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Balance Must Be Calling Card of Kirk Cousins-Led Washington Redskins Offense

James Dudko@@JamesDudkoFeatured ColumnistSeptember 8, 2015

Aug 29, 2015; Baltimore, MD, USA; Washington Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins (8) drops back to pass before the game against the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports
Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Kirk Cousins at quarterback can give the Washington Redskins the best offense they've had since the 1999 season. But only if there's balance.

True balance must be the calling card of a Cousins-led offense. That doesn't just mean a balance between run and pass plays, although more symmetry between the two is important.

Yet, true balance in this case also means striking a happy medium between calling a game that protects Cousins while still working in Washington's bevy of talented receivers.

It's a mix that calls for a strategy based on smart aggression. Fortunately, Cousins is exactly the right quarterback to help the Redskins find this invaluable mix.

Installing him under center means head coach Jay Gruden has guaranteed this season's offense will operate based on what's effective for the whole unit. The alternative would be another season of skewing an entire system to cover up Robert Griffin III's many faults.

Gruden has to be smarter with his game plans this season.
Gruden has to be smarter with his game plans this season.Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Cousins offers balance because his superior pocket-based passing means the aerial attack can be more than just the unwanted stepchild of the running game.

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Of course, it's always a good idea for this Washington team to lean on the run. After all, the backfield features three-time 1,000-yard rusher Alfred Morris.

Rookie Matt Jones has also looked very impressive this preseason, averaging seven yards per carry, per Mike Jones of the Washington Post. Then there's Bill Callahan, the premier line coach whose career arc reveals an affinity for designing prolific ground games.

But this season's offense has to be about bringing the run and pass priorities closer together. At various times during the last three years, one has usually featured disproportionally more than the other.

For instance, in 2012, RG3's explosive rookie season, the Redskins ran the ball 519 times compared with 442 pass attempts, per Pro-Football-Reference.com. The same site notes how in 2014, Washington ran the ball 401 times compared with 547 pass attempts.

That was the Redskins' first year under Gruden's watch. It was a year supposed to be dominated by the project to turn Griffin into a competent pocket passer.

The emphasis on RG3 was reflected in Gruden's early play-calling. Washington aired it out 37 times during a close game on the road against the Houston Texans in Week 1. The Redskins ran the ball 23 times, with three of those by Griffin, not all of which were planned.

Being so pass-happy is hardly a formula for success on the road, even in today's NFL. Having Griffin drop back so often, only subjected Washington's suspect O-line to a fierce, J.J. Watt-led pass rush.

The pass-heavy play-calling stunted Washington's offense in Week 1 last season.
The pass-heavy play-calling stunted Washington's offense in Week 1 last season.Bob Levey/Getty Images

By contrast, the rebuilding Texans had veteran signal-caller Ryan Fitzpatrick put the ball in the air a mere 22 times. He missed on just eight throws.

Fitzpatrick's efficiency was helped enormously by Houston's 32 rushing attempts, 29 of which were designed runs. The Texans had been smart, while Washington had been unbalanced and wasted a productive effort from Morris—14 carries for 91 yards.

But things changed in a hurry the next week, once Griffin had limped off the field against the Jacksonville Jaguars and Cousins replaced him. Trying to make a case that Cousins is a better fit for this offense, here's what I wrote about the play-calling:

One week after not featuring it enough, Gruden's offense ran the ball 42 times for 191 yards. This should always be a run-first offense. Yet with Griffin under center, the play-calling often seems as though it's designed to try out what he can and can't do, rather than what works best for the whole unit.

With that level of support from Morris and company, it's little wonder Cousins looked so assured. He completed 22 passes, notably spread among seven different receivers, for 250 yards, a pair of touchdowns and no interceptions.

This speaks to what the man who drafted both Griffin and Cousins recently said about the latter. Ex-Redskins coach Mike Shanahan told 106.7 The Fan's Grant Paulsen (h/t Dan Steinberg of the Washington Post), just how much Cousins benefits from a balanced attack:

If you put a guy like Kirk Cousins in and you run the ball 30 to 35 times a game, and then you look back at the success that he had, you’d say, holy cow, look at those stats — when it’s a balanced offense. You can’t put in a guy that’s started nine games in the National Football League and ask him to win games week in and week out in the passing game. It just doesn’t work that way.

It's becoming a little uncomfortable to realize just how much I'm agreeing with Shanahan these days. That was hardly ever the case when he patrolled the sidelines for the Burgundy and Gold.

Shanahan rightly stresses balance as the key to unlocking Cousins' full potential.
Shanahan rightly stresses balance as the key to unlocking Cousins' full potential.Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

But the opportunist autocrat is absolutely right about two things in this instance. The first is how effective Cousins is when he has play-calling that protects him.

Probably the prime example comes from his rookie season when Cousins subbed for an injured Griffin in Week 15. Facing the Cleveland Browns on the road, Cousins threw 37 times, but he was also supported by 35 runs. Even though three came from the quarterback, that's still 32 rushing attempts, a figure that meets the parameter of Shanahan's magic formula.

This mixture produced 451 yards of offense and 38 points.

But if you want to know what the flip-side of the Cousins two-headed coin looks like, consider any game he started after Week 3 last season. How about Week 4 against the New York Giants and the Week 6 road trip to take on the Arizona Cardinals.

Cousins accounted for seven interceptions over the course of these two games. But it's also fair to say he wasn't helped by Gruden's pass-crazed formula.

Washington ran the ball just 17 times against Big Blue, while Cousins aired it out 33 times. Granted, falling 14-0 behind in the opening quarter didn't help. But there's no doubt Gruden got the balance wrong in Week 4.

Things were a lot closer against the Cardinals. Yet the Redskins still ran it a mere 17 times, while Cousins put the ball in the air on 38 occasions.

Arizona having a pretty mean run defense is no excuse. Teams can run the ball on the Cards, but it takes a commitment. Better that than constantly exposing an inexperienced quarterback to the most blitz-happy team in football.

Cousins was left exposed too often last season.
Cousins was left exposed too often last season.Christian Petersen/Getty Images

This isn't simply yet another call for the Redskins to run the ball more than they throw it. But Gruden certainly needs greater balance in his game plans.

In this context, it becomes just as important to indulge Washington's host of game-breaking pass-catchers alongside a steady dose of running. This is particularly important when you have DeSean Jackson, Pierre Garcon, Andre Roberts and Jordan Reed available to throw to.

With Griffin leading the offense, three of that quartet would go to waste, thanks to No. 10's predilection for zeroing in on a familiar target. But with Cousins around, Gruden can feel confident about sharing the wealth.

A perfect illustration comes from Week 3's road loss to the Philadelphia Eagles last season. In Washington's best offensive performance of the year, Cousins hit on 30 of 48 passes for 427 yards and three scores.

But what was most impressive was how he got so many of the team's primary weapons involved. Here's how Rich Tandler of Real Redskins broke things down at the time:

Garçon had 138 yards receiving while DeSean Jackson had 117. The last time the Redskins had two receivers with over 100 yards was when Laveranues Coles (180) and Rod Gardner (118) accomplished the feat at Atlanta on Sept. 13, 2003.

...

The Redskins posted 511 yards of total offense. The last time they had more yards than that in a game was on November 11, 1991 against the Atlanta Falcons. They also had 511 yards in a 1999 game against the 49ers.

When you have receivers as good as Jackson and Garcon, that's how some of your stat lines should look. But that day in Philly wasn't just about the big two. Cousins also hooked up with tight end Niles Paul half a dozen times.

Washington won't waste its marquee receivers in this season's offense.
Washington won't waste its marquee receivers in this season's offense.Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Are you getting the point yet? With Cousins playing quarterback, the Redskins won't waste one of the NFL's best contingents of pass-catching playmakers.

So you can expect to see more even distribution between Garcon and Jackson. But you should also be ready for a bigger workload for the unfairly maligned Roberts, as well as productive cameos from Ryan Grant and Jamison Crowder.

Just one final note on that shootout with the Eagles: Although they pushed toward the half-century mark in pass attempts, the Redskins also ran the ball 28 times.

Admittedly, that's still quite a difference in emphasis. But here's the real truth about balance. It isn't solely defined by achieving symmetry between run and pass attempts.

A genuinely balanced attack is one that can pick its poison from week to week. Want to stack up against the run and shut down Morris and Jones? Fine, we'll air it out to Jackson, Garcon and others while stretching your coverage to breaking point.

Double covering some of these weapons? OK, here comes Morris, Jones and more Morris as we bid to induce death by 1,000 draw, counter and stretch runs.

OK, you get the picture.

With a pass attack no longer limited by what Griffin can't do, Washington has this chameleon-like ability on offense. Last season's 19th-ranked running game will also be better thanks to a more expansive aerial assault.

It all adds up to a unit capable of putting points on the board against anyone. After that Eagles game, yours truly called for Cousins to get the nod for the rest of the season, during which I first referenced Tandler's breakdown and the potential to replicate 1999's free-scoring group. It was a call that was soon made to look foolhardy thanks to No. 8's spate of interceptions.

Cousins will be better for last season's experiences.
Cousins will be better for last season's experiences.Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

But the scoring potential referenced then, still holds true now: "However, since he's been running the show, the offense has amassed 75 points. That's a level of output that gives the Redskins a chance to win any game."

Cousins is getting another chance, but he must be supported by balance. He claims an increased comfort with the Gruden playbook, according to Liz Clarke of the Washington Post.

But it will be just as important for Gruden to show he can better fit his offense around 2012's fourth-round pick.

All statistics and player information via Pro-Football-Reference.com and NFL.com.

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