Another so-so performance in a so-far so-so season leaves Washington still waiting to see whether Cousins, its franchise-tag quarterback, is worthy of removing the “tag” part

By Robert Klemko
October 11, 2016

BALTIMORE — Kirk Cousins was having a “YOU LIKE THAT” moment. Storming off the field at M&T Bank Stadium and into the cramped visitors locker room, the Washington quarterback found a new phrase to holler at the top of his lungs after a win. “By any means necessary!” he exclaimed again and again. When French philosopher/playright Jean-Paul Sartre wrote of abolishing lies and classism by any means necessary he might’ve doubted the phrase would be spouted 50 years later to justify a messy end to a messier football game, but here we are.

DeSean Jackson, 29-year-old Washington wide receiver and three-time Pro Bowl selection, was less enthusiastic about Sunday’s 16-10 victory over the Ravens, which lifted his team to 3-2. He left the locker room quietly, declining comment to The MMQB and the Washington Post after a three-catch, 35-yard performance. These past two weeks, in which Washington has won twice while Jackson has mustered just four catches on nine targets, will not inspire calls by fans for a contract extension when his deal expires at the end of the 2016 season.

Nick Wass/AP

Jackson was supposed to be the deep threat in a very deep receiving group, but Washington has been winning by other means, keeping pace in the NFC East while allowing the sixth-most yards in football. It’s the only NFL team outside Carolina with a tight end, Jordan Reed, as its far-and-away leader in catches and yards. Jackson’s 18 receptions rank fourth on the team and 67th in the NFL.

The disconnect between Jackson and the offense with Cousins may have been exacerbated Sunday by strong winds that swept through the stadium in Baltimore and altered the outcome of at least one Washington field goal attempt that swerved and bounced off a goalpost. But Cousins wasn’t willing to blame the wind for a deep miss to Jackson, and Jackson wasn’t willing to talk about it.

Up 16-10 with the ball and just over two minutes left to play, Washington coordinator Sean McVay called for Cousins to hurry the offense out of the huddle, catching the Ravens and rookie cornerback Tavon Young off guard. Jackson burst off the line before Young got settled and jetted free down the right sideline, but Cousins’ deep attempt landed a few steps ahead.

Jackson threw up his hands in frustration, and Cousins doubled over in anguish as though he'd been gut-punched.

“I think we put the game on ice if we hit that,” Cousins said on his way out of the stadium, having come down from his post game elation “so I think [DeSean] has every right to feel like, Man, I can help the team if you give me that chance.

“I’m just frustrated with myself about that one.”

Despite its star receiver’s visible frustration with the direction of the office, Washington is thus far successfully navigating the slippery surface of the bubble that is the NFC East. How will Dallas (4-1) manage the healthy return of Tony Romo in light of Dak Prescott’s success? Can the 2-3 Giants get Eli Manning and Odell Beckham on the same page under first-year coach Ben McAdoo? And how long until the shine rubs off Carson Wentz, rookie dynamo on a 3-1 Eagles team? You can see Washington, which lost its first two games after winning the division in 2015, finishing anywhere from first to fourth, depending heavily on the answer to one big question:

What is Kirk Cousins’ ceiling?

The question is an especially important one for the professional futures of Cousins and general manager Scot McCloughan, who made the rare decision to franchise tag his starting quarterback before the season, preferring to see back-to-back full seasons with Cousins as starter before deciding on a long-term commitment to the 28-year-old quarterback in his fifth season.

And so far, Cousins has only made the water murkier; in five games he has thrown seven touchdowns and five interceptions and has displayed some questionable decision-making. Exhibit A: Sunday’s second-half toss to waiting Ravens linebacker C.J. Mosley, who took the ball to the brink of the goal line before fumbling it through the end zone for a Washington touchback.

As Kevin Seifert at ESPN notes, Washington’s biggest cause for concern with Cousins comes in the red zone. Last year he completed more than 64% of his red-zone passes, with no interceptions; in five games this season year he’s connecting less than 40% of the time, with two interceptions.

Watching closely back in Big 10 country was Cousins’ personal QB coach, Jeff Christensen, the former NFL quarterback who tutors several NFL passers (including 2016 surprise success Trevor Siemian) and has worked with Cousins since he was briefly benched during his junior season at Michigan State.

Asked for critiques of Cousins’ play in the first quarter of the season, Christensen acknowledged he had some to pass along to the QB. “There’s a couple things I will share with him in private, but it’s nothing major,” Christensen says. “Some of it could be sightlines, guys in his vision. I think the first four or five weeks are guys feeling each other out.

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“He went on that 24-touchdown, two-interception run in the second half of the [2015] season, and they make the playoffs. He didn’t magically become a worse player since then. He’s better, so it might be something so simple as [being] a little out of rhythm with certain receivers.”

Of course, there’s plenty to like about what success Cousins has had this season. On Sunday, the game’s defining, go-ahead score in the third-quarter was a thing of mechanical and strategic beauty. After setting up the Baltimore defense with several successful quick screens earlier in the game, Washington dialed up a fake quick screen with a deep route meant to catch the outside cornerback jumping the screen. Cousins delivered a perfect ball to Pierre Garçon in stride to beat Ravens corner Jimmy Smith for 21 yards and go up 13-10.

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And then there was the 27-yard DeSean Jackson connection in the beginning of the fourth quarter, in which Cousins bought time by escaping left and delivered a ball 15 yards downfield to a streaking Jackson while taking a hit.

“Eighty percent of the guys in the NFL get sacked on that play,” Christensen says. “He gets a first down.”

The drive did not, however, lead to points, and Washington needed a last-minute stop and the benefit of a dubious non-call for pass interference in the end zone to walk away with its third victory.

Nick Wass/AP

“Life in the NFL—it takes everything out of you each week,” Cousins said. “I just know that to win these games you have to be mentally physically and emotionally tough. And resilient. It’s so week-to-week. You’re going to be on the other end of these games your fair share too.”

It's the kind of performance you toss in the win column and leave off a résumé.

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