We’re five weeks into the Kirk Cousins era, and the Kirk Cousins debate has hardly simmered down. Washington’s starting quarterback has his vocal backers and his vocal critics, and every game manages to encourage one group, or sometimes both. As his merits continue to be dissected, one national figure has emerged as perhaps the biggest Cousins skeptic: ESPN’s Bomani Jones.
Jones has seemed to delight in needling Washington media members and fans about Cousins’s performance; he has become a regular part of the Cousins discourse. So I thought it might be interesting to exchange a few e-mails with Jones about how and why he became such an well-known Cousins skeptic. Our back-and-forth is below.
STEINBERG: I guess I would start like this: Obviously you aren’t shy about tweaking the Kirk Cousins supporters, and it feels to me like you write about the Redskins quarterback situation maybe more than any other situation in the league. So I’m wondering how you became so intrigued, if that’s the right word, with Washington’s quarterback situation (and the local media coverage of that situation), and why you continue to follow it so closely.
JONES: There are a few levels to this. They start with the rise and fall of Robert Griffin, which would intrigue anyone with an intellectual pulse, I’d think. The part that got me, though, was how Griffin became the villain, primarily for not being the same after a catastrophic injury that seemed to be preventable. It’s an odd reason to hate someone so much, but here we are.
Now, when Griffin was rushing back, my guess was he thought the head coach was looking for a reason to start his backup. Some argued that was paranoid thinking from Griffin, as the team had mortgaged its future to trade for him, so there was no chance Mike Shanahan or anyone else would not give Griffin his job back when he was ready. Fast forward to 2015, where the deposed Shanahan tells the world Kirk Cousins might become a Top 10 quarterback, and it looks like Griffin had the right idea.
So most of my interest started there. Even wrote a column in 2013 that saw a lot of this coming. [Note: Read the column here – DS.]
It now continues because, other than the Tebowmania epidemic of 2011, I’ve never seen fans and media root so hard for someone as mediocre as Cousins. When he got to start last season after Griffin broke his ankle, the local paper did a huge spread on him like he was anything other than the backup quarterback. It reminded me of when Cody Carlson got to start once when Warren Moon was hurt while I was growing up in Houston, and the local paper did the same thing. They were celebrating the backup quarterback rather than wondering if the team would be OK without its future Hall of Fame quarterback. It was strange when I was a kid, and it was strange with Cousins, who had done nothing to merit such optimism but have a good start against the Browns as a rookie. It made no sense to me, unless those behind him simply didn’t want Robert Griffin to be the starter. There was simply no reason to be so excited about an average-at-best talent.
Now, Griffin is on the bench. It makes sense, in many ways, for all parties involved. But the scrutiny he was under, the way his play was critiqued, simply isn’t the same as what’s happening with Cousins. The difference in how he’s treated by media, fans and his head coach is startling. It’s unavoidable. It’s comical. And it’s also disturbing.
So, as someone who cares about the way media works, I’m all in on this. And as someone who is willing to acknowledge the fact that the black quarterback, even in 2015, remains a provocative notion, I can’t pass up the chance to explore why, in 2015, things look so similar to how they did when the Oilers ran Warren Moon out of town for “Commander” Cody Carlson. Perhaps the obvious comparison between the two situations is too easy, but only a fool would discount it. I’m choosing to pay attention to it and see if we can figure out what the hell is going on here.
STEINBERG: Dang, “black quarterback” came up in the first response, before I could even gently broach the topic 18 sentences down! I agree there has always been a racial component to all of this, even though some people will now angrily stop reading. But before we get to that: Why are you so certain that Cousins is mediocre, and an average-at-best talent?
I think very few people are convinced that Cousins is anything more than that, other than Mike Shanahan, but there are a lot of people who argue it isn’t yet clear what he is. But you seem pretty convinced that it is clear, and that he’s nothing special. I just wonder where that certainty comes from. Isn’t it possible that the optimism surrounding him last month was just a normal-old product of NFL fans wanting to be optimistic about their favorite team in early September, rather than an irrational belief that Cousins is a budding star?
And the primary reason for any specific Cousins optimism usually relies on “he’s only had a few starts, mostly for bad teams, and we haven’t seen enough to know what he is yet.” Why don’t you buy that?
JONES: Well, it’s Cousins’ fourth year. He’s started a game every year, and he’s started multiple games in three of them. If there’s cause for optimism, I haven’t seen it, and that’s part of why this has confused me. He looked bad at the end of 2013. He got benched last season. He’s continued to make mistakes that he made in college, notably rushing to get the ball out at all costs and throwing interceptions because of the poor mechanics that come from rushing to get the ball out at all costs. He’s yet to demonstrate that he is capable of being very much.
Now, why don’t I buy that last part you mention? Robert Griffin started seven games in Gruden’s offense. Cousins has started 10. If Cousins played on bad teams previously, so did Griffin. If Griffin made everyone so angry with his poor play — which was not demonstrably worse than what you’ve seen with Cousins — then one would think the discussion would be about how there’s no quarterback on the roster, not that Cousins might be it.
So, we would agree both Griffin and Cousins have played mostly on bad teams. We’d also agree that, after hiring Bill Callahan and getting Jim Haslett out of town, the team surrounding the quarterback has been better this year than in recent memory. That means that Cousins has had these starts on a team better than any Griffin played for. Who would be optimistic about Griffin in this offense if he had three games out of five with two interceptions? So why is anyone optimistic about Cousins now? That’s not to say Griffin should be the starter. That is, however, asking why their mistakes are viewed so differently by everyone from fans and media to the head coach.
STEINBERG: Well, in fairness, I think there is a decent amount of discussion and uncertainty about whether or not there’s a quarterback on the roster. And there are also those outliers who continue to argue that Colt McCoy is the best quarterback on the roster.
I also think the Cousins defenders (which I’m not really — I’m agnostic) would argue that even when Cousins looks bad, it’s within the context of a relatively functional offense. When Griffin looked bad (against Tampa and San Francisco last year, and in the Detroit preseason game this year), it was as if the offense failed even to exist.
Regardless, why do you think media and fans here are looking at Cousins so unrealistically? Do you think this would happen in other cities or with other quarterbacks? Is it something about Washington, or something about Cousins, or something about Griffin? Because there aren’t very many local voices who are saying what you’re saying.
JONES: Count me as one of those who thinks Colt is the best option for the current situation. Of the guys we have seen in this system, he is the one who has looked the best. Perhaps he doesn’t look the part, but he looked the best. At the very least, I don’t know why that idea sounds so crazy to some, especially considering how unimpressive the current starter has been.
I think fans and media are unrealistic about Cousins because, after screaming so loudly for Griffin’s demotion, they’d like to be right. That’s why criticisms of Cousins are often followed by “but he’s better than Robert,” a guy who isn’t even active. What other explanation would there be for them, and Gruden, to work so hard to absolve Cousins of responsibility for all his mistakes, most recently an indefensible game-losing pick-6? Why else would they ignore how little faith Gruden actually shows Cousins through his play calling? All Cousins needs to do for many is not be Robert Griffin, but we’re long past the initial move. Now it’s time to be an NFL quarterback. What does one look like championing a guy who is, effectively, no better than the last guy?
Especially when he looks so similar to how he looked before. Which would imply this wasn’t just about football. I doubt anyone wants to ultimately acknowledge that.
STEINBERG: Again, I personally don’t think anyone is trying to absolve Cousins for his mistakes. I know and am friends with many of the people you’ve been tweaking during this whole debate, and I tend to think they’re not toting agendas or bad intentions. And I think they can still consider themselves right about Cousins, even if he plays poorly at times. In other words, he can make mistakes, and still be the right choice for this team at this time. But everything associated with the Skins QB position and with RGIII tends to incite strong emotions.
So what do you think should be done differently? What do you think Gruden should do with his quarterback position? What do you think media members should do in covering this team and that position that they’re not doing? What do you think fans should be doing differently? And how long do you think you’ll be captivated by following, and writing about, this situation? Because I think some people here think you’re actually the one who is obsessed in this scenario.
(Now I feel guilty for taking any sides on this issue. I agree with everyone about everything!)
JONES: I don’t know which of your friends you’re discussing, but not everyone’s doing the same thing. Some guys seem to me to be transparently full of it on this, and I deal with them as I would anyone else who I find to be transparently full of it. I don’t care what they do for a living. In many cases, it’s less the people than it is the things they’re saying. I call it “glass half full.” It’s the positive spin on whatever Cousins does, rather than the focus on what’s wrong that was at the forefront with the previous quarterback. For example, you said Cousins could play poorly “at times.” Looking at the interceptions, he plays poorly at least every other game. That isn’t just the occasional blip. Average one week, followed by poor the next, isn’t just something to be written off as breaks of the game.
And while you’re correct about all things R’s and their quarterbacks, not even Grossman or Beck made for something as incendiary as this one. Let’s not pretend the current state of affairs is just about the team. It’s very particular to this incarnation of the team. It brings in feelings about the owner, resentment of fans after decades of disappointment, and the tricky race thing that has to be explored, even if that scares the hell out of people.
What can fans do differently? They can do whatever they want. The day they’re uniformly rational is the day we all find new jobs. But media? Just treat Cousins’ performance as you would Griffin’s. Or maybe they should have treated Robert as they would Kirk. But if you wouldn’t have treated a two-pick game, including the pick-6 FTL, as nothing more than a data point for Griffin, then you can’t for Cousins. To do so is logically inconsistent at this point. And it is fair to demand media be consistent, especially with some of the variables discussed before.
And I’ll continue being compelled as long as it seems like people in the good sense business continue to deny their own because they just don’t want the other guy to start.
STEINBERG: Okay, so finally, we might as well deal with “the tricky race thing that has to be explored.” This situation, and RGIII in particular, certainly moves the meter more than anything having to do with John Beck or Rex Grossman. I’m not sure if it’s because of his celebrity, or his draft status, or his race, or some combination. I go back and forth with myself over whether there is any racial dynamic here (or how significant it is, more accurately), and my sense from the fan base is that Griffin’s critics are of all races. Certainly his media skeptics are.
But it also seems like an almost untouchable topic, because it’s so tricky to know how much this matters. I know some fans believe race has played a role in how Griffin has been treated, but there are also those who get very angry at this suggestion, as if the franchise hasn’t drafted Jason Campbell, and poured resources into Donovan McNabb and Griffin. As if Doug Williams never happened.
For 12 months, Griffin was the most popular sports figure in town, and seemed certain to become the most popular sports figure in D.C. history. His jersey still dominates at FedEx Field. How could a guy like that be brought down by his race? How could we have spent two years wondering if Griffin was being inappropriately propped up by the team because of his popularity, and then immediately switch to wondering if he’s being held back because of his race?
So how do you think race figures into all this? How much different would things have been if both quarterbacks were white, or both were black?
JONES: I don’t think there are easy answers on race and Griffin. After all, in 2012, he had the potential to be, in the eyes of many, a “postracial” superstar. Save for those silly braids and the fact he’s fast, his blackness wasn’t viewed through a stereotypical lens. The standard assumptions of black pathology were obviously dismissed by the well-spoken kid with military parents, who was engaged to his college sweetheart and graduated from Baylor before his final season of college football. He checked all the boxes, and wound up beloved immediately in a way that made it easy to say that racism, as it related to quarterbacks, was over. He was treated similarly to the star white quarterbacks of the day.
Then he came back in 2013 and didn’t play well. The obvious answer as to why was the injury. If that bought him patience, I didn’t see it. The tenor around him seemed to lack the general “it takes time to come back from injuries like these.” The discussion moved to Griffin’s insistence on playing in the pocket, something many thought was almost a betrayal of his skill set. Part of that was understandable, given the success he had running the read option. The other part seemed lodged in the same stereotypes that every quarterback had to fight.
Could he play from the pocket? Could he learn to read defenses? Was he a leader? Was he simply a gimmick that the league caught up to? Hardly any black quarterback who’s had any NFL success has avoided those questions. Few white quarterbacks have ever had to answer them.
So, to illustrate where race becomes a factor, let’s compare Griffin to Cousins. While the question has been raised whether Griffin could be a quarterback, it never comes up with Cousins. Sure, Cousins played in a pro system at Michigan State, but that wasn’t a pro offense. Why wasn’t it? Because it wasn’t in the pros. So, given his propensity for turnovers and this season’s proclivity for checkdowns, why isn’t anyone asking whether Cousins can play from the pocket? His decision-making, like Griffin’s, has been suspect at times. Like Griffin, he’s struggled with turnovers. And, like Griffin, his teams have not been successful with him at the helm in the last two-plus seasons.
Given that, why do we just assume Cousins can play from the pocket? Because he did so in college? Anyone can play from the pocket. All you have to do is be in the damn thing. Not everyone, however, can play well from it. Cousins hasn’t shown he can. So why isn’t that the question about him?
It’s easy: we assume white quarterbacks can do that, and it’s something black ones have to prove. So, even in spite of all the success Griffin had, it’s almost as if it didn’t count because it wasn’t done in a conventional way. That is something I rarely, if ever, have to see a white quarterback answer for. Closest I can come on that is Tim Tebow, and that doesn’t count because he was terrible.
Now, as you mentioned, one could pull up examples like Jason Campbell and Donovan McNabb to say “race doesn’t matter with quarterbacks,” but they’d be silly to do so. Campbell was basically the replacement player, but how long was anyone as excited about him as they are about Cousins, who hasn’t been as good as Campbell was? As for McNabb, the word out of Redskins Park about him was effectively that he was fat, dumb and lazy. It was couched by saying he was out of shape, couldn’t learn the offense and didn’t have a strong work ethic, but that’s fat, dumb and lazy. I think we’d all agree that sounds awfully familiar.
So was Griffin held back by race? Probably not. But how could one dismiss the possibility that race plays a role in how polarizing he’s become, especially as his white replacement has been evaluated through a totally different prism for over two years? How could we not think race plays a role when Mike Shananan, whom Washington radio shows foolishly keep calling as if he wasn’t a failure with the team, talks about how Griffin would take four or five years to become a pocket passer, but keeps talking about how good Cousins will be … into the fourth year of his career? And how can we ignore the lineage of this franchise, the one George Preston Marshall ran as the team of the South, a team so many root for now because they did for generations?
Again, I have no easy answers on it. But you’d either have to be dumb or in denial to ignore the possibility race is a part of things, and I’d argue only someone with an agenda would pretend the white guy, in this case, isn’t treated in a much nicer way when than the black one was at times when both were mediocre.
When a response to something is incongruent and illogical, racism usually follows. When I talk to people about Griffin and/or Cousins, code usually follows. If it walks like a duck, talks like a duck, it might not be a duck. But I’m damn sure not gonna say it isn’t until someone can show me why it’s not. Especially not when ducks are everywhere you look.