- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 7, 2016

Kirk Cousins was handed a heavy responsibility by Washington Redskins coach Jay Gruden in late August.

Gruden didn’t just ask Cousins, entering his fourth season with the team, to step in as the starting quarterback for one preseason game as Robert Griffin III recovered from a concussion.

He was asking Cousins to take over as the quarterback for the season. It wasn’t a dry run. It was the real thing.

Despite a shaky start to the season, Cousins responded better than anyone could have imagined. He led the NFL with a 69.8 completion percentage, the eighth-highest in league history, and set the franchise record with 4,166 passing yards, surpassing Jay Schroeder’s mark from 1986.

On Sunday, the longtime backup to Griffin will lead the Redskins into the playoffs for the first time in three years, taking them into a first-round game against the Green Bay Packers at FedEx Field.

“We have grown a lot, not just myself, but as a team,” Cousins said this week. “As an organization, I think we are doing things that are causing us to head in the right direction. That’s positive. That’s gratifying. That’s rewarding. You know, we continue to also look forward and say, ‘OK, where can we take it from here?’”

Cousins finished the season with 29 touchdown passes — two shy of tying another team record — and 11 interceptions, cutting down on mistakes after the first six weeks of the season. After the Redskins lost, 34-20, to the New York Jets on Oct. 18, he had thrown eight interceptions, two in each of Washington’s four losses.

The mistakes appeared to be the continuation of the poor decisions that plagued him during spot duty in his first three years. Instead of sulking, Cousins threw just three interceptions over the final 10 games, throwing for more than 300 yards in six of them.

Kirk has probably done a little bit better than a lot of people have thought, but in-house, I think a lot of people around here have a lot of confidence in what he can do with the football,” Gruden said. “He’s got the great arm talent, obviously. It’s just a matter of him going through his progressions and getting the ball to the right people on time and letting the people do the work for him.”

Cousins was a fourth-round pick out of Michigan State in 2012 — the same year the Redskins selected Griffin, the Heisman Trophy-winning sensation from Baylor, with the No. 2 overall pick.

Griffin led the Redskins to the playoffs as a rookie, electrifying the fan base with his ability to run and throw and revitalizing a team that had cycled through quarterbacks since it last won the Super Bowl nearly 20 years earlier.

The playoffs were the beginning of Griffin’s downfall. After he injured his right knee in that first-round game against the Seattle Seahawks — a game the Redskins would eventually lose — Griffin underwent surgery to repair the ACL and LCL and spent the entire offseason rehabilitating.

Once he returned, he was hampered significantly, sapped of the speed that had made him such a dynamic threat during his rookie season. By season’s end, then-coach Mike Shanahan chose to bench him, turning to Cousins for the final three games.

Shanahan and his staff were fired after the season ended, and the Redskins turned to Gruden to help revitalize Griffin. Gruden, though, recognized early in his tenure that making Griffin into a traditional pocket passer would be a process, and once Griffin dislocated his left ankle in the second game of the season, that transition was scrapped.

That’s when Gruden first turned to Cousins. Though he also struggled last season, eventually benched at halftime of an overtime victory over the Tennessee Titans in mid-October, Gruden recognized that Cousins would have the best chance of leading the team in the future.

Once Gruden and new general manager Scot McCloughan were certain this past summer they wanted to move on from Griffin, Cousins became the natural choice.

“I think the thing that’s admirable is the way the organization stuck with him,” Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, the Super Bowl MVP after the 2010 season, said. “For a young quarterback, say, this year, as opposed to my first year, I think there’s even more pressure and less job security for coaches and general managers as we’re seeing in quarterbacks. To stick with him and allow him to play and continue to get better, gives you, as a quarterback, a lot of confidence. He’s obviously paid some of that confidence back with his strong play.”

A significant factor Cousins‘ improvement has been the group of receivers he has at his disposal — and a willingness to let those pass-catchers use their talents to help him.

“He seems more confident and aggressive on the field. Before, you weren’t really expecting him to throw the ball in tight, tight situations,” tight end Jordan Reed said.

“Now that he’s feeling good, he’s fitting those balls in tight coverage, and giving us a chance to make plays.”

In addition to Reed, whose 87 catches for 952 yards and 11 touchdowns all topped the team in the regular season, Cousins has developed quite a rapport with speedy-as-they-come wide receiver DeSean Jackson, right-place-right-time wide receiver Pierre Garcon and rookie Jamison Crowder.

“The first thing they’ve done to help is they get open,” Cousins said. “They’re talented, but they work hard. They prepare hard during the week. They communicate well with me. And all of that leads to success on Sundays.

“I feel very fortunate to have the group of receivers that I have to work with, because it makes my job as a distributor a lot easier.”

He sure made it look easy over the second half of the season. In all, Cousins not only led the NFL with a 69.8 completion rate and ranked fifth in passer rating at 101.6, ahead of more-heralded quarterbacks such as Rodgers, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger, the New Orleans Saints’ Drew Brees and the Carolina Panthers’ Cam Newton.

“Everybody, in general, has a better feel of where to go, how to get there,” Gruden said, “and Kirk is doing a great job of knowing who to get it to.”

Cousins recognizes that. With his catchy “You like that!” catchphrase leading the way — he spontaneously shouted it at a television camera after a come-from-behind victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Oct. 24 — he has the Redskins in the playoffs for only the third time in the past decade.

“He’s taken some shots down the field and hit them, but he’s also taken the check-downs to the backs or tight ends or what have you or maybe the quick element of the play and letting the receivers do the work for him,” Gruden said. “He’s doing a great job of not only in the running game but in the passing game of distributing the ball to the right people, which is the most important part of playing the position.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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