- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 20, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

LANDOVER — Prognostications aren’t worth much and you don’t have to be an “expert” to make one. That said, there were a couple of consensus thoughts regarding Washington as the NFL season began.

For starters, the team wasn’t expected to be very good. Most predictions fell between five and six wins. That forecast has proved a bit low after Sunday’s 35-25 victory against Buffalo. Washington improved to 7-7 and maintained its division lead in the NFC East. Shockingly, a win against Philadelphia on Saturday would clinch the title and ensure one more game this season at FedEx Field.

But the other thing most everyone agreed on was the question mark under center. The belief was any success surely would come on the strength of Alfred Morris and Matt Jones running behind an improved line coach by Bill Callahan. When Kirk Cousins supplanted Robert Griffin III at quarterback, conventional wisdom held that the less Washington relied on passing, the better the team would fare.

Nothing positive would result from Cousins throwing 30-plus times per game.

But as things have unfolded, that theory carried less weight than Dallas being a Super Bowl contender. It turns out that Washington can do just fine with Cousins slinging the ball. He threw for his sixth 300-yard game of the season Sunday (surprisingly, a team record), crisply leading the offense to touchdowns on its first three possessions.

“I don’t think anybody ever cringed when he dropped back, except maybe you guys,” cornerback DeAngelo Hall said, refuting a notion that early-season anxiety rose in direct proportion to Cousins‘ pass attempts. “We have supreme confidence in him and feel like — with the weapons we have — we can be dangerous.

“It’s pretty hard to stop those guys when they’re clicking. We’ve been going against them since training camp, so we understand how dangerous they can be. When they’re out there rolling and everything is clicking, it’s beautiful to watch.”

Indeed. Whether Washington was going 84 yards in 10 plays, as it did on the opening drive, or 77 yards in one pass to DeSean Jackson — the rapid response after Buffalo scored out of halftime — the offense showed tremendous rhythm and balance. The final stats: 28 passes and 27 rushes.

The game effectively was over on Jackson’s run-and-catch, which provided a 28-3 cushion with 8:39 left in the third quarter. When Buffalo tried to make it interesting with 14 consecutive points, Washington responded with another long march, 80 yards in 13 plays, capped by Cousins‘ fourth touchdown pass.

The smashmouth running game we expected after Washington rushed for 343 yards in its first two games? Not so much. Sunday marked just the third time in 12 games that the team topped 100 rushing yards when it finished with 123. Morris and Jones have four rushing touchdowns combined.

Cousins rushed for his fifth touchdown this season, a 13-yarder in which he bounced off would-be tacklers at the three-yard line.

As the season has progressed, so has Cousins. Teams dared him to beat them with his arm and he has come through, throwing for at least 290 yards in six of Washington’s seven wins. He also has recorded a quarterback rating higher than 110.0 in five victories, including Sunday’s near-perfect 153.7.

“I can’t say enough about the weapons we have on the outside,” said Cousins, who completed 22-of-28 passes for 319 yards. “I can go on and on about DeSean, Pierre [Garcon] and [Jamison] Crowder and Jordan Reed. We’ve got a lot of guys who can catch the football for us and make plays and be electric.”

There was little doubt about the firepower, but no one was sold on the trigger man. “I’ve said all along it’s my job to be a distributor and today was no different,” Cousins said. “They kept making me look good.”

They all looked great Sunday, including the play-caller. Cousins and coach Jay Gruden both gave a shout to offensive coordinator Sean McVay for a game plan that kept Buffalo guessing and kept Washington out of bad situations. Cousins was hit just three times and sacked once, consistently given time to find open receivers.

“It’s a player’s game and Kirk is doing a great job of managing it,” Gruden said. “The play-action has been outstanding and the players have been making plays. The protection has been outstanding. … When the ball is in the air, our players are making plays after the catch. Everything has been positive.”

Yes, a 7-7 record never felt so good.

But this season is about more than the final number of wins and losses — and whether a playoff berth awaits. It’s about finding out if Washington has a quarterback who can do more than hand off and rely on his defense.

Kirk’s a special player,” offensive tackle Trent Williams said. “I think you guys are starting to see that.”

Believing it is another issue.

But Cousins is changing the direction many folks were leaning.

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