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How You Like Kirk Cousins Now?

Washington’s QB shredded the Packers to boost his stock to an all-time high. Is he a true difference-maker? Or just the beneficiary of his surroundings?

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

I guess we now know who Kirk Cousins has been yelling at. Washington’s quarterback admitted earlier this week that he wishes he’d delivered his message to general manager Scot McCloughan in private, but thankfully for all of us, Cousins screamed, “HOW YOU LIKE ME NOW?” at his GM on national television.

It’s hard to blame Cousins for reacting that way after dismantling the Packers in a 42–24 win on Sunday night. By completing 21 of 30 attempts for 375 yards with three touchdowns, Cousins turned in his best outing of the season and made his most compelling case of 2016 for why McCloughan should pony up a sizable, multiyear contract offer that would keep him in the nation’s capital long-term.

If we’ve learned anything from last offseason, though, it’s that McCloughan isn’t easily swayed when it comes to paying his quarterback. The front office and Cousins couldn’t reach an agreement in their summer negotiations, so the QB entered this fall playing under the franchise tag; Cousins would get just shy of $20 million this season, but he’d have no future guarantees. And if the QB’s brilliant second-half numbers from the 2015 campaign (73.6 completion rate, 2,212 yards, 19 touchdowns, and an absurd 9.4 yards per attempt) weren’t enough to convince McCloughan that Cousins was the franchise’s answer under center, then this year’s statistics (67.2 completion rate, 3,091 yards, 17 touchdowns, 8.1 yards per attempt, and a 6–3–1 record) might not be enough, either.

The difficulty in evaluating Cousins’s value comes in extricating his performance from that of the rest of Washington’s offense. In ranking the NFL’s receiving corps last week, The Ringer’s Danny Kelly slotted the unit that includes DeSean Jackson, Pierre Garçon, and Jamison Crowder as the fourth-best in football. And that was without accounting for tight end Jordan Reed, the best catcher (and maybe the best player) on the entire roster.

This group is so dangerous because of how diverse its talents are. Jackson remains a human cheat code; at 29, he’s still among the fastest players in the league, and his ability to blow the top off a defense gives Washington an inherent advantage before any play starts. With Jackson vacating the underneath areas of a defense, Reed is free to twist linebackers, safeties, and even slot cornerbacks into the ground with his route-running proficiency in space. Garçon has yet to drop a pass on 72 targets this fall, and given the season that Crowder has put together (47 catches for 637 yards with six touchdowns), there’s an argument to be made that he’s this team’s fourth receiving option. Consider that for a second. Then go watch the Eagles.

Based on ability alone, it seems like at least one of the Washington receivers creates separation on every play. What makes things truly unfair for opponents, though, is that head coach Jay Gruden is so adept at scheming ways for them to get open. The clip above is from the first quarter of Washington’s 26–20 win over Minnesota in Week 10. Receiver Ryan Grant is split out wide right, with both Reed and fellow tight end Vernon Davis packed in tight. At the snap, Grant tears down the field, taking the Vikings safety on that side with him. After waiting a beat, Davis releases into the flat. In doing so, he pulls the cornerback with him, leaving Reed to run unopposed down the field. It makes for an easy pitch-and-catch and a 25-yard gain.

Those types of throws are the standard for Cousins in this offense. Washington’s play design and skill-position weapons are so good that he’s rarely asked to do more than make the correct decision and hit an open target. His offensive line (fourth in adjusted sack rate) also gives him plenty of time to make that happen.

Early in the season, that formula didn’t guarantee success. Cousins’s backbreaking end zone interception to Barry Church in a 27–23 loss to the Cowboys in Week 2 made headlines, but just as noteworthy was the QB’s underthrown pass to Josh Doctson on a would-be touchdown earlier on the same drive. The difference between the version of Cousins we saw in Dallas and the one we saw against Green Bay is a small tweak in accuracy that, with these receivers, helps Cousins look like a star. Even his deep heaves against the Packers (Washington had three completions of at least 40 yards) came on throws to open guys that just had to be on the money — and they were.

Cousins has a cushier environment than any other QB in football, and Washington has parlayed it into one of the more efficient offenses in the league. The team is sixth in offensive DVOA, and that undersells how easily it’s moved the ball this fall. Only the Cowboys are averaging more yards per drive, and only the Falcons are averaging more yards per play. At .097, Washington comfortably has the lowest three-and-out rate in the league, according to Football Outsiders. It’s punted before getting a first down 10 times all season. That shouldn’t be possible.

Washington’s issue, though, one that speaks both to what’s holding the team back and the Cousins conundrum at large, is its struggles in the red zone. Gruden’s team is dead last in points and touchdowns per red zone drive, and Cousins has been downright awful in that area of the field. Inside the opposing 20-yard line, only three qualified QBs have completion percentages lower than Cousins’s 42.6: Case Keenum (41), Ryan Fitzpatrick (42.2), and somehow, Russell Wilson (41.9). Two-thirds of that company is unwelcome. And inside the 10, Cousins’s stats are more alarming. He’s 7-of-26 (26.9 percent) on the fall. Only Nick Foles, who’s completed one of his six attempts, is worse.

Quarterbacks’ red zone performances tend to fluctuate from year to year, but Cousins’s woes may be an indication of a larger problem. Looking at his throws near the goal line provides some insight into why Washington is reluctant to sign him long-term. As the field shrinks, the plays on which Cousins can loft passes to wide-open targets disappear. With so many bodies in such a small area, receivers can be only so open around the end zone, meaning that Cousins is forced to fit balls into increasingly tighter windows.

Without the benefit of the simple completions he has between the 20s, Cousins’s knack for making bad decisions can surface. He’s gotten better at avoiding dangerous choices the more he’s developed, but it’s not as if this problem is a thing of the past: His brutal fourth-quarter pick against Dallas was the best (or worst) example. Then there was this play against Minnesota.

The only reason this wasn’t intercepted was that Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks couldn’t decide who had the easier path to making the pick.

It seems like Washington is beginning to understand that its red zone approach from earlier in the season was untenable. Through the first seven weeks, the Redskins threw 64.7 percent of the time inside the opposing 20. The league average during that span was 51.3. Over its past three games, though, with undrafted free-agent signing Rob Kelley emerging as the starting tailback, Washington has run the ball more than it’s thrown (seven runs to six passes) in the red zone.

With an improved ground game, Washington’s offense has found its stride; it’s averaged 31.7 points over its past three contests. And that raises the same question the franchise faced last summer, which is how much credit Cousins deserves. This group creates such an advantageous setting for a quarterback that it makes sense why McCloughan would consider rolling the dice with a cheaper option instead of handing Cousins the $20 million or so annually he would want in a long-term deal. That’s the decision Broncos GM John Elway made regarding Brock Osweiler this spring. Given Osweiler’s inconsistent play in Houston, Elway’s choice now looks prescient.

Still, the scenarios in Denver and Washington are very different. Osweiler gave the Broncos eight games of competency while filling in for an injured (and ineffective) Peyton Manning in 2015; Cousins is fronting a passing attack that’s sniffing the top five in DVOA for the second consecutive season. With his receiving corps and this scheme, Cousins isn’t asked to do much beyond finding whichever open wideout has roasted his defender on a given play. But there are plenty of quarterbacks around the league who wouldn’t be up to that task. Cousins might never be able to transcend his surroundings, but he doesn’t actively drag them down.

A host of QBs could probably find some level of success in Washington, but there’s no guarantee that Cousins’s replacement would be one of them. Regardless of how this team finishes, that’s what McCloughan’s choice will boil down to this offseason: how confident he feels in the offensive support system he’s built, and whether it can turn almost anyone into a functional quarterback.

Cousins can yell at McCloughan all he wants, but his best hope for landing the contract he wants is continuing to prove that he can unlock all of Washington’s weapons, turning the unit into one of the more powerful passing games in football. In a league where quarterback competence is hard to come by, that’s value enough.