Letting it loose
Always steady, Kirk Cousins will have to embrace risk this year
richmond — The hilarious contradiction of Kirk Cousins is that, for as much as he is dismissed as a risk-averse, system quarterback, he led the NFL last season with 44 pass completions of at least 25 yards. It’s wholly inaccurate to consider him a noodle-armed, dink-and-dunk specialist, yet it’s laughable to suggest he stands with Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger and Matthew Stafford in the gun-slinging corner of the league.
Precision and efficiency will always be of paramount importance to Cousins. His game starts there. Like most quarterbacks, he often needs to get into a rhythm with short passes and high-percentage throws early in the game. Then, once he has established that foundation, Cousins can turn bold, provided he has receiving threats he can trust on deep shots. But he’s calculated about letting the football fly.
That was the case even when DeSean Jackson, one of the sport’s most prolific big-play
receivers, was here. Now that he’s gone, as well as the reliable Pierre Garcon, you have to wonder how Cousins will adapt. The Washington Redskins turned his accuracy, a deep collection of receivers, a solid offensive line, former offensive coordinator Sean McVay’s play-calling and Coach Jay Gruden’s system into the second-best passing offense in the NFL a year ago.
This season, there is considerable change. McVay is in Los Angeles. Gruden is calling plays again. Terrelle Pryor is here to help minimize the loss of Jackson and Garcon. But the demand is the same: It’s almost impossible to envision Washington winning without a top-notch passing game.
Cousins has the pieces to direct another productive air attack, but the formula won’t be the same. The formula can’t be the same. The addition of the 6foot-5 Pryor changes the dynamic, as does the return of high-jumping Josh Doctson from injury. Washington lost Jackson’s speed and Garcon’s chain-moving talent and replaced it with size and even greater athleticism. Put all of the receiving targets together — wide receivers, tight ends and running backs — and you have a group that is younger, less likely always to be in the right spot and potentially more explosive despite Jackson’s departure.
But can Cousins tweak his game to accentuate a different collection of receivers? Here’s something that the quarterback and Gruden may have to balance: To be successful with these players, Cousins might have to sacrifice some precision and efficiency — his greatest attributes — to live with inevitable mistakes, take more chances and maximize the skills of this group.
It’s an interesting thought that could turn into a subplot this season. Even though Cousins led the NFL in explosive pass plays last season, it took half the year before he really let loose. During the first half of the season, people at all levels of the organization — players, coaches and front-office executives — grew frustrated that he was playing the game too safe. Some even wondered whether he was afraid to make mistakes because of his unsettled contract situation. Then, after an early November bye week, Cousins turned into an explosive-play machine and came from way behind to lead the league.
Jackson was given as much credit as the quarterback. He is special not just because he catches a lot of long passes, but the threat of Jackson also stretches defenses and opens opportunities for other receivers all over the field. Washington doesn’t have such an accomplished burner anymore, but it’s not like Pryor’s long legs don’t eat up grass in a hurry. Doctson isn’t as fast, but he is a home run threat.
With a different mix and bigger receivers (6-3 Maurice Harris is also likely to make the team), Cousins will have to adjust. The separation from defenders might not always be as great. When you have players who can make plays in the air, the quarterback has to trust them to leap and snag 50/50 balls. This all amounts to more risk in the passing game.
“I think it’s a fine line between taking shots and taking what the defensive gives you,” Gruden said. “I never say a completion is a bad play. All completions are good plays in my opinion. We’re keeping the ball moving, keeping the chains moving. We don’t want to force the ball down the field, but we do want to take shots.
“Now we have these big wideouts. Now we have got to try to push the envelope a little bit out here at camp, see what they can do as far as going up and getting it against smaller-type defensive backs. Every play is its own entity, I keep telling them, and we’ll try to push the envelope with those shot plays, but I’ll never fault them for a completion.”
Gruden loves to start the game by building Cousins’s confidence through short passes. The team can still do that. Cousins still has star tight end Jordan Reed. Third-year receiver Jamison Crowder is as dependable as it gets, and he’ll have a bigger role, and I’m betting he’ll lead the team in receptions. Those players are safety nets for Cousins, and he also has good chemistry with backup tight end Vernon Davis. Before even factoring in Pryor, who is likely to lead the team in receiving yards, there’s ample reason to believe the team will move the ball with good efficiency.
But Washington wants to score more this season and create more touchdowns in the red zone. To do that, Cousins will have to let loose consistently. This is his fourth year in Gruden’s system, and the offensive line remains intact, both of which should mean that Cousins has little discomfort. In the past two seasons, defenses have made adjustments to Cousins, and Cousins has countered with his own. Now, it’s time for him to be confident in his repertoire at all times. He’ll be challenged to do so this season, especially if opponents are less willing to concede some of the yards he gets by throwing short passes.
“We’ve been fortunate to have some continuity, but this year, we do have some changes so we’re going to show, hopefully, that we’re a mature football team and that we handle those changes well, and we’re able to keep moving forward in the right direction,” Cousins said. “I feel good about where we are in terms of talent that’s there on the field, and I feel good about Jay calling plays and running this offense. There’s enough firepower there.”
As Cousins continues to try to enhance his credibility as a franchise quarterback, this season represents an illuminating assignment. It might not be as easy to play it safe. It’s a concern. It’s also a chance to vaporize the perception that risk makes him tremble.
The Redskins now have a different mix of receivers with more big targets, so Kirk Cousins likely will have to throw more 50/50 balls.