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The Washington Redskins' Real Quarterback Controversy

We know who the starter will be. But who's the back-up?

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The Washington Redskins are about to have a quarterback controversy on their hands.

No, I don't mean the manufactured version from a few weeks (and 11 Kirk Cousins turnovers) ago.  I mean a genuine debate without a clear-cut answer.

The Griffin / Cousins controversy was largely insincere.  Griffin was always going to win that (non-)battle.  Admittedly, I'm an RG3 guy.  As I've said before, there's no doubt in my mind a healthy Griffin is the best quarterback the Redskins have, and potentially one of the better quarterbacks in the entire league.

As far as the short-lived "controversy" went, I believe that at least some of the Cousins talk came from media voices who understandably had airtime or columns to fill.  I'm convinced many of those folks didn't truly think that Cousins would be an upgrade over Griffin.  On the other hand, I think the portion of the fanbase that thought Cousins would supplant Griffin was just speaking from the "grass is always greener" mindset.

As it turned out, Cousins was so turnover-prone as to reduce his decent productivity to an irrelevant footnote.  The only game Washington won that Cousins started was last week's win over the Titans . . . when he was benched at halftime in favor of Colt McCoy.

That brings us to the present dilemma.  There's no lingering doubt that Griffin is the starter once he's healthy.

But who's the back-up?

Let's say McCoy plays reasonably well against the Cowboys, and perhaps gets another start the following week against the Vikings if RG3 is held out until after the bye week.  What happens to the depth chart?

The Redskins are unique in that their season-opening roster included three quarterbacks with starting experience.  That roster quirk was probably precautionary in nature, borne of fears over a starter with a history of serious injury being protected by a sometimes-porous offensive line.

What that means is that the Redskins probably have the best #3 quarterback in the league, no matter who he is.

There's a catch, though: In the NFL, if the starter and back-up are healthy, the third quarterback generally isn't active on game day.  For example, McCoy was inactive for both games prior to the Griffin ankle injury.  Nearly half the teams in the NFL don't even carry a third quarterback on their roster at all.

What's more, while a #2 has an immediate chance to move into the starting role if the top guy gets hurt (or, hypothetically, turns the ball over on every third possession), it's much more difficult for the #3 quarterback to become the #2 quarterback once the coaching staff settles on a depth chart.

Simply stated, whereas the starter has many more opportunities to perform poorly or to be exposed to injury, the second and third quarterbacks are preserved in amber until some external force causes a shake-up.  If Griffin had never gotten hurt, Colt McCoy probably wouldn't have been active for a single game this season.

Here's an even bigger complication: The NFL trade deadline is October 28th.  Trading Kirk Cousins has been on the Redskins' to-do list since last February.  Some observers still think Cousins could wind up starting for another team next year, but those pesky turnovers (and a possible demotion to third-string) hurt his trade value.

Moreover, if an in-season trade of one of the Redskins' quarterbacks looked at least possible on opening day, that scenario is all-but-dead now.  Trading either McCoy or Cousins when Griffin hasn't yet recovered from his ankle injury would be ill-advised, barring an absurdly favorable trade offer from the foolish GM of a quarterback-needy team.

My best guess as to what happens next is that the Redskins cautiously hold Griffin out until after the bye week, which is probably the prudent move.  McCoy starts against Dallas, then Cousins probably starts against the Vikings unless McCoy beats the odds and has a good-to-great game on Monday.

When Griffin returns, Cousins will resume his back-up role for two reasons.  First, there are the "optics" behind that move.  Having a guy you're trying to trade end the season as the back-up on your depth chart makes him easier to deal.  There's also no downside to doing so, as he (in theory) won't be playing either way.  The difference is merely cosmetic.

Secondly, Cousins still has more live reps in this system.  Even though he's made plenty of throws he shouldn't have over the past month, he also has more experience running Jay Gruden's offense.  As of this writing, Colt McCoy has thrown a grand total of 12 passes this season.  So, if (Gibbs forbid) Griffin gets hurt again, I think the coaches will still be more comfortable dropping Cousins into a game-in-progress than they would be McCoy.

But there's still a legitimate question of who actually deserves that #2 spot, particularly if McCoy has a decent showing in Texas.

Here's hoping Robert Griffin III makes us forget all about that question sooner rather than later.