Why Kirk Cousins Isn't the Answer at Quarterback for the Washington Redskins

Sean Tomlinson@@SeanGTomlinsonNFL AnalystSeptember 1, 2015

FILE - In this Aug. 29, 2015, photo, Washington Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins warms up before a preseason NFL football game against the Baltimore Ravens in Baltimore. The Washington Redskins have made a quarterback change: Kirk Cousins will be the starter this season, not Robert Griffin III. (AP Photo/Gail Burton, File)
Gail Burton/Associated Press

Near the beginning of training camp, Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III shared some deep thoughts. That alone wasn’t really surprising, as Griffin has always been candid with little regard for how his words are sliced up into 140-character chunks.

But the subject matter this time is intriguing in hindsight now, after Griffin was officially benched Monday, with Redskins head coach Jay Gruden naming Kirk Cousins his Week 1 starting quarterback.

Griffin was asked about how well he gets along with Gruden when Thomas George of SB Nation explored the strained relationship between the two.

“I don't really know him and he doesn't really know me,” Griffin said. That sounds strange and damning at first, but he was actually daring to use common sense in his response.

“But how could that be any other way in only one year? It takes more time than that when you are talking about any great head coach/quarterback situation including the historical ones like Walsh/Montana and Belichick/Brady.”

A successful, winning relationship on that level takes more than time. It requires persistence from the quarterback and patience from the head coach. Even more importantly, it demands an absence of stubbornness and in its place a willingness from the coach to adjust while supporting his quarterback student. Steadfastly sticking to one approach is just fine, but only if it’s working.

Griffin may never be a confident pocket passer, or at least not on the level Gruden expects. He may never be able to make effective reads with quality field vision and then come to a decision quickly while getting the ball away fast. He may never fit that framework, though his talent as a mobile, athletic, read-option threat will lead to an opportunity elsewhere.

Cousins, meanwhile, looks more comfortable in Gruden’s offense, and as NFL Network’s Albert Breer quite rightly noted, there's greater confidence in his ability to execute:

But that confidence is really just overly conservative thinking in disguise.

Cousins feels safe because he’s conventional, whereas Griffin is a freewheeling wild card. Cousins can process what’s in front of him faster, while Griffin is too hesitant and constantly battling the instinct to tuck and run. That’s clear after he endured the punishment of 33 sacks in 2014 on only 265 dropbacks.

By selecting Cousins as the better short-term option, however, Gruden is communicating that he believes his new starting quarterback’s offensive fit trumps whatever athletic gifts Griffin offers. Fair enough, but the next implied statement—that Cousins can consistently be a better decision-makerdoesn’t sink in quite so well.

Gruden is trusting Cousins to do more than make quick decisions. He also needs to make good decisions. And regularly making good decisions isn’t really Cousins’ thing. In fact, he’s a maddeningly erratic decision-maker in the most bewildering way.

In 2014 Cousins started five games and made six total appearances. He finished with a per-attempt passing average of 8.4 yards, which broadly shows he has the arm and accuracy to work all areas of the field.

His 61.8 completion percentage was also perfectly serviceable, and a passer rating of 86.4 is respectable, too. A surface look indicates Cousins is exactly who you want in this situation when the projected starter falters. He may not be spectacular, but the 27-year-old can step in and run Gruden’s offense the way he intended it to function.

Then the urge to hide under a desk is overwhelming when you glance at another far darker digit associated with Cousins’ 2014 season.

Cousins threw nine interceptions on only 204 pass attempts and 213 total dropbacks. In 2014 four other quarterbacks matched Cousins’ interception total. Just for fun, let’s compare how many throws they needed to get there:

Cousins compared to other QBS with 9 INTs in 2014
QuarterbackInterceptionsPass attemptsDropbacks
Kirk Cousins9204213
Ben Roethlisberger9607648
Tom Brady9583613
Austin Davis9285320
Tony Romo9435474
Source: Pro Football Focus

St. Louis Rams backup quarterback Austin Davis is the outlier of that group, but even he needed 107 more dropbacks than Cousins to throw his nine picks. The other three far more established passers dwarf Cousins’ dropback and attempts totals, especially the SteelersBen Roethlisberger.

Cousins threw a touchdown pass on 4.9 percent of his attempts and an interception on 4.4 percent of his tosses in 2014. For more sad trombone perspective from another quarterback in the group of five above, the Cowboys’ Tony Romo threw a touchdown pass on 7.8 percent of his attempts and an interception on only 2.1 percent.

Saying Cousins can manage Gruden’s offense isn’t necessarily wrong. He has the basic fundamentals to scan, read and fire away. But saying he can do that with consistency and avoid crippling, drive-ruining mistakes is just, well, something you should never say.

Every interception is a bad interception. They erase scoring opportunities and often give the opposition prime field position. But some interceptions are more tolerable than others if, for example, the quarterback was taking a calculated risk deep downfield and paid for it. If an offense is rooted in deep passing, both coach and quarterback need to have short memories in that scenario.

But there’s a clear difference between acceptable risks that backfire and completely unnecessary dances with danger. The latter category summarizes most of Cousins’ NFL career so far. A four-interception game against the New York Giants in Week 4 of 2014 provides more than enough examples showing poor throws and worse judgement.

A lowlight came midway through the third quarter when the game was still within reach for Washington. The Redskins trailed by 10 points but had possession just shy of their own goal line. Care and caution were needed, and Cousins didn’t show much of either.

On 2nd-and-9, he dropped back deep into his own end zone. In football time he was granted several years to make a decision, as the Giants rushed four and fell into zone coverage. At the height of his dropback, Cousins had to pick between two options while keeping the scoreboard and his field position in mind:

Credit: NFL GamePass

He could be conservative and check down short. The conservative route usually isn’t such a bad idea when you’re 98 yards away from scoring. The worst-case scenario is an immediate tackle and still a slightly more manageable third down.

Or Cousins could choose to be ultra-aggressive. He had two receivers running vertically, and he was looking in the direction of Pierre Garcon to his left. Connecting with Garcon would result in an instant field-position shift, along with the possibility of quick points in a close game.

But completing the throw meant flirting with a razor-thin margin for error.

Quintin Demps was the single-deep safety in coverage, and he was shaded to the left hash. Cousins had to loft an arcing throw high enough to cover the 30-plus-yard distance through the air and clear the hands of cornerback Prince Amukamara. Yet, it also had to be short enough to avoid Demps, who was breaking in behind after getting a head start because Cousins stared down his target for too long.

Cousins chose door No. 2 and threw into an exceedingly narrow window after telegraphing his intentions. The result was about as predictable as any Harlem Globetrotters vs. Washington Generals matchup:

Credit: NFL GamePass

Overall, Cousins can make quality reads, but he’s undone too often by lapses in his vision and thinking.

Those poor decisions are jarring and all too common. In Week 3 of the preseason against the Baltimore Ravens, he threw an interception on a simple screen pass. And throughout his career, interceptions have come in bunches. He’s logged two-plus interceptions in six of his 14 game appearances. Worse, in 2014, seven of his nine picks came in only two games.

He’s deceiving in that sense, offering the illusion of safety while his mistakes are a waiting land mine. Like this one in the same Giants game when cornerback Trumaine McBride evidently put on a quarterback invisibility cloak:

Credit: NFL GamePass

That instance of blindness came when Cousins locked in on wide receiver Andre Roberts, who was running a sideline route from the slot as McBride waited short in zone coverage. Cousins failed to diagnose the coverage prior to the snap. His even greater failure was not seeing McBride.

Vision and judgment need to be embedded characteristics for quarterbacks. They can’t fade abruptly, only to return later. They need to form a firm foundation, and with them a quarterback can then develop and optimize nearly every possible scenario.

He’ll know when to check down, when to throw deep and when to launch a ball into the fifth row. He’ll know when to scramble and when to take punishment while completing a throw. Most of all, a quarterback who consistently makes quality decisions will execute within the designed offensive system.

If it’s consistency Gruden craves, he could get it from Cousins briefly. Then suddenly that mirage will dissolve away.

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