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Cousins vs. Griffin: A Good Problem to Have

Tom discusses the Redskins' quarterback situation (surprise!) and unearths some certainties about an uncertain state of affairs.

Patrick Smith

If you're just joining us, the Washington Redskins have a new starting quarterback.

It's only the third week of this young NFL season.  The Redskins are fresh off of a dominating home victory over an inferior opponent.  Washington has a chance to move into a tie for first place with a win over unbeaten Philadelphia on Sunday.

Yet, as seems to be the case on a monthly basis for Redskins fans, we find the team at a crossroads.

We agree that this is a nice change of pace, though, right?  Instead of focusing on negatives about the franchise, or pondering the organization's blunders (if not irrelevance), we're left to debate which of two talented, capable players should be at the top of the depth chart in two months.

Having two quality quarterbacks is a good problem to have . . . even if there is a lot of doubt about how this story will end.

With so much uncertainty swirling around this situation, I am certain about a few things:

1. The media will be a nightmare. It only took 48 hours for the Washington Post to start running stories like this one, evaluating Robert Griffin III's trade value.  It only took 24 hours for Mike Wise (who openly disdains the organization) to author a pot-stirring article in which our old friend Anonymous Source claims that Jay Gruden has thought all along that Kirk Cousins was a better quarterback in this system.  Sports Illustrated quickly implied that this could be a "Bledsoe / Brady" situation.  Really!  As of this writing, a Post online poll with more than 12,000 votes shows that over 60% of respondents think that Griffin won't start again until next year at the earliest.  A plurality of voters (about 40% overall) think he'll never start for the Redskins again.  Soon, the ESPN "discussion" shows like First Take and Around the Horn will descend into customary ridiculousness when tackling this topic.  All of that is to say nothing of sports talk radio, which will make the ESPN programs look like Firing Line.

2. Cousins is a good fit for this system. Jay Gruden's scheme will hide Cousins' weaknesses.  Cousins meets all the criteria necessary to be productive in this offense.  He generally makes good, quick reads, he is comfortable in the pocket, and he has an arm strong enough to make the throws required of him.  A potent running attack will take some of the pressure off of Cousins, and he's also helped by exceptional depth at wideout, something the Redskins' didn't have last season when Cousins was the starter.  I expect Cousins to make few mistakes, hit open receivers, and put up respectable-to-good numbers in every game, except possibly Seattle.

3.  Cousins, if necessary, can get this team to the playoffs.  Or, put another way, if this team doesn't make the playoffs, Cousins probably won't be the reason why it doesn't. Washington's modern playoff history is littered with sub-elite quarterbacks passing the Redskins into the postseason.  The best quarterback Washington has had in the last 40 years is Joe Theismann.  Yes, Joe Theismann, the NFL's Most Valuable Player in 1983.  Even though Theismann wasn't a Hall-of-Famer, he was a good quarterback who was the best of the bunch in the post-Jurgensen era.  Don't believe me?  Let's look at a list of signal-callers who have taken the Redskins to the playoffs since 1977:

1982 - Joe Theismann

1983 - Joe Theismann

1984 - Joe Theismann

1986 - Jay Schroeder

1987 - Jay Schroeder / Doug Williams*

1990 - Mark Rypien

1991 - Mark Rypien

1992 - Mark Rypien

1999 - Brad Johnson

2005 - Mark Brunell

2007 - Jason Campbell / Todd Collins*

2012 - Robert Griffin III

(* = QB started playoff games after starting some games during regular season)

Granted, most of the reason Washington was able to make the playoffs so frequently with non-HOF quarterbacks was the spectacular leadership of Joe Gibbs, who coached 12 of the 14 entries in the above list.  The point, however, is that 2014 Kirk Cousins is better than several of the players on that chart in their respective seasons.

4. Robert Griffin III is a better quarterback than Kirk Cousins. I genuinely like Cousins and Griffin.  I hope that both have great careers, and I'll cheer just as hard for whoever is quarterbacking the Redskins at a given moment.  But let's not kid ourselves, or fall prey to a seductive, contrarian trap.  Robert Griffin III, when healthy, is the better quarterback.  Yes, even in this system.  Whatever slight (and temporary) advantage Cousins may theoretically have had in terms of comfort with the scheme pales in comparison to the unique attributes possessed by RGIII.  To simplify things: There is nothing Kirk Cousins can do that Griffin can't do or wouldn't have been able to do in short order.  By contrast, there several things Griffin can do that Cousins will never be able to do.  Hell, Griffin even completed the pass after dislocating his ankle last Sunday.

Keeping those certainties in mind, the looming question is obvious: What happens if Cousins plays reasonably well, but Griffin is fully healthy and ready to return, in, say, seven or eight weeks?

In the old days, the rule was "a starter can't lose his job due to injury."  That was Football Law from before I was born until the aforementioned events of 2001, when Bill Belichick elected to stick with Tom Brady, even when Drew Bledsoe was ready to return.  Since then, the conventional wisdom has shifted to a case-by-case analysis.

If I'm the one making the decision, it's not a difficult one.

First and foremost, I need to know Griffin is truly healthy.  And I mean 100% healthy.  Not 78%.  Not 85%.  100%.

Once that question is resolved, he's the starter.

Needless to say, I'm not the one making the decision, but I think Griffin is the one who can elevate the offense to its greatest possible heights.  He gives an already multi-faceted unit an even more dynamic component.  Those early read-option plays against the Jaguars were productive and reflected Gruden's willingness to modify to offense to take better advantage of Griffin's gifts.  Furthermore, RGIII's ability to escape pressure is essential with an offensive line whose strength isn't pass protection.

As for Cousins, I think cautious optimism is prudent.  As I said, I think he'll do fine.  But for those who are secretly (or not so secretly) excited that Cousins is now the starter, remember that he's looked mediocre in his previous starting appearances.

Last year, he lost all three games he started, failing to throw for even 200 yards in two of the three contests.  He also threw more interceptions than touchdowns.  In all, he finished 2013 with an abysmal quarterback rating of 58.4, nearly 24 points lower than RGIII did in his "bad" year.  Cousins' career interception percentage is more than double Griffin's.

Jacksonville is the worst team Cousins will see.  The real test begins this week.  He's in a better system now, though, with a deeper supporting cast and the best defense the Redskins have had in several years.  I fully expect him to play well.

However, Robert Griffin III will be the Redskins' starting quarterback again in 2014.