RICHMOND — Odds are, Kirk Cousins is going to play. Not just in preseason, mind you, but in real games with considerable stakes that could determine whether the Washington Redskins reach their playoff potential.
Not to wish any harm to Robert Griffin III, the face of the franchise and a seminal talent. Maybe he'll have the medical good fortune and immeasurable grit that allowed Vikings running back Adrian Peterson to recover from a gruesome knee injury and post landmark 2012 numbers — without missing a start.
But Griffin, the second-year, Heisman-winning quarterback from Baylor, plays with an abandon that captivates fans and invites contact. And Dr. James Andrews' peerless credentials notwithstanding, there's no forecasting how durable Griffin's right knee will be after January's surgery.
Which brings us to Cousins.
Trading up to select Griffin with the second pick of last year's draft always will be a landmark moment for the Redskins. But taking Cousins, an All-Big Ten quarterback at Michigan State, three rounds later already has proven wise, confounding draftniks who panned the choice as redundant.
Cousins is that good — on the field, in the locker room and in the community. Indeed, he and Griffin give Washington a unique tandem that appears to have all the skills, character and charisma one could envision at the sport's signature position.
Alas, quarterback isn't receiver, linebacker or tackle. Only one plays at a time.
"The expectations for (me) are to create an environment where when I'm in the game there is not a decreased expectation for our offensive production," Cousins said last week as the Redskins opened training camp in Richmond. "So when Robert is out and I have to go in, that the … coaching staff and my teammates expect for the offense to be as explosive as we were when Robert was in.
"That's certainly a lofty goal for me, but that's what I need to be as a backup quarterback. There's got to be no drop-off."
Contrasting styles aside — Griffin is much less wedded to the pocket — Washington thrived at times last season with Cousins. Moreover, he embodied clutch in a come-from-behind, overtime victory over the eventual Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens.
But Cousins' debut was discouraging.
It was Week 5 at home against Atlanta, when Griffin exited in the third quarter with a mild concussion. Cousins connected with Santana Moss for a 77-yard, go-ahead touchdown, but after the Falcons regained the lead, Cousins threw two interceptions as Washington lost 24-17.
Eight games later, their playoff fate in the balance, the Redskins trailed the Ravens by eight points deep into the fourth quarter. When Griffin hobbled off, his right knee dinged, Washington appeared cooked.
But with 29 seconds remaining, Cousins threw an 11-yard touchdown pass to Pierre Garcon. He then ran a quarterback draw for a 2-point conversion that forced overtime, where the Redskins prevailed 31-28.
Cousins started the following week at Cleveland, passing for 329 yards and two scores in a 38-21 victory. He relieved Griffin, then crippled by the knee, in a 24-14 home playoff loss to Seattle, completing 3-of-10 throws.
"I think with Kirk, it started in the preseason," Redskins linebacker London Fletcher said. "He progressed each and every practice. 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. …
"He did a great job of getting us prepared for games from a defensive standpoint. And then when he got his opportunity to play, you think about the Baltimore game when he had to go in there in a situation where we were behind, he makes some great throws and plays for us to win the game. Then we go to Cleveland, he played well. Kirk's definitely shown that he can play in the National Football League."
Drafting two quarterbacks was unconventional. Making them 1-2 on the depth chart bordered on desperate and/or reckless.
But the Redskins rated Cousins, the first Michigan State quarterback to beat Michigan three consecutive years, as a second-round talent. So when he was available in the fourth round, they pounced.
Cousins validated the team's evaluation.
"It gives me that much more confidence," he said of last season. "I think it gives our team that much more confidence when we face those challenges coming this season. … Year 1 to Year 2, it's hard to put a measurement on how much more comfortable I am, how much better I am. Just looking over the plays this summer and even today, it's just night and day from last year. …
"(But) you're only as good as your last performance. If I could go out there in the preseason, in the regular season, whatever it may be, and lay an egg and don't play at the level I did last year, last year's performances will be forgotten."
With Griffin unlikely to play in preseason games, Cousins likely will get more snaps, in the exhibitions and during practices.
"Having had all this practice time will help me and make me that much more confident when I step in," Cousins said, "which was probably not the case last year. It was a much more challenging role to step into having not had that many reps."
But Cousins realizes and appreciates that Griffin is The Man, that the Redskins will be best served if Griffin is hale and hearty from the season's opening snap to final whistle.
"When you draft a guy as high and you drafted Robert, and you trade up to get him, and you pay him what you pay him, and he's Offensive Rookie of the Year in the NFL, there really is no competition," Cousins said. "This is about Robert's team. … It's my job as a backup to be a very good insurance policy. …
"He looks really good. He's hungry, and I think he'll be even hungrier now trying to prove to people that he is back and he can play at just as high a level that he was before the injury. It's going to be fun to watch. I'll have a front-row seat, but certainly until I pass the torch off to him, I want to make sure the offense runs smoothly and effectively."
Given Cousins' history — he said the highlight of his offseason was reading and relaxing on the dock of his grandparents' lakeside home in Iowa — those words likely are sincere rather than scripted.
Lowe's presented him its 2011 Senior CLASS Award, emblematic of the top scholar-athlete in the Football Bowl Subdivision. Cousins earned All-Big Ten Academic honors four times and graduated with a degree in kinesiology.
At the conference's kickoff luncheon two years ago, he drew raves with a welcoming speech that centered on the honor of playing college football.
"It's here in the place of privilege where perhaps danger lies," Cousins told the audience that afternoon. "I've been taught that human nature is such that the place of privilege most often and most naturally leads to a sense of entitlement. The notion that I deserve to be treated as special because I'm privileged. The truth is, privilege should never lead to entitlement. I've been raised and taught to believe that privilege should lead to responsibility — in fact to greater responsibility."
Cousins received a standing ovation.
That outlook led Cousins to write a book during this offseason. Not the typical jock memoir, "Game Changer: Faith, Football and Finding Your Way" is geared toward children and details Cousins' reliance on his Christian beliefs.
"Kirk is a role model worth emulating, he is a leader worth following and a spokesman worth listening to," Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio wrote in the foreward.
"It was the opportunity to have a positive impact on young people," Cousins told me. "As a professional athlete, you have a platform that can be used for the good or for the bad. And as you see with several players who are in the headlines for negative reasons, whatever you do, good or bad, is going to be publicized. And I wanted to take the opportunity while I still have it, while I have that platform, to make a difference."
As starter or reserve, with the Redskins or another team, here's hoping Cousins has that platform for years to come.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun