In the days leading up to last Sunday’s rout of the New Orleans Saints, Washington Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins made a suggestion to the offensive coaching staff.
Instead of running one of the plays designed expressly for third-down-and-short yardage — a low-risk medley of handoffs and screen passes tailored to eke out a fresh set of downs — Cousins proposed throwing deep to DeSean Jackson if he saw the speedy wide receiver defended by a lone cornerback.
Less than two minutes into the game, after a woefully executed kickoff return and back-to-back holding penalties mired the Redskins at their 10-yard line, Cousins faced third and four.
So the moment he noticed a single cornerback covering Jackson, with the free safety not drifting over to help, Cousins heaved the ball to his streaking receiver, who’d separated nicely from Keenan Lewis, and dropped the ball in his outstretched hands for a 42-yard gain.
The completion didn’t mark a major turning point, given that the game had barely gotten underway. But it represented one more step in Cousins’s evolution as an NFL starter, growing incrementally more confident and capable each week.
Statistics illustrate his progress.
After throwing eight interceptions and six touchdown passes through the first six games, Cousins has thrown just one interception with eight touchdown passes in the past three games. (And that recent interception was the fault of the wide receiver.)
In the 47-14 victory over the Saints, he completed 20 of 25 throws for 324 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions to earn a perfect NFL passer rating of 158.3.
That came three weeks after he orchestrated the biggest comeback in Redskins history, a 31-30 triumph over Tampa Bay after falling behind 24-0 in the first half.
As a result, Cousins was twice named NFC offensive player of the week, and his stock is rising. Widely viewed as the Redskins’ “least bad” option among a flawed trio of quarterbacks when the season started, he’s now regarded as a valuable asset that the team should cultivate.
Coach Jay Gruden has said he’d like to have him back in 2016, a sentiment shared by many at Redskins Park.
“Definitely!” said Pro Bowl left tackle Trent Williams, asked whether he hoped Cousins would return. “I definitely would.”
Whether the Redskins will do what’s necessary to keep Cousins, who becomes an unrestricted free agent in March, is an open question. It’s also unclear whether Cousins will want to hitch his future to the Redskins, given the history of turmoil and turnover, if playoff contenders dangle offers.
Few would have predicted this plot twist when Washington took Cousins three rounds behind Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III in the 2012 draft. From that moment, Cousins was cast as a backup with no prospect of advancement.
But Griffin’s injuries and subsequent struggles created an opening. After glimpses of promise, as well as some cringe-worthy mistakes in spotty relief, Cousins appears to be finding his footing. If his progress continues, he’ll likely become a hot commodity next spring, particularly given the dearth of serviceable veteran quarterbacks on the free agent market and the thin pipeline of NFL-ready prospects coming out of college.
“Starting quarterbacks are not easy to come by,” said former Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann, “and Kirk has proven in a very short amount of time how he has grown in the position and how he has taken ownership of the position.”
That’s not to say Cousins has convinced everyone that his upside outweighs his down.
Skeptics point out that his perfect passer rating came against a New Orleans defense that has made a string of quarterbacks look like world-beaters. Moreover, all four Redskins victories to date have come against teams with losing records (St. Louis, Philadelphia and Tampa Bay are each 4-5; New Orleans is 4-6).
But coaches and players who work with Cousins see evidence of progress beyond statistics.
“He’s gaining game experience,” said Williams, the left tackle charged with protecting Cousins’s blind side. “He has never been handed the keys to a team. . . . So that’s a bit of a culture change.
“Now, he’s way more comfortable. He got his feet wet. He’s just more comfortable in being ‘that guy.’ I think that’s the difference. It’s not that he has made throws he couldn’t make before. He has always had a talented arm; he has always been a talented quarterback. It’s just now, it’s all about him. The team is his.”
Of Cousins’s 18 starts, the first nine were spread over three seasons. The rest have been compressed into less than three months. That weekly diet of live action is far more instructive than studying film or practicing without threat of getting tackled.
As a result, according to offensive coordinator Sean McVay, Cousins is reading defenses more quickly, making sharper decisions and better gauging when he has an extra half-second to make a more aggressive throw or improvise off-script.
“He’s able to process information, eliminate quickly and get through his progression very quickly to where it doesn’t stress our offensive line or the timing and rhythm of a certain play,” McVay said. “I think the more live reps he gets, the better he’s gonna be and the more comfortable he’ll play. You can start to see his confidence grow each week.”
Certainly Cousins is better at staying steady regardless of the situation around him. Last season, he grew visibly dejected after a series of bad plays or compounded one interception with another in an effort to redeem himself.
As this season has unfolded, he has shown fourth-quarter moxie rather than fourth-quarter meltdowns, beating Philadelphia on a four-yard pass to Pierre Garcon with 26 seconds remaining and orchestrating a 24-second scoring drive to force overtime at Atlanta.
“When things don’t go well, he stays the course, has a one-play-at-a-time mind-set,” McVay said. “That’s where you’re really starting to see progress. Just stay in the moment. Don’t feel, ‘I’ve got to get it all back at once.’ Take each play one at a time, and we’ll start to get things back on track.”
Teammates past and present have spoken about Cousins’s command in the huddle and toughness under fire, describing a fierceness he rarely displays off the field. The video of him shouting “You like that!” following the comeback against Tampa Bay offered fans a rare window into that.
It’s what Panthers cornerback Josh Norman remembers most about the Michigan State quarterback he trained with before the 2012 NFL draft.
“His poise and morale is great,” Norman said this past week. “He’s a great leader, I feel. . . . He’s always been smart in timing with his throws. I just can’t say enough good things about him.”
Rookie Matt Jones, who rolled up 187 yards of offense against the Saints, is among the Redskins who refer to Cousins as “Captain Kirk” for his command in the huddle, his resolve under pressure and grit in sticking with plays when he’s about to get hit.
At the same time, Cousins’s awareness of how far he has to go, combined with a readiness to share credit and deflect praise, appears to serve him well.
“We see him working hard, no matter the outcome on Sunday,” Williams said. “We know that [a loss] is not because he hasn’t put the work in.”
Offered a chance to brag on his perfect passer rating in the postgame news conference, Cousins instead looked back on the throws he made that could have been intercepted. Asked last week about earning a second NFC offensive player of the week honor in four weeks, he called it “a reflection of the team.”
The Panthers haven’t lost at home since Nov. 16, 2014. Sunday’s meeting at Charlotte’s Bank of America Stadium may well serve as a reminder of just how far from greatness the Redskins, and their quarterback, remain.
“We’re still 4-5, with a long way to go to reach our goals,” Gruden conceded this past week. “You can see the growth — at least I can. You can feel it. You can feel the confidence just breaking the huddle. You can see that they feel like they’re going somewhere every time they break the huddle.”
Cousins, chief among them.