ATLANTA - On the way to the Georgia Dome, Rex Grossman looked at Kirk Cousins, who would be starting at quarterback for the Washington Redskins in place of the benched Robert Griffin III. Grossman, Cousins' backup, had a simple question: "Do you want me in your ear or not?"
Translation: do you want me looking over your shoulder, offering in-game critiques and advice? Some quarterbacks buck at such intrusion. Cousins is not one of those quarterbacks.
"I'm in my second year. This is my second NFL start," Cousins said after the game. "I'll take all the help I can get."
He got help, in some fashion, from both his offense and his defense. He crafted a perfect 80-yard drive in the final minutes of the game to put Washington in position to tie or even win. But Cousins' two-point conversion with 18 seconds left fell short, and the Redskins lost, 27-26.
Had Cousins won the game for Washington, he would have provided head coach Mike Shanahan with impenetrable justification for benching Griffin and opting for the barely-tested Cousins. Shanahan's actions, of course, have been the talk of the NFL this last week, with the entire Redskins organization resembling nothing so much as a dysfunctional family that can't stop hating each other enough to get anything decent done.
Cousins, then, was in an ideal position to make a name for himself, and he both maximized and mishandled the opportunity. He threw two interceptions and had one fumble, part of the Redskins' overall seven (seven!) turnovers. He threw for 381 yards and three touchdowns, and oh, was he quick to credit his coaches for that:
"It’s just a credit to the playcalling," he said. "I continued to throw to open receivers, and that’s because Kyle [Shanahan, offensive coordinator] was calling plays that were perfect for what they were doing."
Cousins acknowledged that he was nervous, but said Grossman pointed out that he plays better when he's nervous.
"It was the first time he had seen some playing time in a while," Mike Shanahan said. "It's nice to see him go out there and play with a lot of confidence. I thought he kept his composure back there and did a heck of a job in leading us down the field."
Indeed, Cousins could not have been any more deferential to his teammates and coaches than he was in the press conference after the game. He credited the Shanahans, his offensive line, his defense, and both Grossman and Griffin. He specifically credited Griffin's "positive attitude and his willingness to support me, to be there for me. He was the first one to celebrate after we scored, and I would expect nothing less from him.”
When asked if he felt like he could have won the game with some more experience, Cousins nodded. "This is my second career start, and hopefully I can make it to year six, seven, eight," he said. "I think there would have been a different result today had I been a bit more experienced. Check back with me in six or seven years and we'll see where I am."
We don't need to wait that long; Cousins could have a different address in six or seven months. He's in an ideal situation: facing three of the worst defenses in the NFL in Atlanta, Dallas and New York. He has no expectations on him, and while Dallas will be needing a win, its defense is beyond terrible. New York, by Week 17, will already be looking to 2014. It's not out of the question that Cousins could top a thousand yards passing in just three games.
While Cousins was the beneficiary of a very forgiving Falcon defense, his reads on Sunday were exceptionally good for a second-year quarterback. True, he wasn't as mobile as he'll need to be, and he needs to develop his pocket awareness to avert disaster, but he may very well have played himself into a hefty contract in the future.
At the very least, he's become a valuable trade chip for a team that sacrificed its first-round pick last year to get Griffin. Make no mistake, Griffin is the Redskins' quarterback of the future, but Cousins is certainly already worth a second-round pick. He might just be the only person who comes out of this entire mess better off than when he went in.
Jay Busbee is a contributor for Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter.