With RGIII sidelined, Redskins' new QB pecking order suits Gruden's history
Although this column is an attempt to explain what the Redskins have in mind for their quarterbacks in 2015, it's really not a column about Robert Griffin III. It's become pretty clear that unless team owner Dan Snyder overrules second-year head coach Jay Gruden, first-year general manager Scot McCloughan and a number of voices on the coaching staff (depending on which report you're reading at any given time), Griffin has played his last meaningful snap for the franchise that gave up three first-round picks for the right to select him with the second pick in the 2012 draft. Monday's announcement that Kirk Cousins will start over Griffin in Week 1 against the Dolphins and beyond was the definitive final straw there.
Through a combination of injuries, coaching failures and Griffin's own inability to adjust to his surroundings, the former Heisman Trophy winner will most likely have to find a new NFL home if he's ever to recapture the form that brought him so many accolades in his rookie season. I've already written at length about what hope remains for Griffin to salvage his career, and the schism between the team and its former top pick is a 24/7 news story at this point, so that ground has been covered.
Instead, let's take a closer look at Gruden, who became a head coaching candidate by virtue of the work he did as the Bengals' offensive coordinator from 2011 through '13 in making something decent of Andy Dalton, a quarterback with modest potential and a few obvious limitations. Gruden was greeted in Washington as somewhat of a quarterback developer, although Dalton was the only quarterback he had really developed. During his time as an offensive assistant with the Bucs from '02 through '08, Tampa Bay cycled through several underwhelming signal-callers after the departure of veteran Brad Johnson, whose potential and limitations weren't all that different from Dalton's.
The Redskins hired Gruden to replace Mike Shanahan after a 2013 campaign that ended in a 3–13 record and all kinds of dysfunction between quarterback, coach and front office. Shortly after Gruden's hire, Shanahan went on local radio and revealed his perspective on the turmoil: Snyder had empowered Griffin too much to the point that fresh off his rookie season, the quarterback was telling Shanahan what plays would and wouldn't work for him. If that truly was the case, it's understandable that Shanahan was ready to quit before he was finally dismissed.
So, that's a window into the situation Gruden inherited. He had always worked with quarterbacks who may not have been especially talented but at least understood their place in his program. Whatever happened between Gruden and Griffin through the 2014 season and into the new year, it's now up to Cousins, who is cut from the same mold as Gruden's more successful pupils, to make the best of the situation.
Cousins was selected in the fourth round of the 2012 draft with far less fanfare than Griffin had received two days before. A prospect with some potential and a few obvious limitations (yes, we're obviously building a theme here), Cousins has completed 240 of 407 passes for 3,030 yards, 18 touchdowns and 19 interceptions in his NFL career. This preseason, he's completed 40 of 53 passes for 435 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. Cousins has proven to be a perfectly acceptable high-level backup at his best. He has a limited arm, requires a high percentage of short passes and formation-derived openings to succeed, and he tends to fall apart under pressure. Cousins's primary problem when Gruden gave him a shot at the starting job last season was his inconsistent mechanics, which would most frequently show up as sloppy footwork and awkward delivery points with a pass rush in his face.
However, this pass to open the second half against the Lions in Week 2 of the preseason was pretty sweet. Detroit's front seven was making mincemeat of Washington's thin offensive line, so Cousins took a page out of the Book of Boot Action and started to roll to throw, a smart play when the defense is clogging the gaps between the tackles. Here, he completes a 22-yard pass to receiver Rashad Ross after rolling right, waiting for the opening in the coverage and making a pinpoint throw with excellent mechanics.
But on the same drive, we see what we saw with Cousins last season: His deeper throws tend to float unpredictably when he's not using his lower body correctly. Here, he overthrows an pass to receiver Evan Spencer from a flat-footed base. There are a handful of quarterbacks who can get away with this kind of stuff (hello, Jay Cutler), and Cousins isn't one of them. He simply doesn't have enough arm strength to power the ball without optimal footwork and driving the ball from his lower body up.
The most-watched Cousins throw of this preseason came early in the first quarter of Washington's Week 3 game against the Ravens. Here, Cousins throws a simple screen in the general direction of Pierre Garcon, but linebacker Terrell Suggs was right where he needed to be to pick off the pass. Most observers are blaming Cousins for this fairly ridiculous pick, and it's a ball he should not have thrown. But right tackle Morgan Moses was equally at fault. Perhaps he doesn't have the pure talent to block Suggs completely out of the play, but he wound up impairing Cousins's vision more than anything else.
The other entrant in the current Redskins quarterback discussion—and perhaps the most intriguing—is Colt McCoy. McCoy was marginally successful over three seasons in a dismal Browns offense, was traded to San Francisco in 2013, and signed with Washington in time for the 2014 season. He had his best NFL season in limited action with the Redskins last year, completing 91 of 128 passes for 1,057 yards, four touchdowns and three picks, but it wasn't enough to convince Gruden he could be a long-term starter. McCoy is a quarterback with some potential and a few obvious limitations. He isn't a consistent deep thrower, and he tends to wait too long for things to open up when he's in the pocket.
As seen below against the Lions in the second week of the preseason, McCoy is at his best and most decisive when he's rolling out to throw. In limited action this preseason, McCoy has completed nearly 80% of his passes: 19 of 24 for 208 yards, three touchdowns (mostly against reserve units) and no picks. Based on the way Gruden had things rolling during Monday's practice, McCoy would probably be Cousins's direct backup, with Griffin as the third option—at least for now.
There's no question that McCoy can get things done on the move. This 13-yard pass to receiver Reggie Bell is weakside boot-action with slide protection to the strong side, and McCoy hits Bell with good accuracy. This is the kind of thing he can do consistently: make short-to-intermediate throws on the move.
However, McCoy hasn't become a full-field reader, which was pretty apparent on this three-yard run with 10:19 left in the third quarter. He's got receiver Colin Lockett wide open to his running side on a drag route, and tight end Chase Dixon as a backside read if he wants it, but he inexplicably pulls it up and runs. It's hard to know what was going through McCoy's head here, though quarterbacks who don't complete passes like this can have issues with faith in their overall velocity.
So, what kind of offense will the Redskins have with Cousins and McCoy as the guys in the bubble, and RGIII as the odd man out? One that Gruden prefers, certainly -- he's now got a confirmed starter and a confirmed backup who will adhere to his gameplans and philosophies with very little kickback -- because neither Cousins nor McCoy have the physical talent to go off-script, and it's very evident in their performances that they're both very aware of that. Expect a heavy rollout passing game with short-to-intermediate throws and a high completion rate. Gruden will be obliged to do his best to keep his quarterbacks out of danger, both from enemy pass-rushers and from the horizons beyond their own limitations.
Whether that's the best way to go is very much open to debate, but Gruden has drawn the line in the sand. Gruden never handled the Griffin situation well, and it's an interesting move to die on a hill staffed with league-average quarterbacks, but this is where things stand in the nation's capital as we speak.
GALLERY: Robert Griffin III's painful NFL career