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  • Cousins and Smith both excelled on the field Monday night—which hasn't always been the case. Their recent performances just reinforce how much circumstances matter for NFL quarterbacks
By Albert Breer
October 04, 2017

On Monday night, neither Kirk Cousins nor Alex Smith was a liability in the least, like so many have expected them to be over the years. Neither limited his team’s ceiling, nor did either hold back any of the skill position players on hand. Instead, both starred—and by the end, it seemed like the last one with the ball would win.

And that’s basically the way it went—Smith led a 50-yard march down the field to the game-winning field goal, which left just four seconds on the clock for Cousins and company to work with. When it was over, each had a passer rating well into triple digits, and Cousins could even claim the game-winner himself, a would-be touchdown pass that Josh Doctson dropped.

Here’s why I’m taking you through all this: Smith and Cousins are talented, but their circumstances matter. And circumstances matter, period, for every quarterback you watch. In Smith’s first six NFL seasons, he had six different coordinators, which is borderline malpractice in raising a young quarterback. Jim Harbaugh arrived in San Francisco in 2011, decided to keep Smith and build an offense around the athletic gifts that made him the first pick in 2005 draft, and he played in the NFC title game the following January. Then, he was benched, and shipped to Kansas City … where Andy Reid was waiting for him. Watch the Chiefs now, and you’ll see how the offense is built for and around Smith in his fifth year running it.

With Cousins it’s even simpler. He got to sit and learn under Kyle and Mike Shanahan. Then another assistant, Sean McVay, was elevated when Jay Gruden took over in 2014. The Redskins were patient, and learned more about the player as he learned the NFL game—and the result is a player now in his sixth season in total command, never having had to go through the coaching upheaval that Smith once did.

The flip side? Andy Dalton hasn’t looked like the same player since Hue Jackson left Cincinnati—and remember, Jackson got the reins there from Gruden. Eli Manning is suddenly showing some signs of age playing behind a makeshift offensive line. And a back injury and offensive line issues have contributed to Joe Flacco’s decline, but so has having five coordinators in six years.

These guys aren’t prisoners to their circumstances, of course. Tom Brady and Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers may have had success no matter what. But it’s hard to argue that each effectively playing in the same system for their entire careers, and for stable organizations, didn’t help. Of course it did. So yes, circumstances matter.

And so as you watch Mitch Trubisky and Deshaun Watson and Deshone Kizer this week, remember that. And as for next year’s class, here’s something I’ll leave you with: Over the last couple weeks I’ve heard that Sam Darnold’s decision on whether to leave USC after this year or not could be effected by just which teams, and coaches, are sitting at the top of draft. Based on all this, I’d tell you that’s one smart kid.

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