WASHINGTON REDSKINS Kirk Cousins: Unlikely franchise QB still fighting for respect

November 22, 2015: Washington Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins (8) during pregame for the game between Washington and Carolina at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, NC.(Photo by Jim Dedmon/Icon Sportswire)

No, he doesn’t look like who you imagined four years ago, but yes, your franchise quarterback did indeed come out of that 2012 draft Washington Redskins fans.

Unfortunately for Kirk Cousins, the team is still reportedly hesitant to bite the bullet on a long-term deal that demonstrates they have confidence in No. 8 as that franchise QB for many years to come just yet.

While Cousins is indeed now likely to spend his 2016 campaign under the franchise tag, don’t expect contract negotiations being broken off to do anything other than to serve as further motivation for Cousins on his path — one that has seen him doubted and under-appreciated since the very beginnings of his athletic endeavors.

Before exploring the rising QB from every conceivable angle, let’s take a moment to do something rare together: let’s give Mike Shanahan credit for doing something right and dare I say, even special, for the Redskins when he drafted Kirk Cousins in 2012. In that one fell swoop, Shanahan assured the team security at the most important position on the field for years to come – one way or another — and for that, fans should be eternally grateful.

Special is also a word that has been used to describe Cousins himself recently when Redskins general manager Scot McCloughan joined ESPN’s 980’s “The Sports Fix” on Jan. 28 and told listeners that he “knew [he] saw something in [Cousins] that was special. From the standpoint of leadership, players responded to him.”

Teammates respond to Cousins the way they do because they’ve seen and appreciate the path he’s had to take and the work that he’s had to put in order to get a chance and stick (an apropos word to associate with Cousins that we’ll come back to as we examine the player later) as this team’s starter.

Cousins also ensured making the transition to being the appropriate type of leader for the team’s needs by consulting veteran quarterback Matt Hasselbeck in March of 2014 at the NFLPA meetings where Hasselbeck told Cousins “I think that team needs a general.” Hasselbeck went on, “they don’t need a president. Try to be a general, be authoritative and have a command.”

Like he always does, Cousins listened and gleaned as much useful insight as he could from the conversation and filed it away on his path to becoming one of better quarterbacks in the NFL in 2015.

233SHARES

No, he doesn’t look like who you imagined four years ago, but yes, your franchise quarterback did indeed come out of that 2012 draft Washington Redskins fans.

Unfortunately for Kirk Cousins, the team is still reportedly hesitant to bite the bullet on a long-term deal that demonstrates they have confidence in No. 8 as that franchise QB for many years to come just yet.

While Cousins is indeed now likely to spend his 2016 campaign under the franchise tag, don’t expect contract negotiations being broken off to do anything other than to serve as further motivation for Cousins on his path — one that has seen him doubted and under-appreciated since the very beginnings of his athletic endeavors.

Before exploring the rising QB from every conceivable angle, let’s take a moment to do something rare together: let’s give Mike Shanahan credit for doing something right and dare I say, even special, for the Redskins when he drafted Kirk Cousins in 2012. In that one fell swoop, Shanahan assured the team security at the most important position on the field for years to come – one way or another — and for that, fans should be eternally grateful.

Special is also a word that has been used to describe Cousins himself recently when Redskins general manager Scot McCloughan joined ESPN’s 980’s “The Sports Fix” on Jan. 28 and told listeners that he “knew [he] saw something in [Cousins] that was special. From the standpoint of leadership, players responded to him.”

Teammates respond to Cousins the way they do because they’ve seen and appreciate the path he’s had to take and the work that he’s had to put in order to get a chance and stick (an apropos word to associate with Cousins that we’ll come back to as we examine the player later) as this team’s starter.

Cousins also ensured making the transition to being the appropriate type of leader for the team’s needs by consulting veteran quarterback Matt Hasselbeck in March of 2014 at the NFLPA meetings where Hasselbeck told Cousins “I think that team needs a general.” Hasselbeck went on, “they don’t need a president. Try to be a general, be authoritative and have a command.”

Like he always does, Cousins listened and gleaned as much useful insight as he could from the conversation and filed it away on his path to becoming one of better quarterbacks in the NFL in 2015.

November 22, 2015: Washington Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins (8) during pregame for the game between Washington and Carolina at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, NC.(Photo by Jim Dedmon/Icon Sportswire)

Shanahan’s move to draft Cousins in the fourth round was curious to some at the time, but clearly demonstrated that the seasoned head coach was shrewd enough to understand exactly what he was getting into with the raw Robert Griffin III.

Further, Shanahan saw what has become so clearly evident about the Michigan State product — that he is a superb student, tape junkie and passionate grinder at his craft. It’s safe to assume that this rare combination of intangibles attracted Shanahan all the more given that these were traits that Griffin has rarely, if ever, been accused of having.

Current head coach Jay Gruden confirmed these same qualities in Cousins when he recently told Scott Allen of The Washington Post “He just studies the crap out of football,” Gruden said.

“He’s a sponge for information. He watches film all the time. It’s all he cares about—football and his wife. Maybe his dogs. He watches Drew Brees tape, Aaron Rodgers tape, Tom Brady. He has a ton of respect for guys who have done it. He is seeking greatness.”

It’s the last part that should hit home. A lot of men say they’re seeking greatness, but few walk out the steps to ensure they give themselves the best chance at it like Cousin does.

Those efforts yielded stats and results in 2015 that saw murmurs ranging from potential greatness, all the way to crash and burn scenarios, with comparisons even being made to Rex Grossman’s flash-in-the-pan career by one analyst.

Yikes.

Cousins isn’t Grossman. He’s not Vince Young or Griffin for that matter either; and a quick examination of the facts and the man should make even the least-sold on No. 8, convinced of this.

THE STATS (2015)

Cousins passed for a franchise-record 4,166 yards with 29 touchdowns to just 11 interceptions. His 69.8 pass completion percentage was eighth-best in NFL history. He also set franchise records for attempts (543), completions (379), and 300-yard passing games (seven). His red-zone passer rating of 113.5 was the second-highest in the NFL.

Cousins was also the second-most accurate passer in the NFL (after accounting for dropped passes, throw-aways, spiked balls, batted passes, and passes where the quarterback was hit while they threw the ball) at 78.5 percent.

During the Redskins’ final 10 games of 2015, Cousins led the team to seven victories while passing for 23 touchdowns to just three interceptions. In December alone (the most important month of the regular season), Cousins finished tied for first in completion percentage (72.8), second in quarterback rating (121.1), fifth in touchdowns (10) and sixth in passing yards (1,203).

DVOA, or Defense-adjusted Value Over Average, is a stat originated by Football Oustiders and represents a number value, per-play, over an average quarterback in the same game situations. The more positive the DVOA rating, the better the player’s performance. Cousins finished 2015 with a 17 percent DVOA, or 17.5 percent above Aaron Rodgers (-.5), and 9.7 percent above Cam Newton (7.3 percent). Overall, Cousins had the seventh-best QB DVOA in the NFL on the season.

For those that think these stats were because Gruden runs a conservative dink and dunk offense that saw players like Andy Dalton excel, consider that Dalton is still playing well in an offense that takes plenty of shots deep, and Cousins finished 2015 tied with Newton for the seventh-highest yards per pass attempt average at 7.7 yards. He was simply cautiously aggressive.

Pro Football Focus has Cousins rated as the No. 1 free agent quarterback, and No. 11 free agent overall.

THE GRINDER

Cousins is no stranger to being undervalued and thrust into perpetual positions of having to work hard to get his fair shake. In fact, it’s accurate to say it’s become an intrinsic part of what drives the QB at work daily.

Bleacher Report’s Dan Pompei did an excellent job at outlining how, starting in sixth grade, when he made the leap from flag football to tackle, Cousins dealt with rejection and had to consistently persevere through misconceptions.

That year, Cousins tried to get on the local “A” team as the quarterback. The coach declined and all he did was go on to win a championship at the position on the “B” squad that season.

Pompei goes on to detail a story Cousins shared with him about the time when, as a junior in high school, “Cousins was told by the basketball coach that if he wanted to be on the team, he would be the third-string point guard. Cousins gave it a shot. By halftime of the first game, he was the primary point guard, and he remained so the rest of the season.”

Even at Michigan State the opportunity was difficult to come by as Cousins was only offered a football scholarship after the school had to turn down its top choice. Michigan State then signed a guy they intended to start over Cousins in Nick Foles shortly after. Again, Cousins beat out the competition.

Then came the 2012 NFL Draft that saw his stock shockingly plummet as Cousins ended up being the eighth QB taken (by a team who just took one as the No. 2 pick overall) and once again he found himself behind (this time in draft order) the guy he beat out at Michigan State – Foles.

Many would have not seen much hope to get on the field with a player like Griffin ahead of him and would find it incredibly difficult to focus and improve. That’s not Cousins, as just two days after the Redskins’ first game of his rookie year in 2012, he took a seat with the team’s pro personnel director and the team’s scouts to study defensive players with them. He has since done this weekly which has netted him with one of, if not the, most comprehensive self-made digital scouting libraries on individual opponents of any player in the NFL.

When he was demoted to third string in 2014 and found himself inactive for six of the team’s last nine games, Cousins once again displayed his character.

“Since I wasn’t playing and I didn’t have to be prepared for the upcoming opponent, I could treat it like an offseason almost and use the time to develop myself,” Cousins said to Pompei.

He proceeded to hire private quarterback’s coach Jeff Christensen who has now supervised 2,500 of Cousins’ throws and watched another 3,000 with him on tape. “Christensen, who estimates he has worked with some 2,500 quarterbacks in his career, is convinced he never has had a better student than Cousins,” Pompei went on to report.

Cousins didn’t stop there in his 2014 downtime as he entered the offseason hungry to learn more and subsequently visited his head coach’s brother Jon Gruden in Tampa to study tape and throw. After taking some patented stiff constructive criticism to heart, Cousins kept working at his craft, improving his footwork, mechanics and even mental approach.

Since discovering he worked best when he could have as many angles of a game completely mapped out beforehand in order to “shut his brain off,” Cousins worked diligently to be able to do just that in training his mind at Neurocore, a Michigan company that specializes in neurofeedback exercises. His offensive coordinator Sean McVay took notice of Cousins maniacal preparation, mental reps and constant film study in stating “he’s almost playing the game before it takes place.”

Simply put, Cousins works insanely hard to perfect everything — via every resource available — and has even gone so far as to map out his entire days in fifteen minute increments to maximize each day’s learning potential. He’s had to earn every opportunity in his sporting life, as well as earn the right to “stick” in those opportunities. The fanatical preparation and insatiable drive to be great may be rooted in that rejected sixth-grader who lost out on the chance to quarterback the “A” team. But, it’s that same drive that has given birth to a natural leader at the highest level of the most popular sport in America.

The man knows only one way. He’s a grinder.

ANALYSIS, CONTRACT AND PROJECTION

Put me down on record as saying Cousins should be paid today. He’s a rare breed, one that you only do yourself a disservice by in doubting him as any type of foe.

Sure, no matter how hard Cousins works, he’s not likely to put up Brady-like numbers. That said, in his first full season starting, Cousins was a top-10 guy in yards, TD-to-INT ratio, quarterback rating, red zone rating and more. We can’t cast aside these stats as if they’re flukes because he doesn’t possess a cannon, or simply because he had an uneven start to his career.

Consider said uneven beginning that saw him lose four starts in a row and get benched at halftime of the fifth at one point, within the context of what his head coach had to say on the topic: “the hardest thing for a young quarterback is when you don’t get the reps, and now all of a sudden you are the starter,” Gruden said. “Kirk didn’t have the experience to go by. He understands it on the board, but sometimes it takes reps. He’s a repetition guy. He needs reps.”

After starting a little rough in 2015, once Cousins was able to hone his abundance of knowledge and prep along with his zen found through extensive planning — those very reps Gruden spoke of afforded Cousins the platform to display that he can be even-keeled despite facing the most heightened of on-field circumstances.

This was likely no better evidenced than in Washington’s thrilling 31-30 comeback victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. It wasn’t just any comeback, it was a franchise quarterback type of undertaking. Cousins led his offense down the field in what felt like an easy, almost inevitable, rhythmic touchdown drive to win the game with under one minute left and no timeouts in a game where his team was once down 24 points.

It was the night of his now notorious and monetized catchphrase “you like that?!” but more importantly, it was the turning point and emotional finalization of his confidence and leadership.

No longer was Cousins hiding in the shadows, waiting in the wings, being overlooked or not expected to succeed anymore. He had arrived.

There’s no amount of work that will ever net Cousins an arm like Rodgers or Newton, but he’s got enough arm to make all of the throws if his mechanics remain consistent. We also know he’ll put in the work to do just that. Further, his timing, speed of going through progressions and accuracy each improved so dramatically over a huge sample of throws this year, it becomes difficult to not imagine Cousins being a top-10 statistical QB once again in 2016. Health permitting of course.

It’s harder than most people realize to find even a top-15 quarterback in the NFL, whether you’re searching in free agency or the draft. Thus, the obvious next step seemed to be to find a way to pay Cousins and keep him long-term, while freeing up enough space to start putting the right pieces in place around him. The Redskins reportedly felt “comfortable” with the current state of contract negotiations before Schefter’s report that negotiations were broken off on Feb. 16.

Some comparable contracts Cousins’ agent was sure to use as negotiating points were those of Cam Newton ($19.5 million in 2016), Russell Wilson ($18.8 million in 2016) and Jay Cutler (set to make $17 million in 2016). Those figures are scary ones for a franchise that swung so mightily and whiffed even worse on a potential franchise quarterback just four years ago.

That said, the franchise tag makes sense for both sides as there has been precedent for quarterbacks getting paid far too much on too small of a sample size (see Matt Flynn) and Cousins will once again play a season with a true chip on his shoulder thus likely giving the Redskins his best; while still making approximately a cool $18.5 million this year under the franchise tag.

That’s most likely the per-year number Cousins’ team was shooting for in long-term negotiations while also seeking a more traditionally structured deal (not the incentive-heavy front-loaded contracts of QBs such as Dalton and Colin Kaepernick) that would see him get a good size signing bonus and guaranteed salary. A deal like this will likely have to wait for now, but expect to see Cousins get top-seven QB money after 2016.

Indeed, the entire emotional roller coaster and difficult process of struggling early in 2015 but being able transform his season into a franchise record-setting one, was an invaluable learning and growing experience for the former Spartan. The business dealings are yet another thing to bolster his ever-growing understanding of the league.

Franchise tag or not, the Redskins have indeed found their quarterback. Now, it’s time to build a legitimate winning roster around him… I’m looking at you Daniel Snyder.

http://www.todayspigskin.com/nfc/washington-redskins/kirk-cousins-unlikely-franchise-qb-still-fighting-respect/

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