In today's NFL, the relationship between quarterback and head coach is most likely the most important over time. Without Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger, Mike McCarthy, Bill Belichick and Mike Tomlin would not be in the upper pantheon of NFL coaches, and they're very aware of that fact. The league's current reliance on a top-level quarterback above all else has a lot of less fortunate coaches looking at mirages at the position, and hoping for more than what's there. The constant quarterback swaps Bill O'Brien is implementing in Houston between Brian Hoyer and Ryan Mallett is the most obvious current example of that particular phenomenon. In other cases, head coaches will hitch their wagons to one particular quarterback no matter what that quarterback's limitations may be. And in that case, Jay Gruden of the Redskins stands alone in his support of Kirk Cousins, a player who's never shown that level of validation at any point in his career.
Selected in the fourth round of the 2012 draft out of Michigan State, Cousins has played well at times in relief of Robert Griffin III back when RG3 was the main man in Washington, and he quickly ascended into the starter's role when Gruden became the head coach before the 2014 season. In Cousins, Gruden perhaps saw a version of himself—a quarterback with obvious physical deficits, but one who would adhere to a system and avoid mistakes. Gruden never made it higher than the Arena League as a quarterback himself, but gained a lot of credibility for his development of Andy Dalton as the Bengals' offensive coordinator from 2011 through 2013. Before that, his only NFL experience was as an offensive assistant for his brother Jon in Tampa Bay from 2002 through 2008.
Through his two seasons as the Redskins' head coach, Gruden has exhibited several growing pains, but none more clear than his constant and indefensible defense of Cousins. The book on Cousins is that he's a game manager, but the only thing he has in common with those safe, mistake-proof types of quarterbacks is his relatively weak arm. In truth, Cousins has real issues reading the field and throwing with proper mechanics, and he doesn't have the physical margin for error to get away with that. Cousins is the only quarterback to throw eight or more picks on 230 or fewer passes last season, and he's the only one to do it this season. This season's overall stats—151 completions in 228 attempts for 1,420 yards, six touchdowns and eight interceptions—show little improvement over last season, in which Gruden made Cousins the starter after ripping Griffin publicly and alternating between Cousins and Colt McCoy.
The most baffling thing about Cousins's ascent is Gruden's tendency to make excuses for his performance no matter how bad it may be. It's been a constant problem, and it got kind of silly after Cousins threw two picks against the Jets in a 34-20 loss last Sunday. That was a week after Cousins threw two more picks against the Falcons in an overtime loss, but Gruden was unshakable in his faith in Cousins—even to the point of sounding like an indulgent older brother.
“I don’t know. I’ll have to look at the film,” Gruden said after the Jets game. “Like I said—also, it was little windy. But, and also, [there was] a lot of pressure on him. There’s a lot of things going on pre-snap that he’s got to deal with, getting the formations and protections and all that. You know last week the Jets had about 15 cover-zeroes [all-out blitzes] against Miami, so we’re always looking out for those and making sure he’s aware of those. They played pretty vanilla today, and I think he hurried in some throws he didn’t have to, or maybe he did. But I’ll have to look at the film. But overall, you hate to pin this game on Kirk. I know he could have played better, but we had no running game whatsoever. Kirk’s not at this stage in his career right now – nor is anyone on our roster – to carry the team throwing the ball as much as we would have had to today.”
You'd think that you'd want your quarterback to be able to deal with things like wind and protections, and Gruden didn't have anything to say about the two picks Cousins threw against the Falcons in the Georgia Dome, where wind was obviously not a factor. Perhaps realizing that he looked to be going off the deep end in support of one player who's going down with the ship, Gruden tried to clarify his comments on Monday.
“I talk too much. But I’m not trying to make excuses for anybody,” he said. “It wasn’t good enough for anybody—not Kirk, not myself, not the offensive line, not the coaching staff. There was nobody in this locker room that played good enough to win a football game on Sunday afternoon. I’m not making excuses for anybody, I’m not trying to baby anybody. I’m trying to get our team ready to play the Tampa Bay Buccaneers moving forward and get this thing back on the right track.”
Still, when asked if Cousins is the team's starter going forward, Gruden seemed to avoid any other possibility.
“I feel like Kirk gives us the best chance to win, still. You want to see him fight through this. That’s going to be the making of a strong person, a strong football player in how they react to some tough times and how they improve, so I’m excited to see him bounce back and have a good game this week and coming weeks. We’ll see how this goes. I’ve seen him throw the ball out here many, many times. I’ve seen him make every throw there is to make in pro football.”
Every throw indeed, including the bad ones. Cousins, for his part, believes that his bad plays aren't quite as bad this year, which makes one wonder if he's been drinking out of the same fountain as his coach.
“I don’t feel like the turnovers this year have been quite as awful as they were last year,” Cousins said on local radio the day after the Jets game. “Some of the interceptions I threw last year were just very poor reads, very poor throws, very poor decisions, and while some of the interceptions this year have been that, I don’t think it’s been quite as many."
Well, thank goodness for small miracles. In the end, Gruden has created a situation in which one of his quarterbacks (Griffin) is clearly not wanted, and another (McCoy) probably won't get a shot no matter how poorly Cousins plays, because their head coach is operating with a severe blind spot that no amount of game tape can reconcile.
And that will be Jay Gruden's undoing. Because no matter their quarterbacks, the best head coaches see things as they are, not how they want them to be, all clear evidence to the contrary.