What Should We Make of Kirk Cousins' Recent Play?
Kirk Cousins has been playing his way into some money. During the offseason, Washington was not ready to commit to Cousins as their quarterback on a long-term basis at the current rate of franchise quarterback money. Cousins wanted Andrew Luck or at least Ryan Tannehill-type money, while Washington was pushing closer to Brock Osweiler money. Eventually, they settled on the franchise tag.
The agreement at the time was a win for both sides. Washington would get one more year to determine whether Cousins was what they wanted in a long-term starter, while the quarterback got a another year to bet on himself and play his way into a better contract. So far in 2016, everything’s coming up Cousins.
Cousins is putting up numbers like one of the best quarterbacks in the league, but not in the same way he was doing so last season.
By our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, Cousins was the seventh-best quarterback last season, per Passing NEP per drop back. He led the league in completion percent at 69.8 percent, but a fair amount of those completions were empty. Based on how many successes -- the amount of plays that positively impact NEP -- Cousins had per pass attempt, he had the sixth-highest rate of failed completions among 37 quarterbacks. A lot of that had to do with checkdowns and completions for the sake of completions, which had little impact on the game.
This year, though, Cousins is getting much more out of his play on the field. He’s currently fourth in Passing NEP per drop back and has the seventh-lowest rate of failed completions among 35 qualified quarterbacks. He’s one of five quarterbacks to be in both the top-10 for Successful Completion Percentage and Failed Completion Rate, along with Carson Palmer, Dak Prescott, Russell Wilson, and Marcus Mariota.
Cousins continues to move the ball well down the field, is turning the ball over less, and he’s fifth among quarterbacks in yards per attempt. Strangely, the only thing Cousins isn’t doing well this season is throwing touchdown passes. His 4.4 percent touchdown rate is nearly a full percentage point lower than what it was last season (5.3 percent), and it’s one percent below this season’s league average.
While Cousins has put up great numbers, there might not be a better team at setting up their quarterback for success than Washington.
The Washington offense doesn’t overly rely on running play-action passes, but there’s no better offense at taking advantage of those plays when they present themselves. Per Sports Info Solutions charting data from Football Outsiders, Washington runs play action on just 17 percent of pass plays, which is the 21st-highest rate in the league. However, when running those plays, Washington’s 10.7 yards per play leads the league. The 3.6 yards per play difference between play-action passes and regular passes is the third-biggest gap among all teams.
Washington’s success with play action could be more dependant on how well those particular plays are designed rather than the defense’s focus on stopping the run. The Redskins are middle of the pack in both pass-to-run ratio (13th) and run efficiency, per Adjusted Rushing NEP per play (14th), so the run game likely isn’t viewed as a huge threat by opposing defenses. Still, there's no better team at taking advantage of these plays, and they routinely leave Cousins with an open receiver to hit.
When the best receiving corps in the league are discussed, Washington isn’t always one of the first teams brought up, but maybe they should be. Washington’s receivers perfectly complement each other -- with the deep threat in DeSean Jackson, the possession receiver in Pierre Garcon, the slot receiver in Jamison Crowder, and an elite pass-catching tight end in Jordan Reed. Once healthy, rookie Josh Doctson will join the mix, too.
For a quarterback’s supporting cast, it really doesn’t get much better than that. Each is able to create separation on his own, and that generates open lanes for Cousins to throw. Even all three running backs can produce in the passing game, though Chris Thompson has taken the bulk of that responsibility in 2016.
Crowder has been the most productive of the bunch this season, taking advantage of his shiftiness in the slot. Crowder is just third on the team in targets, but he leads in receiving yards and touchdowns. Across the league, he is fifth in Reception NEP per target among receivers with at least 50 targets. Garcon isn’t very far behind, ranking 21st among 66 qualified receivers.
Between the individual ability of the receivers and creative offensive play calling, some of Cousins’ throws couldn’t come much easier during games. Take the touchdown below from Cousins to Crowder in Week 8 against the Cincinnati Bengals. Washington sends two receivers up the left seam, and as the outside defender commits to following the outside receiver, Crowder cuts underneath and sets up a 10-yard cushion between him and the closest defender. It’s a wide open throw for Cousins and one which Crowder takes into the end zone. (Video courtesy: NFL Game Pass)
Like Him Now
At this point in the season, it’s clear Cousins has improved upon his 2015 play. That might not have been easy to say about five or six weeks ago, but he’s put together an impressive stretch of games over the past few weeks. His game against the Green Bay Packers Sunday night was the second-best single-game for a quarterback by Passing NEP per drop back for the season. His 0.87 Passing NEP per drop back was only behind Marcus Mariota’s 0.98 against the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 8. They’re the only two quarterbacks to have a game above 0.80 this season.
Still, Cousins is benefitting from a good situation in Washington. If we consider the Dallas Cowboys as the perfect environment for a running back to succeed, that’s what Washington is for a quarterback. The question is whether Cousins is closer to Darren McFadden, a talented enough player taking advantage of ideal surroundings or more like Ezekiel Elliott, who can transcend his teammates and add another layer to the team’s skill.
Last year, Cousins was more in the McFadden fold, and while he might not be at the transcendent level yet, he’s closer than many would have expected. Quarterbacks, though, aren't nearly as replaceable as running backs, and we see teams latch on to one if he shows any type of competency whatsoever. Washington has a stretch of three road games coming up -- against the division leading Cowboys and two top-five defenses by Adjusted Defensive NEP in the Arizona Cardinals and Philadelphia Eagles. If Cousins can sustain his play over these next three games and give Washington an inside track to the playoffs, general manager Scot McCloughan and the rest of the front office might not have a choice but to like him now and for the future of the franchise.