ver­dict IS still not in

History in­di­cates that 12 NFL starts just aren’t enough to gauge a QB’s fu­ture

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - BY LIZ CLARKE

What Gru­den in­tends to give Cousins is time — time to work through the in­ter­cep­tions that have dogged his young ca­reer — con­vinced that the for­mer Michigan State stand­out’s up­side trumps his short­com­ings, as they did in the Week 2 up­set of St. Louis.

But how much time is enough? How many games must an NFL quar­ter­back start be­fore a coach can fairly eval­u­ate whether he can get the job done?

Ea­gles Coach Chip Kelly, whose judg­ment on quar­ter­backs is open to de­bate af­ter trad­ing for the shaky-to-date Sam Brad­ford, in­sists there is no “set met­ric,” ar­gu­ing that it dif­fers for each in­di­vid­ual.

Red­skins of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Sean McVay agrees that each case is unique but be­lieves it takes at least one full sea­son’s work, and pos­si­bly two, to eval­u­ate a young quar­ter­back.

“You go back and you look at the history of the po­si­tion,” McVay said in an in­ter­view this past week. “A lot of those guys who are con­sid­ered some of the all-time greats, it took them a cou­ple years be­fore they got

ac­cli­mated, got com­fort­able to where you started to see some of the is­sues, whether it’s turnovers or other things, shift in a pos­i­tive fa­vor.”

If a dive into quar­ter­back­ing sta­tis­tics re­veals any­thing, it’s that Kelly is cor­rect: There is no ob­vi­ous timetable.

Cousins has thrown for 21 touch­downs and 23 in­ter­cep­tions in his ca­reer. That ra­tio mir­rors that of Pey­ton Man­ning, a five-time NFL MVP, at the same stage. It also mir­rors that of Heath Shuler, who has be­come a eu­phemism for a firstround draft-pick bust.

Man­ning threw for 16 touch­downs and 22 in­ter­cep­tions in his first 12 starts for In­di­anapo­lis, which chose him with the first pick of the 1998 draft.

Shuler, whom the Red­skins picked third over­all in the 1994 draft, threw for 11 touch­downs and 15 in­ter­cep­tions in his first 12 starts. His pro ca­reer fiz­zled af­ter four sea­sons; Man­ning’s is in its 18th year.

But the NFL op­er­ates on a more im­me­di­ate timetable in 2015 than it did a decade or two ago.

If Cousins has great­ness that needs in­cu­bat­ing for a full sea­son or two, it’s far from clear he’ll get it on a team that has had 16 start­ing quar­ter­backs in the past 16 years. His record as a starter is 3-9, and Gru­den’s pa­tience is bound to wear thin if the losses mount. More likely to ex­pire sooner is the pa­tience of Red­skins owner Daniel Sny­der and the team’s long-suf­fer­ing fan base.

“It’s such a re­sults-driven busi­ness — and that goes for whether you’re a player or coach,” McVay noted. “Ev­ery­body wants to see pro­duc­tion, and they want to see it now. It’s a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately league.”

Said for­mer quar­ter­back Trent Green, now a CBS sports NFL an­a­lyst: “It used to be you wanted to de­velop a guy. It was un­usual for a guy like Dan Marino to come in and have suc­cess like he did as a rookie. Pey­ton Man­ning had vary­ing suc­cess as a rookie. I don’t think any­body would say [ Troy] Aik­man’s rookie year was a suc­cess.

“Ev­ery­thing to­day is about in­stant grat­i­fi­ca­tion, and that has trans­ferred to the NFL. Some [quar­ter­backs] are suc­cess­ful right away; some aren’t. Coaches aren’t given the time to turn it around. GMs aren’t given the time to turn it around. Look at the vet­eran guys be­ing signed for ridicu­lous amounts of money; teams are so afraid of the un­known.”

Green, who spent four sea­sons in Washington be­fore flour­ish­ing in St. Louis and Kansas City, twice earn­ing Pro Bowl hon­ors, en­tered the NFL as an eighth-round draft pick. Cut by San Diego af­ter one sea­son, he played in the Cana­dian Football League be­fore Red­skins Gen­eral Man­ager Charley Casserly signed him in 1995 to back up Shuler and Gus Frerotte.

Like Cousins, his break came in his fourth sea­son, tak­ing over for the in­jured Frerotte. Green pro­ceeded to go 0-5 as a starter, throw­ing seven in­ter­cep­tions to five touch­down passes, and was benched.

“When I fi­nally got in there, I felt I had to jus­tify why the Red­skins had kept me around for four years,” re­called Green, 45. “I wanted to do ev­ery­thing in my power to prove they’d made the right de­ci­sion to not only my­self, but prove to my team­mates, prove to [Coach] Norv [ Turner], to Charley Casserly. I was putting so much pres­sure on my­self.”

Turner’s re­turn to Frerotte re­sulted in a 41-7 loss at Min­nesota that left cor­ner­back Dar­rell Green in tears and Turner declar­ing the 0-7 fran­chise at “rock bot­tom.” Af­ter the bye that fol­lowed, Turner re­in­stated Green, declar­ing him “the best chance we have for suc­cess.”

In do­ing so, Turner made clear that Green would start the rest of sea­son, with no more flip-flop­ping.

“It was such a weight off my shoul­ders,” Green said. “I felt like, ‘I’m gonna play loose! I’m gonna lead this team!’ And we ended up win­ning six of our last nine games.”

Like many, Green sees two sides of Cousins from his van­tage point as an NFL an­a­lyst: flashes of a po­ten­tial Pro Bowl quar­ter­back, a view shared by for­mer Red­skins coach Mike Shana­han, and a player whose in­con­sis­ten­cies un­der­cut his prom­ise.

But he hopes the Red­skins give Cousins more time, at least eight games this sea­son, be­fore mak­ing a change.

“I’d like to see them give him a run, but he has got to un­der­stand: Don’t look over your shoul­der,” Green said. “Just go out and play and don’t press.”

Stick­ing with one quar­ter­back would help the Red­skins’ of­fen­sive line, which jug­gled the ca­dences and tim­ing of three sig­nal call­ers in last sea­son’s 4-12 de­ba­cle.

Ex­plained Pro Bowl left tackle Trent Wil­liams, who likens the re­la­tion­ship be­tween quar­ter­back and of­fen­sive line to a pul­ley-sys­tem: “As long as we’re both do­ing our job, it works well. Ev­ery­body comes to­gether, and it looks good. But if we’re not hold­ing up long enough, or if he’s hold­ing the ball too long, then you’re gonna see pres­sures and quar­ter­back hits and sacks. Ob­vi­ously that’s not good football.”

Wil­liams gives Cousins high marks for do­ing his part in that re­la­tion­ship, say­ing, “He has been get­ting the ball out, been see­ing the right peo­ple, throw­ing it to the right peo­ple. To me, he’s do­ing a great job.”

Last week’s loss to the Giants, in which he was in­ter­cepted twice, rep­re­sented a step back, bring­ing Cousins’s to­tals this sea­son to 715 yards on 74-of-107 pass­ing, with three touch­downs and four in­ter­cep­tions.

One of those in­ter­cep­tions came on an ill-ad­vised throw across his body on a first and 10; the other, the re­sult of a cor­ner­back’s ter­rific play.

The trick for Red­skins coaches is to sharpen Cousins’s de­ci­sion-mak­ing with­out re­duc­ing him to a sec­ond-guess­ing mouse.

“It’s a fine line,” McVay con­ceded. “The one thing you re­ally en­joy about Kirk is that he’s an ag­gres­sive quar­ter­back that’s gonna go com­pete. The thing you al­ways try to talk with your quar­ter­backs about is hav­ing sit­u­a­tional aware­ness to where [they know] I can be more ag­gres­sive in this sit­u­a­tion, maybe less ag­gres­sive based on the down and dis­tance. What’s the score? It’s un­der­stand­ing when you take those chances. Are these smart chances?”

Gru­den has shown the of­fense can suc­ceed with­out quar­ter­back­ing hero­ics. He hit on the for­mula — a run-first, ball-con­trol of­fense — in the up­set of St. Louis, only to re­treat from it af­ter fall­ing be­hind early to the Giants.

Mean­time, Cousins, whom coaches de­scribe as “re­fresh­ing” for his aware­ness of his short­com­ings and re­cep­tive­ness to crit­i­cism, is work­ing to get bet­ter.

“We know he can play,” said run­ning back Matt Jones. “He doesn’t need to prove noth­ing at all to us. All he needs to do is go out here and be him­self.”

JONATHAN NEW­TON/THE WASHINGTON POST

Red­skins quar­ter­back Kirk Cousins has thrown 21 touch­down passes and 23 in­ter­cep­tions in his ca­reer. “It’s a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately league,” of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor SeanMcVay said.

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