Kirk Cousins delivers when Redskins need him most

LANDOVER, Md. -- This wasn’t an audition. It was a reminder. Washington Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins showed his current employer why he’s important and, perhaps, his future one why he might be worth the wait.

Cousins wasn’t spectacular in the Redskins’ 26-24 win over the San Francisco 49ers. But he was coolly efficient, and when the Redskins (3-2) needed points in the fourth quarter, he delivered. The 49ers, as usual, made it close. Had they sustained their performance for the whole game, they would have won.

The drama over Cousins’ future home will intensify in the offseason: Will the Redskins franchise tag him again? Will the 49ers sign him if he becomes a free agent? Of course, the way C.J. Beathard played in the second half, maybe he’s the 49ers’ future. He at least deserves a long look over their final 10 games.

Yes, some of Cousins’ passes sailed far over the heads of receivers down the field. Ignore those for now. For Cousins, the game came down to what he could do at other times, on shorter throws or must-convert situations.

And, once more, Cousins did enough to win. The Redskins came out fast, sputtered for a while, and finished strong. That sums up Cousins’ day too. It’s hard to dismiss the value of such a performance. Cousins' one interception came on a third-down deep ball that was akin to a 49-yard punt.

"He played efficient," Redskins coach Jay Gruden said. "He had that one pick, but it was bad play design by us. It was like a punt, so it didn't hurt us. Other than that, he threw for over 300 yard, had a touchdown run and a huge scramble. He's doing well."

Just know this: It’s why 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan would take Cousins right now -- or after the season. The guy he watched Sunday is the one he felt Cousins would become: Cousins completed 25 of 37 passes for 330 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. He also had a rushing TD. He connected with eight different receivers.

"I like the way he's spreading the ball out," Gruden said.

But there’s a difference in Cousins' game compared to when Shanahan was the Redskins offensive coordinator from 2012-13. The single biggest improvement is Cousins' poise. He’s not worried about his future; he wasn’t auditioning for the 49ers, the long-rumored next stop in his career. Instead, Cousins did what he’s done for a while: showing a few flaws while still executing well. When Shanahan was here in 2012-13, a few bad moments for Cousins might have resulted in a few more.

Not that Shanahan was paying close attention to Cousins.

"I didn't really watch much of Kirk," he said.

It’s not as if Cousins played poorly. He just was off on some deep throws, a part of his game that two years ago was bad and last year was much better. That’s not why a team would sign him, whenever that time comes. Rather, with a sputtering run game -- running backs only managed 58 yards on 27 carries -- the Redskins needed their quarterback to finish strong. He did.

On the go-ahead field-goal drive, Cousins converted a third-and-12 with an 18-yard pass to receiver Ryan Grant. Cousins then showed that poise, letting Chris Thompson start to break free from his man, turning a short pass into a 13-yard gain for the first down.

On the final touchdown drive, Cousins connected with Vernon Davis down the right seam for 51 yards. Cousins later picked up another third-and-6, again to Grant.

And Cousins capped it with a 7-yard run.

"We did a good job as an offense," Cousins said. "A lot of third-down conversions, a lot of crucial drives where we had to churn the clock and come away with points. It wasn't perfect, but we did a lot of good things."

The Redskins have long talked about Cousins’ improvement, pointing to increased confidence. Earlier in the week, Thompson said Cousins used to get nervous when he entered the game. He still was figuring out life in the NFL. Players wondered how good he could become. Now they know.

Already this season, Cousins has led late scoring drives to beat the Rams, tie the Chiefs and now to help beat the 49ers. The Redskins are glad they have him now. How long he remains is a question for another day. After a week of renewed speculation about Cousins' future, the spotlight returns where it belongs, starting with a week from Monday at Philadelphia.