The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

One vocal skeptic explains why he still thinks Kirk Cousins is a bottom-tier NFL starter

(Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

Kirk Cousins rewrote the Redskins passing record book over the past two seasons, in the process winning over a huge portion of Washington’s fan base, but he clearly hasn’t convinced all his doubters. Among the most public of those has been Cian Fahey, a freelance football writer living in Ireland whose film breakdowns have frustrated Cousins supporters and encouraged their opposites.

Whether you put faith in those breakdowns is an individual decision, but I wanted to ask Fahey about sticking by his skepticism even as the world tilted toward Cousins’s side. As should be clear, I mostly don’t share his opinions. We conducted this lightly edited back and forth via email last week. It possibly has a different feel on this Tuesday.

I guess my first question is kind of general. When did you realize you were more skeptical about Cousins than so many others, and why do you think that happened? Because for a long time, virtually the whole world was skeptical about Cousins. So when and why did your view sort of become less mainstream?

Good question. I guess it was towards the end of last season. That’s when the stats began to turn. The foundation of mainstream evaluation is stats, and those stats are assigned to the individual quarterback. Philosophically, I don’t work that way. I see the stats as team numbers rather than individual player numbers, and even then a 16-game, 60-play-per-game sample isn’t big enough to truly glean anything. Compare it to the NBA, where it’s 82 games and about 100 possessions per game. For that reason, I’m used to having outsider opinions. I’ve been through it with guys like Josh Freeman, Nick Foles, Josh McCown, Brian Hoyer, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Blake Bortles, and am still doing it to a degree with Derek Carr.

FWIW: Before the season I went through every play for Cousins last year and wrote about how what I saw differentiated from what others saw.

Do you ever doubt yourself when you find you have an outsider opinion — one that feels extremely outsider in this case?

I don’t really doubt myself. I also understand what I do has its limitations, and I’m not overly concerned with being perceived as being right or wrong. I don’t care about “embrace debate” or if someone disagrees with me; I care about the work I’m doing and I strive to do that the best I possibly can. I’m more likely to be annoyed at myself if someone asks me about a player and I haven’t watched enough of him to comment, rather than if I say I don’t think he’s a good player and then he goes out and produces big numbers. In general, I hate predictions, but they are often a necessity in this line of work.

The Redskins needed a big game from Kirk Cousins, but he just didn’t have it

Anything I do is only offering my opinion from my perspective. When you go through every play for every quarterback two and three times over the course of 12 months, you tend to have a lot of information and enough evidence to create an informed point of view. The problem has often been showing that work to readers, who are married to the established methods of evaluation. That’s why I created the Pre-Snap Reads Quarterback Catalogue, and why I will publish that each year. The subjective charting helps to backup where my opinion comes from, and the chapters on each quarterback go into great detail about each player’s specific skill set and performance on a weekly basis.

Do you think at this point Cousins could do anything to convince you he has improved, or is a better-than-average QB? Or do you think that is baked into who he is as a player?

Sure. Contrary to popular belief my opinions change pretty regularly — week-to-week actually, since I have to do the Bleacher Report rankings this season. The problem is they change based on how each quarterback plays, rather than how effective the whole offense is perceived to be. This happened with Alex Smith midway through last year. He stopped being too cautious for a long stretch and made better decisions, even if that came with greater risk. He has regressed to his regular self mostly this year. For Cousins specifically, I need to see him react better to pressure; show more precision as a passer rather than relying on his receivers to consistently make difficult adjustments; and see the field better, especially in the red zone.

All the things you need to see more of from Cousins make sense. But I think locally, there’s at least a perception that for all his weaknesses, he still winds up being above average as an NFL quarterback, and certainly a worthy starter. I’ve written that myself repeatedly. Do you agree with that? (I assume not.) If not, why do you think we’re all wrong? 

I think Cousins is a player who is elevated by those around him rather than someone who elevates those around him. He limits what the offense puts out and makes too many plays that hurt their chances of winning games.

Look at both Cowboys games this year: In the first one he repeatedly left plays on the field; in the second he was the primary reason they couldn’t finish drives off with touchdowns in the first half. The fourth quarter of that Cowboys game was similar to the fourth quarter of the Steelers game in Week 1, where he was still checking the ball down despite being behind two scores with time running out. Look at the Arizona game, when the Cardinals were aggressive and sent pressure late in the game. His reactions were those of someone who lacks poise. He missed a wide-open receiver for a first down before missing a wide-open receiver on the interception to Patrick Peterson, Jamison Crowder was gone for a touchdown on that play, too.

The place where I was wholly wrong on Washington wasn’t the quarterback, it was the tight end. Jordan Reed has become Gronk-like in how he impacts games, and that isn’t something I ever thought he’d do.

That’s probably long-winded. Essentially: Look at the plays Cousins leaves on the field. Those are just as significant as the plays he makes, if not more significant, considering the supporting cast. If the supporting cast wasn’t one of the very best in the league, those plays would be focused on a lot more. It would be Nick Foles on the Rams as opposed to Nick Foles on the Eagles.

For the Redskins, Monday remains the saddest night

So where do you rank him among NFL QBs? And — at the risk of being repetitive — the numbers he’s putting up are pretty impressive, devoid of context. So with what you’ve said above, I assume that means you believe lots of QBs perceived as below average could be plugged into Washington’s offense and would produce the same numbers?

The NFL1000 ranks quarterbacks each week, but won’t have season-long rankings until the end of the year. I’m personally not a huge fan of straight rankings. I prefer tiers, because ranking guys one-by-one involved a lot of hair splitting. To me, he’s a bottom tier starter, which is roughly 24-32.

And yes, if I had to choose between paying $25 million per year for Cousins or $7 million per year for Brian Hoyer, I’d pay Hoyer. That is what Scot McCloughan essentially said before the season: he wanted to create a situation where the QB only needed to be good for the offense to be great.

But do you think Hoyer, or Colt McCoy, would be putting up the same numbers? I get that you think $7 million for Hoyer is a better value than $25 million for Cousins, but would the Redskins be 7-5-1 behind Hoyer? I guess that’s the key question.

Yes. I think Hoyer would give you the same results. McCoy probably not.

I’ve got to ask this, and I don’t mean it as a slight. I’m just curious: How did you get into this business, and this gig of breaking down tape and analyzing quarterbacks? Because there are plenty of people who would ask “Why should I believe anything Cian Fahey says about NFL quarterbacks?” They say that about Dan Steinberg, too, but I’m generally offering far less technical (and opinionated) breakdowns than you.

I started out as a journalist. I have a degree in journalism and wrote for the Guardian, among other websites. I still do some articles over there from time to time. I started doing tape breakdowns because I enjoyed doing them. I did them on my own site for free for a short time, and they gained traction with other writers/players/scouts so I kept doing them. Then employers wanted to pay me to do film breakdowns rather than more journalistic pieces, so I followed the money.

I have never proclaimed myself as anything. I’m not a player or coach. My work is here for those who want it. If you want it, that’s cool. If you don’t, that’s cool too. I just focus on doing my job thoroughly and that has served me well so far.

I assume you have seen every snap Cousins took over the past two years. Is he a better quarterback now than he was in September 2015? Has his performance this year — when many people thought he might regress — surprised you at all? Or is he still what you always thought he was?

The big difference is he has cut down on the mind-numbingly bad interceptions. A lot of the interceptions he had earlier in his career were inexplicable. At least now when he gives defenders chances at catching the ball, you can point to what he was thinking. Such as the interception in Philadelphia, where he tried to make a far-hash-to-sideline throw and just didn’t have the arm strength to get it there before the defender. Part of that development is also a more cautious overall approach, so the benefit to the offense is offset slightly.

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