What a difference a month makes.
Four weeks ago there was supposedly a mutiny ready to explode in the national’s capitol, and it had nothing to do with the contentious presidential election campaign.
After winning their final four games last season to finish 9-7 and win the NFC East, expectations were high for the Washington Redskins and quarterback Kirk Cousins, who was franchised in the offseason and then signed his one-year tender for $19.95 million.
However, two straight losses at home to begin the season led to the over-reactions that define the NFL. Cousins passed for 693 yards in those losses to Pittsburgh and Washington, but he had just 1 touchdown pass and 3 interceptions.
The 27-23 loss to the Cowboys was especially frustrating. Leading 23-20 in the fourth quarter, Cousins threw an end-zone interception on third-and-goal from the 6-yard line. Then, at the 1:56 mark of the quarter, with Dallas leading 27-23, Cousins threw behind wide receiver Pierre Garcon on fourth-and-1 from his 44-yard line.
Teammates were angry. There were reports of some questioning Cousins’ leadership. It appeared implosion might be the result.
At the time, head coach Jay Gruden said, “I think sometimes he puts a lot on himself. He puts a lot of pressure on himself. He wants to be great, there’s no question about it. Sometimes if he feels like he isn’t playing to the standards that we all have set for him, he feels like he’s letting everybody down.”
Amateur psychologists opined Cousins was concerned too much about playing well for his next contract. Then, Josh Norman happened. Or, shall we say, the “rematch” between Redskins cornerback Norman and New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. was approaching.
The media fascination with them became the focus of the week leading up to the next game when in a normal situation, Cousins would have been the bigger story.
In a game that featured five lead changes in the second half and three in the fourth quarter, the Redskins produced the final one when kicker Dustin Hopkins hit a 37-yard field goal with 1 minute, 51 seconds remaining for the 29-27 victory.
Although Cousins passed for 296 yards with 2 touchdowns, no interceptions and a 106.4 passer rating, he attempted just 1 pass on the game-winning drive, completing it for 9 yards as running back Matt Jones rushed 8 times for 37 yards.
The win kept the Redskins from falling to 0-3, and they have followed that with wins against Cleveland, Baltimore and Sunday’s 27-20 victory vs. division-rival Philadelphia. Now, no one is talking about Cousins in a negative light.
In the four-game winning streak, he has completed 65.0 percent of his passes for 1,002 yards (7.31 per attempt) with 8 touchdowns and 3 interceptions.
Most important, the running game and defense is coming alive. In Sunday’s success, after Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins returned a Cousins pass 64 yards for a touchdown to tie the game at 14 late in the second quarter, the Redskins drove 75 yards for a touchdown with 10 seconds remaining for a 21-14 lead. Again, the ground game led the way as Jones (33), Robert Kelley (6) and Chris Thompson (6) combined for 45 yards on 7 attempts.
Jones scored on a 1-yard run, while Cousins passed for 28 yards including a crucial 13-yard connection with Garcon on third-and-5 from the Philadelphia 32-yard line.
In the game, Jones (135), Kelley (59) and Thompson (37) combined for 231 rushing yards on 30 attempts, and a 57-yard run by Jones with 1:27 to play on third-and-7 ended any chance of the Eagles getting the ball back.
Said Cousins, “If you hit the panic button in this business, you don’t belong in this business. We just try to stay the course, work very hard, prepare very well and trust that if we do that good things will happen in the long run.”
Gruden singled out two plays Cousins made against the Eagles that weren’t passes. He said, “I think the play of the game for Kirk was the third-and-7 backed up when he scrambled and got the first down. We’re backed up there, we’re punting to (Darren) Sproles, but we end up getting that first down. We end up methodically going down and scoring taking a 14-point lead. He made some big-time third-down plays, kept plays alive, moving his feet and then threw the ball away when he had to.
“The play before the 50-yarder that Hopkins hit, it was third down and 12 and he waited and waited but felt pressure and threw it away. Kicked the field goal and didn’t make a big mistake and take a sack. Those are big plays.”
On the touchdown drive Gruden referenced, the Cousins scramble was on a play from the Redskins 13-yard line. The touchdown was from the Eagles 13-yard line and was a pass from Cousins to tight end Vernon Davis, who started with Jordan Reed inactive because of a concussion.
Meanwhile, the defense sacked rookie quarterback Carson Wentz 5 times and limited the Eagles to 239 yards, 12 first downs and 4 of 12 third-down conversions. In the first half, Philadelphia had 41 yards on 20 plays with 3 first downs.
Wentz was 3 of 8 for 28 yards and a 47.9 passer rating in the first two quarters and finished the game 11 of 22 for 179 yards.
The Eagles didn’t cross midfield until the fourth quarter and their two touchdowns came on the interception return and an 86-yard kickoff return by Wendell Smallwood.
Two possessions in the final 15 minutes ended with field goals, and on Philadelphia’s final possession that reached the Washington 42-yard line, two sacks on second and third down led to a punt on fourth-and-24.
Linebacker Ryan Kerrigan, who had 2 sacks, summed up the effort when he said, “It was awesome to see it kind of fully come together for us defensively today. Didn’t allow them in the end zone, didn’t allow them across midfield until late in the game.”
When asked about the difference in the team during the last four weeks, Cousins concluded, “I don’t think it’s any one thing or any one guy. I think it’s the fact that 46 players, and coaches included, are making plays. It’s been the defense, special teams with punt returns and tough field goals. It’s been the offense running the football, throwing the football. It’s been a whole team effort in all four of these wins. And you know, like I said, maybe that’s the kind of team we are. It just takes everybody. But when you get 46 guys all contributing, I think it always gives you a chance in the end to win a football game.”