When the Washington Redskins placed the franchise tag on quarterback Kirk Cousins, they were making a statement to the fifth-year man from Michigan State: Your 2016 season was great, but we'll need you to do it again before we will pay you top quarterback money over the next half-decade.
The franchise was correct in each case—both to hand Cousins $23.94 million guaranteed for one season (the franchise-tag number for quarterbacks in 2017) and to hold off on anything more. As statistically impressive as Cousins' 2016 season was, he ranked as the 26th-best QB in the league from our film grading in NFL1000, and the front office just took his top two weapons out of his hands in the offseason.
Losing receivers DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon in free agency meant Cousins would enter his "prove-it" season without his only real consistent vertical threat in Jackson and his high-volume production target in Garcon. That was a problem for Cousins, especially the loss of Jackson.
Last season, Jackson caught 16 passes on 32 targets that were thrown 20 yards in the air or more—only Indianapolis' T.Y. Hilton caught more, per Pro Football Focus. Jackson was good for 579 yards and three touchdowns on those deep receptions, and even when he wasn't targeted, he gave his quarterback an advantage in the way he forced cornerbacks and safeties to trail him downfield, thus affecting coverage to other receivers.
When Jackson signed a three-year, $35 million contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in March, it became Jameis Winston, not Cousins, who would have that dynamic deep target. At the time, I went through Jackson's 2016 tape and detailed how he made everything easier for Cousins. Jackson's ability to torch any defender who hesitated at all, or made one false move, let Cousins avoid some of the corrections the NFL's best quarterbacks must make.
Cousins hasn't learned to throw with anticipation because he hasn't had to, and the credit for that belongs to Sean McVay, the former Redskins offensive coordinator who is now the head coach of the Los Angeles Rams.
When I recently analyzed Jared Goff's second preseason, and the key differences in his efficiency, the Rams' game plans had McVay's stamp all over them. Goff was given first-read concepts and simple route combinations designed for a favorable overall picture.
Jackson allowed Cousins to be one of the more prolific deep passers in 2016; he tied with Andrew Luck for the most deep completions last season with 39, for a league-leading 1,359 yards, 11 touchdowns and three interceptions.
McVay's play designs over the last two seasons, in conjunction with head coach Jay Gruden, helped Cousins complete a league-high 69.8 percent of his passes in 2015 and follow that up with a 67 percent completion rate in 2016.
When you have a quarterback who completes nearly 70 percent of his passes and is able to get the ball downfield efficiently, you have a difference-maker who can take your team deep into the playoffs.
The question now is whether Cousins can elevate the Redskins beyond their personnel circumstances.
They signed former Browns receiver Terrelle Pryor, a terrific athlete and developing pass-catcher. Jordan Reed is one of the best tight ends in the league when he's healthy, and the overall receiver corps is above average. But there's no alpha like Jackson anymore, and now it's up to new offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh to work with Gruden to replicate Cousins' first Pro Bowl season.
If you take the 2017 preseason as the template, it's not going to happen.
Through three games, Cousins has completed just 25 of his 44 attempts for a 56.8 percent completion rate, 258 yards, one touchdown and one interception. His touch with the deep pass has been negatively affected by the lack of clear receiver openings created by Jackson's speed and McVay's game plans.
Overall, he has not looked like the guy we saw in 2016.
Former NFL head coach and current ESPN commentator Jon Gruden is familiar with the Redskins' coaching staff, being Jay's older brother, and I asked him this week about Cousins' prospects without his former security blankets.
"I think Cousins has got to play better than he did last year," Jon told me. "I know he had good stats, but I watched the last game [of the 2016 regular season], and he's got to play better. They've got to play better around him, there's no question. And welcome to the club.
"I'm watching Drew Brees get ready for our opening [Monday Night Football] game, and I have no idea what happened to Terron Armstead at left tackle; he's hurt. They're using their third-string center, because their starter's on PUP. Brandin Cooks got traded. They got rid of Jimmy Graham. I have no idea how he handles it, but that's part of the position.
"You're going to lose coaches, you're going to lose personnel, and when you have a $20 million contract, that comes with the territory.
"[In the 2017 preseason, Cousins] didn't play very well when I watched him against Green Bay, and he didn't play very well against Cincinnati. Not to the standards that I have for him, nor to the standards that he has for himself.
"He's going to have to grit his teeth and fight through some tough moments, and that comes with the territory. He's not alone. There are a lot of quarterbacks going through the same things right now."
What separates a Drew Brees or Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers from the rest of the pack is their ability to elevate their offenses no matter the talent around them or the collective wisdom of the coaching staff.
Cousins has not yet proved he can take that step, and when I watched his preseason snaps, one issue stood out above the rest: He doesn't know how to throw consistently with anticipation for a route that's about to open. He's a "see it and throw it" quarterback who tends to have a predetermined result in mind, and if that result isn't open the way he needs it to be, problems arise.
These specific plays this preseason bring this into sharp focus:
Cousins was sacked by defensive end Chris Smith (No. 94) on Washington's fourth play from scrimmage last Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals, but this takedown wasn't the fault of the offensive line. It's what happens when you have a quarterback with an indecisive eye for reads and a correspondingly slow internal clock.
Here, he has three receivers to his front side, and all three are running routes that will leave them open underneath Cincinnati's coverage. It's 3rd-and-6, so Cousins doesn't need a perfect completion. He just needs to quickly read the receiver open with the most potential room in front of him and make a quick throw with anticipation.
Instead, and despite the fact that middle receiver Jamison Crowder (No. 80) had run in pre-snap motion to help Cousins discern the coverage, he froze and didn't make the throw. More distressingly, he failed to see Reed (No. 86) wide-open over the middle on a drag route.
Reed was so open, he was waving his hand at Cousins to alert him.
With 1:16 left in the first quarter, Cousins suffered another takedown, this time by linebacker Carl Lawson (No. 58). It's a similar situation: a manageable third-down situation (3rd-and-4), and Cousins has three receivers to his front side.
At the snap, he starts his read by focusing on Reed to his left as the isolated receiver to that side, but Reed is covered by cornerback Adam Jones (No. 24). At the snap, linebackers Vontaze Burfict (No. 55) and Nick Vigil (No. 59) drop into coverage from a blitz look, which adds a level of complexity Cousins may not have expected.
He has Crowder wide-open on a quick out route, but Cousins is looking to extend the play and clear the read, and he walks right into the sack. That's two wasted third downs due to a quarterback who isn't processing quickly enough.
And when you don't process quickly enough, defenses start to take advantage. They'll time you in coverage, and if you have to see a route develop before you throw, that makes things far too easy for the opponent.
This quick pass to running back Rob Kelley late in the third quarter could have been a pick-six for safety Derron Smith (No. 31). Cousins threw the ball late as Kelley developed his route out of the backfield, and Smith had this timed all the way.
If you want to know the origin of the pick-six Burfict had in the second quarter, the short pass to Kelley was it. Now, as Burfict comes down on running back Chris Thompson's (No. 25) wheel route in man coverage, he can time the late throw and place himself with inside position on the ball as he jumps the route.
Cousins must throw the ball sooner on plays like these, as the route is developing, or opposing coverage defenders will eat him alive.
This is a crucial year for Cousins.
There's no doubt he's come up through the ranks impressively. The fourth-round pick out of Michigan State in 2012 started as Robert Griffin III's backup and eventually got the starting job by default as Griffin struggled. Last year, he became an approximation of a franchise quarterback with a great deal of help.
Now, he'll have to overcome something far greater that is perhaps insurmountable in his case. In his sixth NFL season, he'll need to prove he can stand apart as a true franchise-definer.
I have serious doubts as to whether Cousins can lead the Redskins to greater heights without the right supporting cast. He's a facilitator, not an elevator.
That's not the worst thing in the world to be, but when you desire a multiyear contract at the top of the quarterback landscape, you'd better do—and be—more than that.