WASHINGTON - Backup quarterback Kirk Cousins hadn't even received postgame pats on the back and "atta-boys" for his smashing first career start before Washington Redskins observers speculated on how much he could fetch in a trade.
Sports-talk radio and the Internet have been abuzz with the topic since the NFL's second-hottest team rolled Sunday against Cleveland without injured star quarterback Robert Griffin III. But before Redskins fans work themselves into a tizzy over all the trade-Cousins chatter, we'll let you in on a little secret: Cousins isn't going anywhere anytime soon.
"Trade him?" Coach Mike Shanahan said recently, with surprise evident in his voice. "It doesn't happen very often where you've got a chance to have a very special player that you draft in the fourth round. When you're trying to build what we are with your football team, those aren't the type of guys you trade."
Cousins, 24, is a key figure in Shanahan's long-term plan to put Washington back on top. After high-profile misses on quarterbacks during his first two seasons (no one could forget the Donovan McNabb debacle or the Rex Grossman fiasco), Shanahan paid a steep price for the rights to draft Griffin and invested again in trying to solve his quarterback issue by using another pick on Michigan State's Cousins instead of addressing other needs.
Griffin's combination of smarts, arm strength, and athleticism has made him one of the faces of the NFL. And the steady Cousins (he's as sharp in the film room as he is on the field) is the perfect understudy for Griffin, who figures to miss a few shows.
Griffin's all-out determination on every play has led to some poor decision-making with regard to his own well-being: He wound up with a concussion after taking on Atlanta linebacker Sean Weatherspoon near the sideline in Week 5 and sat out against the Browns because of a knee injury he suffered while being tackled when he should have been sliding in Week 14 against Baltimore.
Sometimes, a productive backup quarterback is the difference between making the playoffs and staying home. Over the last two weeks, first as a closer, then as a spot starter, Cousins has proven to be a top-notch reliever.
After a slow start that included an interception, Cousins inspired confidence on the Redskins' fifth possession. He made a textbook deep throw to wide receiver Leonard Hankerson on a 54-yard touchdown pass. And then Cousins finally exhaled.
"I'd be lying to you if I said there weren't butterflies," Cousins said.
Apparently, they were gone by halftime. Cousins was clearly comfortable as the Redskins scored 28 points in the final two quarters en route to a blowout and their fifth straight win.
Washington matched its longest winning streak since the 2005 season (only Denver, riding a nine-game streak, is hotter than the Redskins). If Washington wins its final two games, against the Eagles and Dallas, it will finish first in the NFC East and play in the postseason for the first time since the 2007 season.
After Sunday's game, Cousins received a hug from Griffin, who plans to be back on the job this week, providing he is medically cleared to play. Although Cousins would prefer to remain atop the depth chart, he understands how this works. When the guy who has the NFL's top-selling jersey is ready to return to work, every other quarterback on Washington's roster must step aside.
In an overtime victory against the Ravens two weeks ago, Cousins came off the bench during the final two minutes of the fourth quarter after Griffin's injury. Cousins ended the Redskins' final drive of regulation with an 11-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Pierre Garcon and then ran for a tying two-point conversion with 29 seconds remaining.
Shanahan was ripped by media members and fans for drafting Cousins, but the last two games have validated the belief he has expressed publicly and privately in the team's No. 2 quarterback. With a shortage of picks and salary-cap space to improve the team, it just didn't make sense to select two quarterbacks in one draft, Shanahan's critics argued. But Shanahan has his quarterbacks.
"You're very happy," Shanahan said, "that you've got two guys who can win for you for a lot of years to come."
Shanahan always listens when other teams call to make trade inquiries. That's just due diligence. Surely, Shanahan would evaluate any offers made for Cousins.
But Shanahan isn't interested in moving Cousins to help plug holes in the Redskins' porous secondary.
Cousins, who can become an unrestricted free agent after his fourth season, eventually might get tired of standing in Griffin's large shadow and leave to lead a team of his own. For now, though, Cousins is in a good spot for the Redskins. And the plan is to keep him there.