CLEVELAND (AP) — The Redskins were unwilling to risk their future.
Kirk Cousins took care of their present. With star quarterback Robert Griffin III sidelined with a sprained right knee, Cousins threw two touchdown passes in his first NFL start and led Washington to its fifth straight win, 38-21 over the Cleveland Browns on Sunday.
An unheralded fourth-round pick, Cousins has spent his first season as Griffin's understudy. For one day, he relished a chance to be the star. "It's a game I will remember for a long time," said Cousins, who passed for 329 yards and kept the Redskins' playoff push from losing any speed. "If I die tomorrow, I can say I started a game in the NFL and we won. It's a good feeling."
Cousins connected with Leonard Hankerson for both TDs in his first career start, Alfred Morris ran for two TDs and the Redskins (8-6) barely missed a beat without the talented RG3, who was told Saturday night he would not play or be active for the crucial game.
Almost 24 hours after learning of the Redskins' decision, one coach Mike Shanahan based on the recommendation of doctors, Griffin was still upset. "Players play, so I was not happy with the decision," Griffin said. "But at the end of the day, that's the decision they went with. I respect that, but it doesn't mean I necessarily have to like it. They said they were just protecting me from myself, not allowing me to put myself in harm's way."
Cousins finished 27 of 36, rushed three times for 22 yards and ran Washington's offense with RG3-like precision. A week ago, he came off the bench to rescue the Redskins after Griffin sustained a Grade 1 sprain of the lateral collateral ligament. Cousins was on the field from the opening kickoff against the Browns and showed he can lead Washington just as effectively as his more hyped teammate.
"Kirk did an excellent job of executing everything we asked him to do," Shanahan said. With their longest winning streak since 2007, the Redskins moved into a three-way tie with New York and Dallas atop the NFC East.
Afterward, Griffin conceded Washington's win took out some of the sting out of having to stand on the sideline in a burgundy-colored warmup suit and stocking cap. "It was a great business trip for us," Griffin said. "I got healthier by not playing, we won the game and put ourselves in position to control our own destiny."
For the Browns (5-9), this December is on its way to ending like so many others. Cleveland had its three-game winning streak stopped, its playoff hopes dashed. There doesn't appear to be much of a chance that coach Pat Shurmur will keep his job. In fact, the Browns may undergo another massive overhaul once new owner Jimmy Haslam and CEO Joe Banner get done. They must have cringed at the mass exodus by Cleveland fans from the home finale after the Redskins pulled away in the fourth quarter.
"We let ourselves down and we let the whole city of Cleveland down," said rookie running back Trent Richardson, who had two rushing TDs. "We're supposed to go out with a blast. It was a big ballgame and we didn't do what we were supposed to do."
Browns rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden struggled from the outset. He went 21 of 35 for 244 yards and threw two interceptions in the third quarter, both leading to Washington TDs. Weeden had several passes batted down and he did nothing to quiet debate over whether he should be Cleveland's QB going forward.
Shurmur refused to call Weeden's performance a "setback" but that's exactly what it appeared to be. "Obviously I didn't play well enough for us to win," Weeden said. "I didn't play well for the most part throughout. I'm not losing any confidence over it, because I felt like I'm still going in the right direction. I just didn't play well enough to put this team in position to win. I put our defense in a tough spot. You just can't turn it over."
Griffin practiced all week and assumed he would start after displaying his mobility. But the Redskins were concerned he could further injure his knee and decided to sit him. "He tried to show us everything that he could possibly do to get himself ready to play," said Shanahan, now one win behind Mike Holmgren for 11th place on the career list. "I was so impressed with how he worked. But at the end of the day, the doctors did not feel he was ready. That LCL was just not in position for him to play a live game."
Cousins might not be RG3, but he was efficient, accurate and only made one major mistake — an early interception to set up Cleveland's first TD. If the Browns thought they were getting a break with Cousins, he proved to be as challenging to stop as Griffin.
"This isn't my first rodeo," Cousins said. "I did play a lot of football in the Big Ten. We started slow, but you've got to have character to dig deep. We didn't get spooked by a slow start." Cousins' second TD pass to Hankerson gave the Redskins a 24-14 lead. As Cousins came to the sideline, Griffin gave him a fist bump and then sat on the bench with his backup, who for the past two weeks has shown he too can lead the Redskins.
Before the game, Griffin gave Cousins some advice. "I talked to him about being cool, calm and collected and not to freak out," Griffin said. "He did a good job of staying poised and staying confident in there."
NOTES: With his two rushing TDs, Richardson broke Hall of Famer Jim Brown's 55-year-old team rookie record. Brown had nine in 1957. ... Redskins K Kai Forbath made a 44-yard field goal and is 15 of 15, one shy of the NFL record to start a career set by Garrett Hartley. ... Morris has nine TDs rushing, passing Skip Hicks (1998) for the most by a Redskins rookie. ... Shanahan said OT Tyler Polumbus has a concussion. ... Shanahan did not have any updates on injuries to LB Lorenzo Alexander (shoulder) or OL Will Montgomery (knee). ... Browns S T.J. Ward injured his knee.
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