ATLANTA — A circus-like atmosphere clung to the Washington Redskins like an acrid smell this week, as conspiracy theories raged that head coach Mike Shanahan was trying to get himself fired by benching starting quarterback Robert Griffin III.
Shanahan could cash in on the final $7 million of his contract, the theory went, and pursue other NFL coaching vacancies.
It was fitting then the Redskins put on a bit of a clown show on Sunday with seven turnovers against the Atlanta Falcons.
Article continues below ...
Somehow, amid all of that chaos, Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins managed to focus through all of the noise during the week and drove his team down the field in the final minute for what could have been the tying — or winning — score.
Saying he liked his play and the defense that Atlanta presented, Shanahan opted to go for the victory and a two-point conversion. This came with 18 seconds left in regulation, after Cousins threw a 3-yard touchdown pass to Santana Moss, drawing Washington within one.
While he had succeeded for much of the day, under pressure and with his receivers covered, Cousins could not come up with the winning play, as Falcons cornerback Desmond Trufant knocked down his throw in the back of the end zone, helping the Falcons clinch a 27-26 win at the Georgia Dome.
Cousins, a fourth-round selection in the 2012 draft, three rounds later than Robert Griffin III, gashed the Falcons for 248 yards in the first half, along with two touchdowns and no interceptions to stake Washington to a 20-17 lead.
However, he threw two second-half interceptions, one of which Trufant nabbed. In all, Cousins finished 29 of 45 passes for 381 yards with three touchdowns, the two interceptions and an impressive 94.8 passer rating.
Still, Cousins was not impressed by the statistics.
“Numbers, at the end of the day, don’t really mean a whole lot to me,” Cousins said. “Playing in the Big Ten at Michigan State, it wasn’t about numbers, it was about winning. It was about getting the championship. It’s the same thing here. It’s about winning. But I felt like I was given a chance to have success.”
Whereas Griffin — the former Heisman Trophy winner and golden boy — has seen his image sour with perhaps a bit too much self-promotion, preening and deflection of blame for a disastrous season, Cousins bent over backward to lavish praise on everything and everyone:
On Shanahan. On offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, whose relationship with Griffin is said to be problematic at best. On his defense. On his offensive teammates and on the decision to go for two.
Cousins also accepted blame for the loss, even though he was not responsible for a majority of the turnovers. He lost a fumble on a strip sack by Atlanta’s Osi Umenyiora that helped put the Falcons up 14-0 with 3:52 remaining in the first quarter.
Redskins running back Alfred Morris and wide receiver Moss lost two fumbles apiece, one of which came on a muffed punt return by Moss.
“Didn’t do enough to win,” Cousins said. “Two interceptions that were on me. A fumble that you don’t want to have. The two-point conversion, the failed attempt there, I felt that was on me. If those plays go differently, it’s probably a much better result. So it’s a tough one to swallow right now so we will learn from it and get better.”
While Cousins didn’t complete the come-from-behind victory, he did provide an air of plausibility to Shanahan’s rationale for benching Griffin, which seemed farcical when the coach first announced it last week.
Shanahan said he did not want Griffin to get injured — this coming from the man who sent Griffin out on a badly injured knee in the playoffs last season, a move that eventually resulted in multiple torn knee tendons for the franchise quarterback.
By missing out on the final three games, Griffin would be healthy for the team’s offseason program.
“Well, that’s the first time he had seen some playing time in a while, so it’s nice to see him go out,” Mike Shanahan said of Cousins’ play. “It’s nice to see him go out there and play with a lot of confidence. I thought he kept his composure back there and did a heck of a job in leading us down the field. Just proud of the way he handled himself.”
In fact, one less turnover might have led to a Washington victory, rendering an air of brilliance to the move to start Cousins, as Griffin (16 TDs, 12 INTs) had looked mostly pedestrian this season.
In the second quarter alone, Cousins completed a 62-yard pass to Aldrick Robinson that didn’t result in a touchdown (the strip sack negated that drive) and threw a 53-yard touchdown to Pierre Garcon less than four minutes later.
One questioner noted to Cousins that he seemed to bring enthusiasm to the beleaguered team, a sentiment the quarterback appreciated. Cousins said before the game he was nervous, as he always is, and that he solicited plenty of help on the sideline from the inactive Griffin and veteran backup Rex Grossman.
“This is my second start, so I’m going to take all of the help I can get,” Cousins said. “I’ve said it to Rex from Day One — he said to me on the way into the game, starting the game, ‘Do you want me to leave you alone or do you want me to be in your ear?’
“I said, ‘I’ll take anything you can give me.’ And the same for Robert and Kyle, so any time on the sidelines I want to gain as much from them as I can and Robert and Rex and, specifically, Robert, have been there before and Robert, in this offense quite a bit, so I want to learn from them and gain what I can.”
Shanahan did not want to address what Cousins did wrong on his two interceptions. The quarterback said he failed to lead his open receivers enough on both plays, a mistake he said he would never make again.
The Redskins have two more weeks to play with so many distractions around them.
“Yeah, rough week,” said tight end Fred Davis, who caught a 23-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter. “It was just an opportunity to go out and show that we were still a team, and I think we showed that we still have fight in us, but we just have to finish the game. I think that’s the main focus.”
For many, the main focus will continue to be on Shanahan’s job status. When he was asked whether there was anything he could do to stop anonymous reports from leaking out about his supposed feuding with owner Daniel Snyder and Griffin, he thanked the media and walked off the podium, guaranteeing that two more weeks of speculation and the carnival-like atmosphere surrounding the team will continue.
For Cousins, it was only his second career start in what looks like a promising career.
“Hopefully, I can make it to year six, seven, eight,” Cousins said, “but come talk to me then and I think it would have been a different result, had I been that experienced.”
Most likely, it seems his next opportunity could come with another team or, at the very least, under a different coach.