Okay, about those things I told you that Kirk Cousins wasn’t doing well at midseason . . .
They’re gone, all of a sudden. They’ve vanished. Don’t even bother calling the police. Right now, it’s hard to find traces they once existed.
It means, a mere three weeks later, that I must say I was wr- . . . wr- . . . (sorry, the word is lodged in there pretty good) . . . wrong. Well, sort of. It’s more like that midseason Cousins evaluation is already outdated. He’s in the middle of another major growth spurt, and as an agnostic observer of the quarterback, my mental seesaw tilts toward optimism once again.
In sports, performance is supposed to influence perception. If it doesn’t, you’re just stubbornly holding on to preconceived, inaccurate notions. There are too many people at both extremes of the Cousins conversation who refuse to adjust when compelling evidence is presented. Looking at the situation honestly, it remains a complex issue to determine the fair value for Cousins in a long-term contract, and it can’t be oversimplified. But this much is clear: Cousins can play. His contract situation isn’t the referendum on his ability that some make it out to be. He’s also still getting better. And the Washington Redskins should do everything within reason to make sure he’s on this roster for the next five years, at least.
But what does “within reason” mean? It’s a concept that expands and contracts seemingly by the game.
Three weeks ago, I detailed some areas in which Cousins, despite his statistical gorgeousness, had failed to make an impression, both to his doubters and to a scrutinizing organization. He was leaving too many big plays on the field. He was making safe throws and racking up numbers, but in big moments, he was shrinking into a game-management shell. Cousins wasn’t to blame for all of Washington’s red-zone problems or inability to score points and reflect an offense currently ranked second in the NFL in yards per game. But the franchise wanted to see him transcend the offensive system in crucial situations instead of simply relying on it.
Since then, Cousins has been spectacular. The position can’t be played much better. In three games to start the second half of the season, Cousins has completed 72.4 percent of his passes and thrown for 1,086 yards (362 per game) with eight touchdowns, no interceptions and a passer rating of 124.4. Washington is 2-1 in those games, despite being without suspended star left tackle Trent Williams. Big plays aren’t being left on the field. Cousins is attacking defenses in every manner possible. He isn’t just playing confident when his team has the lead; Cousins is playing some of his best football when Washington is behind. Heck, he almost threw the team back into the game against Dallas. In big moments, Cousins has elevated his play, and even though Washington is still struggling in the red zone, it’s hard to find fault with the quarterback’s decision-making.
The concern with Cousins has always been confidence and inconsistency, not talent. He doesn’t have Matthew Stafford’s arm strength, but as you saw during his wind-defying, 375-yard, three-touchdown Sunday night performance 10 days ago, he can get the job done under any conditions. But Washington placed the one-year, $19.95 million franchise tag on Cousins to gain more clarity on him, to learn as much as it could before making what would be a salary cap-altering financial commitment that will force General Manager Scot McCloughan to adjust how he builds this team.
However, the issue is bigger than Cousins. As I wrote recently, Washington has the second-most expensive offense in the NFL. The unit accounts for about 64 percent of the salary cap, excluding dead money paid to players no longer on the roster. The offense is good, except in the red zone, where it ranks 29th of 32 teams in touchdown percentage (43.5). The defense is still a wreck. The questions the franchise must answer: Is the offense, with Cousins as the key piece, truly destined to be as elite as the yardage totals suggest? If so, is that enough to justify tilting the cap heavily in the offense’s favor for years to come? If the franchise believes it needs to be more balanced, it will need to make cuts somewhere. How do you do that with a quarterback on a contract that could average $25 million per season, with $50 million to $60 million guaranteed?
Let’s put it this way: This Cousins-led, Jay Gruden-designed offense is competing to convince McCloughan and others it’s so good that it can carry a cheap, patchwork defense. Making a huge quarterback investment also means remaining committed to spending on weapons who can amplify his ability. Which means finishing the defense by using the draft and under-the-radar — or cheap — veterans.
Fortunately for Washington, McCloughan has experience in organizations that have built this way. There’s also an NFL belief that you can quickly construct a competitive defense at a moderate cost if you have the right schemes and coordinator (is Joe Barry that guy?), because the energy and athleticism of young players mean so much to good defense.
How close is the franchise to a resolution? Despite national media reports suggesting that Washington has finalized its plan, the team is still in evaluation mode. Like any good evaluator would take note of, Cousins’s play lately has been persuasive. But the decision-makers wanted another season to look at the complete picture — all 32 regular season games of the Cousins/Gruden offense, plus perhaps another playoff appearance — and they’ll collect every bit of information available.
When the offseason arrives, they had better be ready. A second straight franchise tag would be foolish, and it would likely ensure displeasure from Cousins and result in a divorce by 2018. After two seasons as a starter with franchise-record-shattering production, Cousins deserves a lasting decision now — or to be set free.
The quarterback is doing his part to make the choice easier. If the first three games of the second half are any indication, Cousins plans on eliminating all lingering dissent.