John McGrath

John McGrath: Pair of overlooked quarterbacks will square off Monday night

Andrew Luck was the first overall pick of the 2012 NFL draft, but fellow quarterback Robert Griffin III dominated the storyline.

The Washington Redskins so craved the Heisman Trophy winner from Baylor, they gave the St. Louis Rams three years worth of premium draft picks for the right to select Griffin at No. 2. In exchange for what turned out to be an eight-player haul by the Rams, the ’Skins got the league’s all-time rookie record-holder in endorsement deals and jersey sales.

Two and a half years after that deal, a pair of quarterbacks taken later in the 2012 draft — during the Chris Berman-is-babbling-even-more-than-he-usually-babbles phase — are preparing for a Monday Night Football game somewhat deflated by Griffin’s absence. He suffered a dislocated ankle Sept. 14, the latest setback of a star-crossed career that’s turned into a soap opera.

Ah, but the show must go on. Instead of the made-for-TV duel ESPN envisioned between Griffin and the Seahawks’ Russell Wilson, the role of Wilson’s counterpart will be filled by former Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins.

It won’t be their first encounter. In 2011, Cousins connected on a late touchdown pass that beat Wilson’s Wisconsin Badgers, 37-31. The Big Ten rivals later trained together at the IMG Academy in Florida, preparing for the draft that found both of them following the first round from afar.

When the smoke from the bombshell trade finally cleared, the Hawks chose Wilson in the third round (No. 75 overall), before the Skins took Cousins in the fourth round (No. 102 overall). And while Seattle general manager John Schneider had long targeted Wilson as a second-day pick, the team also considered a Plan B involving Cousins.

“We interviewed him, did the whole thing,” coach Pete Carroll recalled the other day. “We had him at the combine and all that stuff. He’s a really cool kid, a really great competitor, real bright, hard working, kind of a squeaky-clean guy. He’s got a great history and background, and his mentality was so on it. We were really impressed with him.”

So was Mike Shanahan, the former Redskins coach and co-general manager. Shanahan’s selection of Cousins was widely panned by pundits who wondered: Why take a quarterback in the fourth round of a draft built around the premise of taking a quarterback in the first round?

Shanahan made some decisions that backfired — he got released from his contract for reasons not exclusively related to the fact he was born with the social skills of a groundhog — but his suspicion about Griffin was spot-on: The quarterback’s inclination to turn broken plays into 25-yard rushing plays posed an injury risk.

Cousins’ performance off the bench this season has drawn mixed reviews. Relieving Griffin early in a Week 2 thumping of Jacksonville, Cousins completed 22 of 33 passes for 250 yards and two touchdowns. He followed that by putting up some gaudy fantasy-league numbers against Philadelphia — 30 for 48, 427 yards and three touchdowns — before the wheels fell off last week.

The New York Giants, on their way to a 45-14 victory, picked off Cousins four times. He appeared to be telegraphing his passes, devoting his full focus on the intended target. It’s a mistake common to inexperienced NFL quarterbacks, and a mistake Seattle’s turnover-starved “Legion of Boom” will be happy to convert into an interception.

Cousins still is learning, but know this: He’s a quick learner. A standout in the classroom at Michigan State, where he won honors as the outstanding senior student-athlete at an FBS school, Cousins is as grounded in the fundamentals of game-day preparation as his buddy Wilson.

“You have got to find ways to get better,” Cousins said during a conference call with Seattle-area reporters last week. “In this league, they’re not looking for excuses. They’re looking for results. No matter what hand you’ve been drawn, no matter what the circumstances are, you have got to find a way to get it done.

“That’s kind of the culture of football. If you want to last in this league, which I do, you’ve got to put the work in on your time. You’ve got to be ready.”

It’s funny, in a not-so-funny way, how life works out in pro sports. Robert Griffin III was ushered into the NFL as a brand name. Before he threw his first pass for the Redskins, Griffin’s agents set him up as a pitch man for Castrol Motor Oil, EA Sports, Gatorade, EvoShield and Adidas.

The brand name was replete with a brand nickname — RGIII — perfectly suited for a generation of NFL fans weaned on keeping their text messages efficient.

And yet the guy who stole the show at the 2012 draft, the guy ordained a pop-culture icon, merely will be spectator Monday night, along with the rest of us.

The ball either will be in the hands of Russell Wilson, a third-round pick, or Kirk Cousins, a fourth-round pick.

I am reminded, again, of some words of wisdom the late UCLA basketball coach John Wooden donated to a sports world that always seemed to lag a lap behind him .

“It’s not so important who starts the game,” Wooden said. “It’s who finishes the game.”

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