CLEVELAND — Everything seemed to be set up nicely for Redskins rookie Kirk Cousins.
He was given his first NFL start Sunday when fellow rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III was sidelined due to a knee injury, and Cleveland is driving distance from Cousins’ hometown of Holland, Mich., and the campus of Michigan State, where he spent the past four years excelling for the Spartans.
“It was very special to have my family there and a lot of my friends, from both high school and college,” he said. “I derive a lot of strength from having my family there.”
Cousins put on a show for his loved ones, completing 26 of 37 passes for 329 yards and a pair of touchdowns in the Redskins’ 38-21 win over the Browns.
“This isn’t my first rodeo, I did play a lot of football in the Big Ten,” Cousins said. “I gained a lot more respect for Robert and Rex Grossman, and what it takes to be a starter in this league. It’ll test your soul every week. This game takes a lot out of you, and I was able to experience that firsthand today.”
It’s an experience many didn’t think Cousins would go through for a long time, maybe never in a Redskins uniform, as the team selected Griffin with the No. 2 overall pick and Cousins with the No. 102 pick in the fourth round.
Things looked even more bleak for Cousins when Griffin excelled beyond expectations, putting up rookie numbers never before seen in the NFL.
But a hit by Baltimore’s Haloti Ngata eventually sent Griffin to the sideline last weekend, and Cousins led the Redskins to an overtime win over the Ravens. The poise Cousins showed gave the Washington coaching staff the confidence it needed to rest their phenom and go with the young backup.
“I talked to him about being cool, calm and collected … and just not to freak out,” Griffin said. “I talked to the receivers and told them to make sure they were ready to make plays for him and I told him that it’ll all come together and start clicking … and it did.”
But not quickly.
Cousins and the Redskins offense struggled mightily in the first quarter. Washington went three-and-out on its opening possession — Cousins bounced his first pass 5 yards from target Evan Royster on third-and-5 — and it only got worse on the second possession.
Facing third-and-10 from his 23-yard line, Cousins tried to hit Pierre Garcon deep down the left side, but cornerback Sheldon Brown reached in and tipped the ball away. Safety T.J. Ward ran under the ball, hauled in the interception and returned it 37 yards to the Washington 6. The Browns scored on the next play.
“I thought he made the right read, but those things are going to happen sometimes,” Redskins coach Mike Shanahan said. “You have to keep your composure, you’ve got to fight through … and I thought he stepped up and just got more comfortable as the game went on.”
Cousins finally completed a pass on the second play of the Redskins’ third possession — a 4-yard gain to rookie running back Alfred Morris on the right side. Two possessions later he completed his second pass — a 54-yard bomb between three Browns defenders that Leonard Hankerson hauled in for a touchdown.
“It was a great play call — I had a lot of options,” Cousins said. “I got the edge, and I could have run it for a good gain, but it just felt like there was a lot of space over the top. There was no safety there to take it away, so I let it rip and I trusted Hank to make me right. Hank did that.”
The touchdown pass seemed to loosen up Cousins, and he began to hit receivers short and long. In the second half, the Redskins began using more play-fakes with Morris off the left tackle and rolling Cousins to the right side where there always seemed to be an open receiver waiting.
“They are a very effective boot and naked team,” Browns coach Pat Shurmur said. “We practiced against it all week. There were times we had decent coverage and Kurt made nice throws. I don’t think it was a matter of the fact that we didn’t prepare for it or adjust to it … I think they did a nice job.”
Especially with just a week to prepare. Gone was the option the Redskins have used all season with the speedy Griffin in the backfield. The coaches had to adjust to Cousins’ strengths — and weaknesses — to ensure their best chance for success.
Cousins said he noticed slight changes due to the Redskins’ personnel change.
“You don’t see the zone read as often, and you don’t see defenses as concerned about my ability to run, obviously,” he said. “As much as Robert wants to show people he can be a pocket passer, I want to show people I can move around a little bit. I think I did that today.”
Cousins did it in front of those he cares about most. Something he wasn’t sure he’d get the chance to do until Saturday night.
“Obviously throughout the week I knew there was a strong possibility (that I’d start), but they made it clear last night,” he said. “You’d like to let the world know when you feel like you’re going to start, but I had to keep it quiet. I couldn’t tell my friends, and to their credit they went and got tickets anyway. That shows you the kind of friends that I have … and a couple of them even were in the Dawg Pound.”