Reporting David Elfin
For all the attention he has received in Washington, quarterback Kirk Cousins has only started two games for the Redskins since being drafted in the fourth round more than 15 months ago.
The second, memorably, was the Week 15 victory at Cleveland in which the former Michigan State star passed for 329 yards and two touchdowns in place of the injured Robert Griffin III to keep Washington on its roll to its first NFC East title in 13 years.
The first was the preseason finale against Tampa Bay, in which all the starters rested. Cousins completed 15 of 22 passes for 222 yards as the Redskins pounded the Buccaneers 30-3.
“Kirk has definitely shown that he can play in the National Football League,” said Redskins 16th-year linebacker London Fletcher. “It started [last] preseason. He did some good things in the preseason games to where Coach [Mike] Shanahan felt good enough about making him the No. 2 guy as a rookie [ahead of 2011 starter Rex Grossman].”
In fact, Cousins averaged more yards per pass (7.67 to 6.23) than Griffin last August. He wasn’t sacked in 73 dropbacks while his generally more elusive fellow rookie went down three times in 34 dropbacks.
“Kirk has proven when he’s had his opportunities, he’s stepped up and played extremely well,” Shanahan said. “Kirk impressed us and everybody last year [with how] he did in the Cleveland game and the Baltimore game [pulling the upset out after coming off the bench].”
Cousins’ third start comes tonight as Washington opens the 2013 preseason at Tennessee.
“What we normally do is play our starters in the first game anywhere from 10-15 plays,” Shanahan said. “It’s a unique situation with Kirk. [He’ll] play more in the second and third game than a normal starter would. We’re going to give him a lot of reps, not necessarily as much probably in this first game.”
In fact, Cousins has been Washington’s first-string quarterback ever since Griffin’s right knee buckled for good during the second half of the divisional round playoff loss to visiting Seattle on Jan. 6. Griffin was on the field during organized team activities and minicamp in May and June and through the first two weeks of training camp in Richmond, but has yet to take a snap in full 11-on-11 drills.
And with Griffin expected to sit out the entire preseason as he finishes the recovery from January knee surgery, Cousins will likely double his NFL starts by the time the warm-ups end on Aug. 29 at Tampa Bay.
“It’s another great opportunity, much like these practices are,” Cousins said the other day in Richmond. “It’s all about making the most of these opportunities. It’ll be a little bit different than the Tampa Bay game last year because I’ll be playing against the No. 1 defense for the Titans and I’ll be playing with the No. 1 offense for the Redskins.”
While Cousins has his two starts, his relief stints against Atlanta, the Ravens and the Seahawks, plus all the reps this spring and summer under his belt compared to his lack of experience this time last year, he’s still going to be nervous.
“I’m much further along than I was last year, but I’m not going to lie to you, I’m always going to have some anxieties, some nerves,” Cousins said. “That’s a good thing. If you don’t have the butterflies, something’s wrong.”
Cousins certainly won’t be the only anxious Washington starter tonight. With cornerback DeAngelo Hall and safeties Brandon Meriweather and Reed Doughty all a little banged-up, rookies David Amerson, Bacarri Rambo and Phillip Thomas will take their spots in the secondary alongside veteran corner Josh Wilson.
Two-time Pro Bowl pick Brian Orakpo returns to the outside linebacker position he last filled in Week 2 of 2012 when he suffered a season-ending torn pec. Tight end Fred Davis is back in the lineup for the first time since suffering a torn Achilles in Week 7 of last year.
The game will be the first with Washington for new special teams coach Keith Burns and the first as receivers coach for Mike McDaniel, who was promoted from a general offensive assistant position.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin