Kirk Cousins Is Slowly Improving, But Needs to Get To Play With Swagger to Take the Next Step

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Here’s a thing that you never thought you’d hear from me; I think Kirk Cousins has played pretty well the last couple weeks.

He still has his moments where you’d rather punt him into the sun than have him quarterback the team, but there has been a slow but steady uptick in his overall play during the course of the season. He’s (generally) been more accurate, his throws (generally) have had a little more umph, and all told, when Cousins gets it going, he looks like a capable NFL starter.

That’s not to say the Redskins shouldn’t look to upgrade the position, or give Cousins a big fat extension to keep him around. All it means is that Cousins is playing at an acceptable level, and isn’t entirely the reason the Redskins lost in last week’s match-up versus the Patriots, and that one hopes he keeps it up over the back half of the season.

With Rex Grossman (the guy Kirk Cousins gets most often compared to), the story was always whether Good Rex or Bad Rex would show up. Sometimes Good Rex would show up in the first, then Bad Rex would show up in the second. Sometimes it was vice versa. Sometimes they could happen on back-to-back drives.

With Cousins, I’m not sure there is a “Good Kirk” and a “Bad Kirk” as much as there’s a Swaggy Kirk and a Unconfident Kirk.

When Kirk is feeling it and things are going his way, he’s more than capable of throwing darts and leading last second comebacks. When the game starts to get away from him, he faulters, his play drops off, and the team around him isn’t good enough to elevate him back to a decent level.

Take, again, Sunday’s game versus the Patriots. Cousins first throw was a laser that bounced off Garcon’s hands and was intercepted. Still, Cousins came back on the second drive and did a great job of manipulating the pocket, stepping up and laying in a beauty to Derek Carrier…that was promptly dropped. Cousins came back with a throw short of the sticks that was dropped by Reed.

As the points piled on and the drops added up, Cousins didn’t press. He didn’t take unnecessary chances to get back in the game, as he might’ve last season. But you could see it in his play that, as the team struggled to succeed on the routine plays, his confidence wavered, and he did not have as good a second half as he did in the first.

Cousins seems to get into his own head too often, which makes him less risk averse. That’s only compounded by two things; an offensive scheme that encourages not taking chances, and the background noise of people who flip out when he makes a mistake.

One has to remember that Cousins was put in a bad position by head coach Jay Gruden from the start. After Gruden annihilated RGIII last season, it was only natural that the guy he kept picking to start was going to face intense scrutiny, and it didn’t help when Gruden seemed to go out of his way to avoid critiquing Cousins fairly.

It painted a picture of inequity between the two, pitted the two teammates against each other, and gave off the impression that Gruden was doing so because Cousins couldn’t suffer the slings and arrows the way RGIII could.

In reality, all it did was create two quarterbacks terrified of making a mistake, less they have to answer to a divided fanbase and story starved media.

Now, Cousins is the unquestioned starter, and RGIII is on the bench. The chances RGIII starts a game this year barring an injury are basically nil. (This is despite it being an actual talking point that Cousins is playing poorly — which he really isn’t, BTW — because he’s scared RGIII will play. Because RGIII is the root of all evil and steals candy from babies.)

But Cousins isn’t showing the confidence in himself to step up and take those next level plays, still playing like he’s a back-up. His Yards-Per-Attempt is still an abysmal 6.3; his adjusted yards-per-attempt stands at 5.7.

Again, part of that is a scheme devised by Jay Gruden and Sean McVay that more or less demands not taking chances. It’s not that the scheme doesn’t get guys open for bigger plays; it’s that the spent the entirety of the offseason and training camp telling their quarterbacks that they…well, that they had to be ordinary. That they didn’t have to play hero ball, to get the ball out of their hands quickly and move on to the next play.

Cousins has done that; his quick delivery is part of the reason the Redskins have only given up eight sacks on the season. But it’s also part of the reason that the offense produces few big plays and why teams can more or less sell out to stop the run first. The chances of getting beat deep with this group of receivers aren’t very high. Teams will give up those shallow crossing routes, screens to wide receivers and checkdowns to running backs all day. It gives the appearance that the offense is “moving”, but just because yards are getting gained, doesn’t mean the passing game is productive. (As evidence by the fact that Redskins currently rank 28th in points-per-game.)

Now, Gruden is extolling the virtue of improvising, of Cousins taking those chances and not being scared of making a mistake. Saying this after you essentially build a scheme around not doing so is funny and puts the burden on Cousins for not making bigger plays, which is the kind of slight passing-of-the-buck that Jay has become so, so good at.

But he’s not entirely wrong. Now, when Cousins does improvise (such as the drop by Carrier), people have to catch the ball. But even within the course of a game, Cousins could do so much better.

Take for example, DeSean Jackson. Jackson is quickly becoming the scapegoat for a lost season, because RGIII is benched and Alfred Morris is non-existent and Jordan Reed is healthy and playing again, so “DeSean Jackson” is next on the list of offensive players to get miffed at.

Jackson can be a frustrating guy because he’s not going to get all his yardage the dirty way someone like Pierre Garcon does. He’s not really a screen or shallow cross guys; he’s going to make his plays in the intermediate and deep levels of the field, the two places Cousins has struggled to make plays.

Jackson got knocked for some out of context quotes after the game, but there were a couple times where Cousins could’ve taken a shot for the big play receiver and didn’t. The old adage with a guy like Cousins is “if he’s even, he’s leavin’.” Facing a third and ten in a game that was getting away from them, Cousins chose a 2 yard out to Jamieson Crowder over taking a shot deep to DeSean Jackson, who was even with Malcolm Butler. Even giving D-Jax a shot to pull that ball down is better than a two yard route that won’t get you what you the first.

But that’s sort of been Cousins’ MO. Several times this season, the Redskins have managed to scheme a receiver open deep, only for Cousins to short arm the throw. It’s not that he can’t throw deep; Cousins has more than enough functional arm strength to throw vertically down the field (it’s in those intermediate routes in the middle of the field where his lack of arm talent starts to show up); it’s Cousins playing it safe, trying to complete the pass instead of just letting it rip.

Or, it’s Cousins taking a checkdown or route short of the sticks just to get the ball out instead of taking his time and trying to make a bigger play down the field.

“Get the ball out quickly and keep the chains moving” seems to have been a coaching point that was drilled over and over in Cousins head, and now, it’s adversely effecting his ability to play fast and throw with confidence.

And who knows; maybe Cousins taking those chances would result in more turnovers, and we’d all bemoan how he wasn’t playing smart. But I’d argue that a bigger issue fans have with Cousins than just the turnovers, is his reaction to them. There was a time when people would get frustrated that interceptions never seemed to bother Rex Grossman. But in some ways, that was Grossman’s biggest strength; he accepted turnovers as part of the game (albeit too big of one for him), and had full confidence in himself to go play at a high level.

That is the step Cousins must take next; to not just take the chances, but to realize that even the best quarterbacks make crap throws. The difference is whether or not you allow those early mistakes to pile up, or whether you learn from them and don’t keep making the same mistakes over and over.

Cousins needs some more pep in his step and to play with less fear. The worst that could happen is that Washington benches him, at which point he’d still probably have his pick of teams that would sign him to a good deal to be a back-up and maybe compete for a starting job.

Be more swaggy, Kirk. It can’t possibly hurt. Suffice it to say, if it paid off, I think we’d all like that.

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