In some ways, the contrast from a week ago Sunday to yesterday couldn’t have been greater for the Redskins.
Instead of snow, wind and freezing rain, the game was played indoors. And instead of the team’s not-long-ago beloved young quarterback being booed by the smallest crowd in the stadium’s 17 seasons as they were rolled in Landover, his even less-experienced replacement was cheered by the pockets of Washington fans in the Georgia Dome.
And yet, the Redskins still found another creative way to lose, falling to 3-11 with the 27-26 defeat that extended their losing streak to six.
One game into the mini-Kirk Cousins era and we’re not that much closer to knowing whether Mike Shanahan’s controversial decision to bench reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year Robert Griffin III for fellow second-year quarterback Cousins was the right call.
It certainly would have seemed a lot smarter if the coach hadn’t whiffed on his final choice yesterday afternoon when Falcons rookie cornerback Desmond Trufant broke up Cousins’ 2-point pass for Pierre Garcon in the end zone and let nearly equally miserable Atlanta escape.
There was some immediate grousing about Shanahan taking the all-or-nothing gamble and forgoing overtime, but why not go for it? What’s one more loss at 3-10 and without a No. 1 draft pick to anticipate for the second of three straight years thanks to the trade that brought No. 2 overall selection Griffin to Washington in 2012?
I’m not a fan of sitting Griffin – supposedly for his own health but more likely as part of a power struggle between the coach, the face of the franchise, and star-loving owner Dan Snyder – but the offense did often look sharper with Cousins at the controls than it had since Washington’s 27-14 third quarter lead evaporated on Nov. 7 in Minnesota, the game that began the slide.
Cousins, whose only previous appearances this year had been in mop-up duty in the blowouts by Denver and Kansas City, led an 80-yard touchdown drive in the final minute while finishing 29-of-45 for 381 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions. Add the fumble on the only time he was sacked and Cousins committed three of Washington’s absurd seven turnovers. Running back Alfred Morris, who had coughed up the ball on just two of 224 handles coming in, and receiver Santana Moss, who hadn’t turned it over on his 40 touches, were each guilty twice on an amazingly butterfingered day for the Redskins.
However, Washington’s five plays of at least 20 yards (two by No. 1 receiver Pierre Garcon and one each by Morris, reserve wideout Aldrick Robinson, and seemingly forgotten former starting tight Fred Davis) matched its total during the previous three games combined. Morris’ 98 rushing yards were just 11 shy of his total during that span and came after fullback Darrel Young returned from a three-game absence before exiting after re-injuring his hamstring in the fourth quarter.
The Redskins’ 320 yards before halftime were their most since the 1991 Super Bowl season as were Cousins’ 248 passing yards during the first two quarters. Include his 329-yard effort in his starting debut at Cleveland in Week 15 of 2012 and Cousins is the first Washington quarterback to top 300 yards in each of his first two starts.
The defense also responded to the change in quarterbacks by holding the Falcons to 3.92 yards per play, its stingiest performance since Week 11 of 2012 against Philadelphia, the game that started the seven-game tear that won Washington’s only NFC East title since 1999. Outside linebackers Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan recorded sacks in the same game for the first time since Week 4.
And while the punt that glanced off Moss and was recovered by the Falcons deep in Washington territory was yet another special teams gaffe, the unit did get a 52.7-yard gross average from punter Sav Rocca.
For all of the praise that Cousins received yesterday and will receive this week, the final march produced the Redskins’ only points of the second half. They gained just 76 yards on their six previous possessions after halftime which resembled their worst stumbles with Griffin.
Shanahan certainly picked a great spot for Cousins to take over given the Falcons’ six losses in their seven most recent games and their rank in the bottom quarter of the league in points allowed, yards given up per pass play, sacks and third down defense.
Next up is Dallas which is equally inept defensively and blew a 23-point halftime lead at home and lost to Aaron Rodgers-less Green Bay yesterday to fall to .500. And Cousins will finish out the season against the New York Giants, who were shut out at home yesterday for the first time in a regular season game in 18 years while clinching their first losing record in a decade.
Look closer at Griffin’s supposedly miserable second season and you’ll see that seven of his 10 defeats came against teams with winning records (plus one against Dallas), five against likely playoff participants. He also beat one of those teams, Chicago, as well as 7-7 San Diego. Griffin had more touchdowns (16) than interceptions (12), completed 60.1 percent of his passes and had an 82.2 passer rating.
During their brief careers, Griffin and Cousins have each completed 62.7 percent of their attempts. The former has a vastly superior TD/INT ratio and a higher passer rating. The latter’s 1-1 record is better.
I don’t agree that one should exist, but I go back in Washington to Sonny vs. Billy and I know how this town works, so let the quarterback controversy begin.
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.