October 21, 2016
Close Cousins: ’Skins QB vs. Stafford
is a marquee matchup for all NFL fans
By KEITH GAVE
Win or lose after his Washington Redskins take on the Detroit Lions at Ford Field on Sunday, Kirk Cousins is going to wake up the next morning still pinching himself. He’s living a life he couldn’t even dare to dream just a few years ago while growing up in the heart of Michigan’s Bible belt.
“It’s been a journey for me going back to when I was playing Pop Warner football, where every step of the way has been very special,” Cousins told reporters in a conference call this week. “If someone had told me when I was 17 at Holland Christian High School as a junior sitting out with a broken ankle on a team that went 3-6 that, hey in a few years you’re going to be in the NFL playing for the Washington Redskins starting for the second year in a row and your team is going to be 4-2, I’d say, I’ll take it.”
But between playing for a small, struggling high school team and starring in the NFL, there was an improbable stop in East Lansing. Cousins couldn’t imagine that coach Mark Dantonio was serious when he came calling from East Lansing.
“I mean, I was shaking my head in disbelief when I got a scholarship to Michigan State,” Cousins said. “I was shaking my head in disbelief when I got the chance to start at Michigan State, when we won bowl games, when we won the Big Ten Championship.”
But it was never that easy at Michigan State, where he experienced the same kind turbulence in getting his professional career untracked.
“I remember my first year starting we started off 1-3. I lost three of my first four games as a starting quarterback at Michigan State,” he said. “That’s how it is in life. . . I’ve always been a believer of the fact that tough times don’t last, tough people do. You know, I’ve had that happen to me many times in my career, where it hasn’t always gone perfectly and you’ve just got to keep pushing.”
Cousins started pushing the moment Washington made him its fourth-round selection in the 2012 NFL draft – after the Redskins selected Heisman Trophy-winner Robert Griffin III with the second overall pick. Eventually, Cousins pushed the oft-injured Griffin out of the job; he’s now banged up again and toiling with the worst team in the NFL, the Cleveland Browns.
Meantime, led by Cousins the Redskins have reeled off four straight victories after losing the first two games of the season. And in a rather celebrated homecoming, Cousins comes to Ford Field off his best performance of the season. He connected on 18 of 34 passes for 263 yards, two touchdowns and an interception in a 27-20 win over Philadelphia. And his 1,695 total passing yards ranks sixth in the NFL.
“He’s in a good place, really,” Washington coach Jay Gruden said. “I think he’s a developing quarterback, and he’s taken advantage of the time that he had under center here, with the experiences of last year, training camp, OTA’s and then this year. Every game, every practice he gains more experience and more confidence in the players around him, in the scheme, and I’m sure Matthew (Stafford) could tell you the same thing.”
Indeed, Stafford is enjoying a career year statistically for the Lions, which is startling considering he’s working without his favorite target after the retirement of Calvin Johnson. Not to mention the perennial lack of a consistent running attack and playing behind a young, developing offensive line that needs to protect him better.
Stafford’s 1,648 total passing yards ranks eighth in the NFL, but thanks to his 14 TD passes against just four interceptions, his 106.0 quarterback rating ranks among the highest in the league. People outside Detroit are noticing, too. Greg Rosenthal, of nfl.com, ranks Stafford the fourth best quarterback in the NFL behind New England’s Tom Brady, Atlanta’s Matt Ryan and Seattle’s Russell Wilson – based on performances this season.
Lions coach Jim Caldwell said it was just a matter of time for Stafford, the starter since Detroit made him the first overall pick in 2009. Since then, Stafford, too, has endured difficult times and powered through them, improving every year.
“I think you’ve all heard me say this before, that between years five and eight you usually see some defining sort of a growth and consistent play start to develop,” Caldwell said. “So I think it’s those things. I think it’s him, I think it’s what he’s doing in terms of his preparation, that he sets his goals very, very high each and every year to make sure he’s improving in every area.”
Opponents see it, too.
“I can just tell watching him on tape what a great competitor he is, how he tries to make every play perfect, and sometimes that might get him in trouble,” Gruden said. “But, most of the time he keeps plays alive, competes, holds the ball until the very last second. Obviously, he can make every kind of throw there is. Back shoulder throws, beat down the field, in tight windows, touch throws. He’s been fun to watch.”
So in quarterback play alone, Sunday’s game should be worth the price of admission. It’ll be the kind of game we should be able to sit back and watch two talented quarterbacks at the top of their games – two guys worth cheering for even for the most ardent Lions fan.
Both are the kind of men you want on your team, right there in the foxhole with you when the bullets are flying. But Gruden takes it even a step further regarding Cousins with the ultimate compliment.
“If you have a daughter you want them to marry that type of guy,” Gruden said of his quarterback. “Just great all-around people. Care about others, care about their teammates and very humble, just fun to be around.”
Do you know how rare it is for a coach to say something like that? Almost never because. . . well, because they know what most players are like.
Cousins is the rare kind of professional athlete you actually you want your son to idolize – like Peyton Manning or, closer to home, Steve Yzerman or Joe Dumars or Alan Trammell. Really good people in all the right ways. Cousins dismisses all that talk though, and takes nothing for granted, knowing he remains a work in progress – on and off the football field.
“It’s been a journey, and the fact of the matter is it hasn’t just been one ascending slope, it’s been all over the map – highs, lows. It’s been a rollercoaster, and the key for me has just been one, to hold onto my faith and trust that the Lord has a plan for my life. Whatever happens, He’s in control.
“I believe that if you do that, good things will happen in the long run. Hopefully the journey is far from over on the football field and we’ll see where it goes from here.”
. . .
The envelope please
Line: Detroit minus-1
Prediction: The Lions are trying to make it three straight wins in their third straight home game. Which gives this the feel of a trap game, the kind Lions fans have experienced for, oh, 60 years or so. Washington’s defense will give Stafford fits, but if Detroit’s defense can prevent Cousins from having a big game, the Lions should eke out a close one in a high-scoring affair. Detroit 37, Washington 31