “We’re fortunate. They’ve all taken their reps. Kirk and Colt have taken their reps, second- and third-team, with some first-team, throughout training camp and made the most of them. They’re competing. You can see it on the field. They’ve studied. They’ve prepared. They’ve got themselves ready to play, and they played well.”
In six games last season, including five starts with Griffin out because of a dislocated left ankle, Cousins ran Gruden’s offense fluidly. He had displayed a strong pocket presence and an ability to work through his progressions, but was frequently hampered by his decision-making.
During the offseason, he attempted to address those deficiencies, reviewing film from last season and reading about ways to harden his mental resolve. His preparation has always been his strength; the challenge has been in the transition, and now Cousins has a little over a week to make his case for a larger role — one that has eluded him since he was taken 100 picks after Griffin in 2012.
“You’ve got to prepare like you’re the starter,” Cousins said. “You’ve got to treat it like you are the starter and tell yourself that you’re the starter and prepare accordingly. It is a tricky balance, but I think I’ve learned how to walk it, and if I want to stay in this league, I’ve got to be ready — that’s the bottom line. That’s motivation enough.”