Smith has the Chiefs flying high at 3-0. Cousins has the Redskins off to a 2-1 start.
How they’ve reached this point has been vastly different.
Start with the Chiefs’ consummate game manager, a West Coast kid who played at a then-mid-major school in Utah and came into the NFL with a dual-threat reputation. He was hailed as the savior of the San Francisco 49ers, the first overall pick who was supposed to achieve NFL greatness.
Then consider the Redskins’ triggerman, a kid from the Upper Midwest who starred for Michigan State in the Big Ten and was drafted for his big arm. He was almost an after-thought when he was picked by Washington in the fourth round, the insurance policy for No. 2 overall pick Robert Griffin III.
Now, look at the way they go about their business.
Smith completes a ridiculous number of passes, at least 75 percent in each game this season, and has yet to throw an interception. His quarterback rating has eclipsed 100.0 in each game, highlighted by a 28-for-35 performance with 368 yards and four touchdowns in a season-opening win at New England.
He’s steady, never too high or too low. An even keel if ever there was one.
“He’s obviously having a great year. His quarterback rating and all those statistics speak for themselves,” Redskins coach Jay Gruden said. “But the record, 3-0, off to a great start. He gets the ball to his playmakers and lets them do the work for him.”
Sounds like the essence of a game manager.
“I just see a guy that’s played a lot of football, man. I’ve always thought a lot of Alex,” Gruden said. “He probably doesn’t get the credit he deserves. He’s won a lot of games.”
Deserved or not, Cousins has gotten plenty of credit over the years.
One of the primary reasons is his ability to put up gaudy numbers any given week, regardless who his playmakers might be. His big arm was on display just last week, when he went 25 of 30 for 365 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions in a 27-10 rout of the Raiders.
But unlike Smith, the more volatile Cousins is prone to monumental swings in performance. His game against the Chiefs’ primary rival came two weeks after a 23-for-40 outing against Philadelphia, when he threw for 240 yards with a touchdown and a pick while getting sacked four times.
The sum of those efforts tends to be pretty good, though: nearly 5,000 yards passing last season. And that’s why Cousins has been in line for a big pay day the last couple of years.
“A guy I think these last years has played at a really high level,” Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said. “When you have a guy like that, it gives you a chance, every single week.”
Assuming he shows up, of course.
The common theme in many of the Redskins’ losses the past few years has been games when their quarterback struggled. Two picks in a season-opening loss to Pittsburgh last year, two more in a season-ending loss to the Giants, with sporadically fabulous and flaky performances along the way.
Both quarterbacks are in for a challenge Monday night.
Smith will be going against the league’s fifth-ranked defense, which just held the Raiders’ potent offense to 128 yards. The Redskins are especially stout against the run, but they held the Raiders’ Derek Carr to 118 yards passing with two picks last week.
“That doesn’t happen. It doesn’t happen often at all,” Smith said. “I think this defense is playing really good football as a unit all across the board. On the back end, the front end, run and pass.”
So is the Chiefs’ defense.
Even after losing star safety Eric Berry to a season-ending injury, the bend-but-don’t-break Chiefs have made it hard to reach the end zone. They held the Eagles in check until a couple of late scores made a final score closer than reality, then last week managed to frustrate Philip Rivers and the Chargers with a persistent pass rush, playmaking linebackers and a ball-hawking secondary.
“This is a very talented defense, established defense,” Cousins said. “They’ve been around the block, good continuity. They have a group of guys that have played together for a few years now.
“We have to bring it on Monday night,” he added. “I know the Chiefs will be ready.”
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