Kirk Cousins threw for 381 yards in the second start of his NFL career. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
If Mike Shanahan, Daniel Snyder or any Washington fans were hoping Sunday's game might provide some sort of definite conclusion about Kirk Cousins' potential, either as competition for Robert Griffin III or as offseason trade bait, they likely came away disappointed.
Cousins threw for 381 yards with three touchdowns, two interceptions, one lost fumble and misfired on a two-point conversion attempt in the final seconds as Washington fell to Atlanta.
The first-half returns were much better than what came later. Cousins coughed the ball up on a strip-sack early -- a play that his offensive line certainly deserves most of the blame for -- but recovered to rack up 248 yards passing and a pair of scores before the break. Two ugly INTs followed, the first on a play-action fake from Washington's 1, a mistake that helped Atlanta grab the lead for good.
Shanahan said Friday during a radio appearance that a strong showing from Cousins over the final three weeks of the season could help Washington move him in the coming months.
"If he lights it up, hey, maybe we can bring a first-round draft choice back to this organization, and say, 'Hey, who are we gonna take in the first round?' " Shanahan said. "And I think by him playing and Robert not playing, it gives us a chance to have a few options for our organization that we wouldn’t normally have, and the safety of our quarterback going into the offseason is preserved ... And we’re still getting a chance to see a guy that we’ve got a lot of confidence in go out there and play. And his value can only go up. It cannot go down. It can only go up."
Shanahan's last point might be up for debate, but Cousins definitely looked the part of an NFL starter early Sunday. He stretched the field repeatedly against a shoddy Atlanta defense over the opening two quarters, hitting Fred Davis on a pretty 23-yard touchdown and then Pierre Garcon from 53.
Had he continued on in that fashion, the Cousins hype might have blown through the roof heading into Washington's Week 16 game versus Dallas.
As it is, Cousins played as expected: an inconsistent effort in his first start in a year, and just his second NFL start overall. There was more than enough upside shown, even in defeat, to warrant two more starts with Griffin shelved. And the confidence on display -- not to mention the ability to beat defenses downfield -- ought to keep any teams eyeballing Cousins tuned in for the duration.
Of course, Cousins was hardly the lone culprit in Washington's latest setback. The Redskins turned the ball over seven times in total, with Santana Moss and Alfred Morris each coughing it up twice. That Cousins even had a shot to win the game late given all those errors was rather remarkable.
Washington's last drive was an impressive, patient display by Cousins, too. Taking over at his own 20-yard line, Cousins led a 13-play, 80-yard drive over the next 3:07, capping it off by firing a touchdown to Moss. Unfortunately for the Redskins, who played for the win instead of the tie, Cousins' ensuing two-point pass sailed high for a covered Garcon, cementing the loss. (By the way, that outcome was great news for the Rams, who hold Washington's first-round pick in the 2014 draft.)
It was a fitting result for a Washington team that was sloppy and undisciplined Sunday. And it probably was a deserved outcome for Cousins, as he mixed some regretful moments with flashes of brilliance.