Some might call 2015 a banner season in Washington. After all, the team won the NFC East crown and made the playoffs for the first time since 2012, and their fans embraced a new catchphrase. However, the mood around FedExField wasn't always quite so jovial during the last calendar year.
Heading into a Week 7 matchup against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the media and city were at a crossroads with their plucky young quarterback, Kirk Cousins. He'd piloted the team to a 2-4 record, committing two turnovers in each of the four losses, including a brutal overtime pick-six against the Falcons two weeks prior.
"(Head coach Jay) Gruden called his quarterback fragile right now," Laura Okmin reported before the game. "Between the media and a city divided, he hopes it doesn't affect him."
Sheesh. Cousins was trying to prove he's the quarterback of the future, and it seemed the city was ready to turn on him six games into the season.
After the Week 6 loss to the Jets, here's what Sally Jenkins, a columnist for the Washington Post, had to say: "Kirk Cousins is fool's gold. He looks so shiny bright, right up until he disappoints you. Cousins has played enough to establish who he is as an NFL quarterback right now. He's a guy who is enticing to gamble on, but he doesn't pay off."
Ouch, but in Sally's defense, she wasn't entirely wrong. She later points out that Cousins had appeared in 20 games in his career, and had committed two-plus turnovers in half of those starts.
Which brings us back to Week 7, the final game before Washington's bye, and Cousins' last chance to prove he was the man for the job or likely get relegated back to the bench.
It only got worse for Cousins. The crowd seemed ready to put the final nail in his coffin as starting QB when he was strip-sacked midway through the second quarter and had to watch helplessly as the Buccaneers returned the fumble for a touchdown.
Let's pause and recap. Cousins was now down 24-0, at home, to a team that went 2-14 the year prior and was currently being led by a rookie quarterback. Yeah, Kirk's chances at piloting the Enterprise -- I mean, this franchise -- ever again were looking pretty grim.
Yet, despite falling behind by 24 points in the first half, Cousins never lost focus. It was do or die, and he was ready to get the job done. Over the next two-plus quarters, Cousins orchestrated the largest comeback victory in Redskins history. Cousins shook off early jitters and hesitancy to throw dart after dart, bringing his career back from the brink and tying a franchise record with 33 completions in a single game. On the final, two-minute, game-winning drive, Cousins was 9-of-11 passing for 80 yards and the deciding touchdown.
In the end, he had a simple message for the media, the fans, and probably his coach, too.
Play of the Game
Scoring on its first possession of the second half, Washington cut the deficit down to 24-14. That's when fortune favored the bold, as Gruden dialed up a perfectly-timed onside kick. Washington recovered, marched down the field and made it a three-point game when Cousins hit Jordan Reed for a three-yard score. Never let anyone tell you that execution in all three phases of the game -- offense, defense, special teams -- isn't critical to winning in the NFL. This aggressive special teams play call changed the dynamic of the game in an instant, and the Buccaneers really never recovered.
Tampa Bay was hit with 16 penalties in this game, one of only five teams to reach that figure in 2015. However, no team saw a greater discrepancy between their penalties and those called against their opponent in a single game than the Bucs in this contest, as the Redskins were charged with just four penalties for 20 yards. Seven penalties against the Bucs in this game resulted in a first down for Washington. All told, the Buccaneers tied with the Bills as the most penalized team in the league, with 143 infractions leveled against them by the zebras.
From the Box Score
Kirk Cousins wasn't the only player who came into this game under scrutiny. After a sensational rookie campaign, Bucs wide receiver Mike Evans struggled mightily to start the 2015 season (he was battling a hamstring injury, too). In his first four games, he caught a measly 13 of his 33 targets (39 percent) for 174 yards and no touchdowns. Well, Evans came up HUGE in this game, as the Bucs lost Louis Murphy and Vincent Jackson to injuries. It didn't matter, as Evans was virtually uncoverable, catching eight of his 12 passes for 164 yards and a score. He had another touchdown called back on a semi-ticky-tack penalty as well.
Kirk Cousins ... one-game wonder? Uhh, as Alex points out, that clearly wasn't the case. Yet, many likely felt that way after the comeback win over the Bucs. Perhaps the best single-game performance by a Redskins quarterback came from a former Tampa Bay signal-caller, Doug Williams. The cannon-armed passer from Grambling threw for 340 yards and four scores in being named MVP of Super Bowl XXII. Unfortunately, that showing *was a one-hit wonder.*
Williams didn't necessarily fail to capitalize on his day in the sun, his body failed him. The next year Williams had an appendectomy, while a developing back injury would make it so he only started one game in 1989. By 1990 he was out of the league. That said, Williams will always be remembered as the first viable passer Tampa Bay ever had, while in Washington he became the first African-American quarterback to start in and win the Super Bowl. -- Elliot Harrison
Why This Game is No. 19
From the late-game heroics to the individual performances to the overall Cousins/Washington narrative, this game had it all. It featured two young passers coming into their own, and two teams ultimately headed in different directions for the season. Cousins would go on to only commit multiple turnovers in one more game the rest of the season (against the eventual NFC champion Carolina Panthers), while losses of this nature would become all too frequent for the Buccaneers and lead to the dismissal of head coach Lovie Smith. And of course, it gave football fans one of the best Vines of the year, and the Washington faithful a new sign of hope for the future of their franchise.