Following his Sept. 21 performance against the Philadelphia Eagles, Kirk Cousins looked like the answer for first-year head coach Jay Gruden's passing offense. Despite losing 37-34, Cousins completed 30 of 48 passes for 421 yards, three touchdowns and an interception. With Robert Griffin III out of the picture for several weeks due to injury, Cousins appeared to be the ideal quarterback for a system that took Andy Dalton to unexpected statistical heights when Gruden was Cincinnati's offensive coordinator. Cousins seemed to read the field, appeared to throw with anticipation, and looked like a guy who had things under control.
"Crazy things have happened in the NFL," Gruden told the New York media on a Sept. 23 conference call, when asked if Cousins could keep the starting job even when Griffin returned fully healthy. "I am not going to discount anybody or anything. I am not going to try and pull out a crystal ball and say what is going to happen tomorrow or next week. I know we are going to concentrate on Kirk as a quarterback, we feel very strongly that he can get the job done. Whatever happens after that, I will deal with then. Right now let’s just make this about Kirk, and get him ready to go."
Fast-forward to last Thursday's 45-14 loss to the Giants, and everything that seemed sure is now in question again. Cousins had an abominable game against Big Blue, throwing four picks and fumbling once. In less than a week, he'd gone from a man under control to a liability who couldn't keep anything together. Whatever Gruden did to get Cousins ready to go, it certainly didn't work.
“It’s worrisome, [but] you have to take the game for what it is," Gruden said after that disaster. "We lost the game, he didn’t play very well, he threw four picks, we understand that, and a fumble, but he didn’t have a lot of help, either. The defense didn’t help him out, the offensive line didn’t help him out, the receivers didn’t help him out. Kirk, his mistakes are magnified obviously, but there are other guys who had mistakes that were equally important and devastating to the football game. We just have to continue to work to get better, and we will, but we’re not going to hold Kirk’s head under the water right now. We’re going to keep him composed and getting better, and he’s going to be fine next week.”
Against the Eagles, Gruden kept Cousins in manageable down-and-distance situations, but something changed against the Giants. Perhaps it was Gruden's increased confidence in his quarterback, or the score dictated a different approach, but Cousins was now being asked (or asking himself) to make nearly impossible throws for a player of his physical skill set.
What must have been even more frustrating for all involved was that Cousins didn't start throwing picks until the third quarter, when the Redskins were only down 24-14 after Alfred Morris' 20-yard touchdown with less than two minutes elapsed in the second half.
Cousins' first pick came with 8:05 left in the third quarter, when Prince Amukamara intercepted a pass intended for Ryan Grant at the Washington 49-yard line. And the problem here, as is the case in most of Cousins' mistakes going back to his time at Michigan State, was that Cousins didn't set his feet to throw, and he threw from an unstable base.
Here, Cousins has thrown his left shoulder open too early, and he's throwing not only flat-footed, but with his legs extended. Result? He threw to Grant's outside shoulder on a comeback to the left side, and Amukamara found it easy to jump the route. Quarterbacks need to snap their non-throwing shoulders at the right time to create torque, but what they really need to do is throw from the lower body up. Pitchers and quarterbacks will tell you -- velocity comes from the legs and works its way up to the arms. Cousins relies on arm throws too often, and inconsistency is the result -- especially when he's throwing across his body.
Cousins' second pick came on Washington's next drive, on a pass intended for Pierre Garcon. This was a deeper throw from the Redskins' two-yard line, and it was bad all over the place. Cousins was once again throwing across his body, which isn't a consistent look, and he was backing out of the pocket before throwing. Essentially, Cousins was moving backward on a velocity throw, and while he didn't throw flat-footed, this was an overthrow that safety Quintin Demps found easily as he came over to the defensive right side from his single-high perch.
The third pick was less mechanical, and more a bad read. Another tendency Cousins regresses to is that he will stare down his receivers and telegraph throws. Not all the time -- there are times when he does see the field and his reads well -- but when the Redskins had a three-by-one receiver look against the Giants with 40 seconds left in the third quarter from their own 24-yard line, Cousins stared down the receivers to the covered side in a cluster, while Logan Paulsen ran completely uncovered on the iso side on a drag route. Both the right cornerback and strong safety had bailed to cover the three-receiver side before Cousins had even set his feet, and this would have been an easy completion -- perhaps even a first down on second-and-11. Washington was down 31-14 at this point, but there was no need to press. Trumaine McBride may never have an easier interception in his life.
“We’ve just got to make sure he sees the throws a little bit better and his eyes are in the right spot," Gruden said after the fact. "There’s a couple of them that he stared down the receiver and the safety just came over and made an easy pick. One of them he just had bad location on the ball to Ryan Grant, and another one he threw a blind one to the out route when he was throwing to Andre Roberts and the nickel was sitting right there [the McBride pick]. He never saw him, which you have to see those throws. You’ve got to get his eyes in the right spot, got to calm him down, and then we’ve got to help him out as play-callers to get him more comfortable.
"And then the game itself – we can’t get down 17 points and then expect him to be prolific throwing the football. We’ve got to do a better job of keeping the game in check where we have all phases of our offense intact in the fourth quarter.”
True enough, but seeing an open drag route on the back side and reading the coverage that opens it up? That's the kind of quick processing required of NFL quarterbacks.
The final pick, which came with 11:45 left in the game, was a bad idea from the start. Cousins has a bad tendency when he throws deep -- he showed it in a first-quarter incompletion to DeSean Jackson in the Eagles game -- in that he throws off his back foot and bends his body back. He's not using his lower body to maintain optimal velocity, which leads to inconsistent results. Quarterbacks like Jay Cutler and Matthew Stafford have the raw arm strength to overcome many of their own mechanical foibles, but Cousins doesn't -- and he needs to keep things together more consistently.
Here, Cousins heaved the ball in the general direction of DeSean Jackson, who ran a deep sideline route down the left side of the field. Jackson blew past cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, and safety Antrel Rolle was actually late to cover over, but Cousins rendered that point moot by bringing pressure in his face with a throw-delaying play-fake, and throwing 35 yards downfield against his body with no physical advantage whatsoever. Rolle jumped the route, and picked the ball off easily.
Quarterbacks with limited toolboxes must be managed within the design of an offense. Kirk Cousins doesn't have the arm to make the throws he was trying to make against the Giants, nor does he display the ability to look defenders off and see all his reads that would create openings in coverage. If Gruden wants to create another Andy Dalton in Cousins (meaning a limited quarterback who has made himself relatively mistake-proof, playoff losses notwithstanding), he'll do what he did with Dalton -- create a shorter passing game in which his young quarterback doesn't have to look beyond reads made open by route concepts, and will be smart with the hero stuff.