Kirk Cousins has a policy about honesty, and so he answers formal questions in a way many athletes might not. Asked about his heroic last-minute drive to win the game in Seattle, for example, Cousins talked about process over results, and how the Seahawks game was far from his best performance, and how he’s played far better in other games the team has lost, and how it’s fine for fans to get excited about a last-minute game-winning drive but he has to keep his eyes on other bench marks.
This isn’t typical. “All that matters is the win,” would be a typical answer, filled with references to grit and resilience and heart, with asides about how previous great performances in losses were meaningless.
Cousins offered another atypical answer on Monday, when 106.7 The Fan’s Grant Paulsen asked whether this season has been the best of his career. On paper, it seems obvious. Cousins lost his two best receivers in the offseason, has been without star tight end Jordan Reed much of the year, has gotten almost nothing from supposed No. 1 receiver Terrelle Pryor, has played behind a makeshift offensive line with makeshift weapons against the NFL’s hardest schedule, has lost both his first- and second-string running backs, and has relied on a 33-year-old tight end plus Ryan Grant in the passing game. And yet he keeps plugging along, running one of the league’s best passing attacks for a still-competitive team.
However. At this time a year ago, the Redskins were 6-3-1. Now, they’re 4-6. A less forthright player might have said something about how all that matters is the team’s record, and he can’t be playing his best if his team is below .500. Cousins instead acknowledged the obvious.
“That’s not even hard to think about,” he said. “I mean, it’s not even close. I’m playing my best football I’ve played.”
Not a lot of wiggle room there.
“Sean McVay used to always talk about there were just a few cornerstones of our offense, and one was continuous improvement,” Cousins went on. “He always said no matter how good you are, you’re always continually looking to improve. And if you’re not continuously improving, something is wrong.”
“And I’m encouraged by the fact that every year I’ve played, I’ve continued to improve,” Cousins said. “There’s no doubt, a year ago, two years ago, I’m not doing what I’m doing this year. It’s simply because I’ve gotten better, more experienced, have a better mastery of the offense. It enables me to still be productive as we’ve faced adversity. And I’m glad that we didn’t facet that adversity two years ago, because I probably wouldn’t have been able to have the production that I had, but now two years later it’s still possible. And I’m excited for two years from now, where I could be if I continue to stay healthy and go out there and play. Because every time I go out there, I get better and continue to improve.”
While some of this remains controversial among a fan base (and commentariat) that’s used to doubting him, the numbers seem rather convincing. (As does the eye test, at least inside my skull. Your skull may vary.) Cousins ranks fourth in the NFL in passing yards per game. He’s sixth in completion percentage. He’s fifth in yards-per-attempt. He’s seventh in passer rating — behind three future Hall of Famers (Brady, Brees and Rodgers), two sparkling youngsters (Wentz and Watson), plus Alex Smith.
He’s running the ball more effectively than ever, taking more chances, taking more hits, and doing all this with a collection of role players and a hapless running game while facing a brutal schedule.
“I can tell you from a national standpoint that Kirk Cousins is highly respected at this stage of his career,” longtime play-by-play voice Ian Eagle told the Junkies on Tuesday morning. “There are only a finite number of human beings that can play quarterback, start and win games for your football team in this league. He is in that group. And the respect level may be larger, in many ways, outside of the D.C. area than it is locally. And I’m not saying that to knock the perception. It’s just how it is. There are teams salivating with the chance to get Kirk Cousins on their roster.”
The Saints game is sort of a perfect embodiment of all these issues. Cousins played brilliantly, but his team lost. He made ridiculous plays that he just wouldn’t have made two years ago — the touchdown pass to Grant, the fourth-down throw to Vernon Davis, the deep balls to Josh Doctson, the scrambles — but his team lost. He made a couple crucial errors at an absolutely crucial moment, and those have received more focus than the team’s catastrophic defensive meltdown, meaning people have blamed Cousins for a loss after one of his best-ever performances.
“He was an A,” ESPN 980’s Chris Cooley said this week. “He was 94 percent on my grades, which is very rare, for anybody to be. He was exceptional in this game. You can go to hell if you think I’m wrong. Here’s what’s more: with blitz, or when you think he’s Checkdown Charlie, that’s when he took bigger shots. . . .”
“The team knows what he did,” Cooley said later. “The team knows what he’s been doing. And I think the team even has to see the growth. He had a good year [two] years ago. He had another good year in ‘16. He’s had a massive step up in some of the areas that he was lacking: off-schedule, throwing down the field vertically, hitting more big plays that were available, seeing things, growing in [Jay] Gruden’s offense. He’s had a huge step forward. This is his best year by far. It’s not even close.”
Cooley said the Redskins should have a long-term contract offer ready to present to Cousins as he walks into the locker room after this season’s final game, and it has to be massive enough to make Cousins look bad for refusing it. He wondered whether this season — with Gruden calling the plays, with a depleted roster of skill-position players, and with his continued strong play — might convince Cousins that this is the best place for him. And he asked why Cousins would want to leave if he’s now having the best season of his career.
At least about that last clause, there seems to be some consensus.
“Yeah, to answer your question, I’m playing my best football,” Cousins told Paulsen, “and I’m excited about that, and just continuing to try to get better.”