Let­ting it loose

Al­ways steady, Kirk Cousins will have to em­brace risk this year

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - jerry.brewer@wash­post.com

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.

Jerry Brewer

JOHN MCDONNELL/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

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.

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