Love him or hate him, you have to give credit to Kirk Cousins for recognizing his short-comings, whether it be end-zone dancing, being “basically a .500 quarterback,” or not being a play-maker.
After the win over the Cardinals in 2018 he talked about his end-zone dance limitations, and last summer he talked about being a .500 quarterback, how that’s not where you want to be, and saying his focus was on winning rather than gaudy statistics.
That focus, along with a better scheme and coaching, led to not only some gaudy stats, but also a 10-5 regular season record last season, 11-6 overall including the post-season- a notable improvement over his .500 record previously as a starter. Both his winning percentages and passer rating were higher than Aaron Rodgers’ career averages.
This past week Cousins said he was looking to build off of that, and focusing on ways to make plays when other aspects of the offense are not working. In particular, he said this in response to a question on his thoughts/take-aways from the loss to the 49ers in the playoffs:
“I think one of the focuses for me this season will be to, if we’re not running the ball well, and if things aren’t going well, to be able to make those plays that can get us right back in the game, and win a game. I think you saw it in the Denver game last year where we were down, we were able to get back in it- and win. But being able to do that more, and against a team like San Francisco- not an easy task - but I think those are the challenges that when they eventually come up this season, it’s a goal and something you’re working toward to say hey, in those moments, to try to find a way to dig deep and make enough plays to win. It could be any number of ways to do it... I’m getting into the weeds a little bit on football but trying to find those ways to make those plays and come out on top against a really good team when other things aren’t clicking for us.”
He went on to elaborate:
“Just, you know, if we get man coverage, being able to take off and run and become more of a scrambler. If we’re off-schedule, get out of the pocket and make a play that’s kind of drawn up in the dirt. That’s just one place to begin, but I think that’s probably the biggest place to focus.”
Often times a player doesn’t understand their short-comings well enough, or isn’t willing to admit them, or really put in the preparation and effort necessary to address them. Sometimes coaches don’t focus on short-comings, but focus on scheme and if you do this and that, the other things will take care of themselves. Well, that doesn’t always happen.
It is also argued that some quarterbacks simply aren’t playmakers by nature. They just don’t have what it takes. Or at least do what it takes.
Aaron Rodgers wasn’t a play-maker right out of the gate- he didn’t even play for three years. He did, after becoming established as a starting quarterback and with continuity in scheme/coaching, take his preparation to the next level and focused on improving his improvisational/play-making skills, some of which he learned from Brett Favre. He mentioned several years ago that he spent his training camp and off-season focusing on what to do when the play broke down. That involved working on specific footwork techniques and awareness skills, communication and rapport with receivers downfield. It led to Rodgers, in his prime, becoming his most deadly when the play broke down and he moved outside the pocket.
Cousins proved to be his most effective outside the pocket last season, and among the best performing QBs in the league in that regard, but this was on designed rollouts or bootlegs - not broken plays for the most part. But this is experience to build on.
Cousins may have been his most deadly on rollouts to his left, which is typically the more difficult direction for a right-handed quarterback to throw properly. Rodgers was effective that way as well, adapting an unorthodox jump-throw technique he learned from Favre. Cousins doesn’t use that, but used kind of a quick shuffle or slide step get his body in position to make the throw. He’s very good with his awareness and field vision outside the pocket, and communication was good with receivers downfield, but again these weren’t broken plays for the most part, so adapting on the fly wasn’t needed.
Good receivers look back after the timing for their route has passed, and will work back to the QB and/or continue to improvise their route to get open as long as their QB is still in a position to deliver the ball. But good communication and rapport between receiver and QB can go beyond that, and by preparing for broken plays in practice, receivers knowing the types of throws their QB can make best from a given situation, and positioning themselves so their QB can make that throw, is all part of the drill - and preparation.
Cousins can work on that with his receivers over the next month as part of his preparation.
Another thing Cousins mentioned was running more when nobody is open in man coverage, which is a more common improvisation for a QB on a broken play. When defensive backs are in man coverage, they’re facing the receiver and staying with them down field, so they’re not in position to play run defense if a QB decides to tuck and run. Often those runs result in big gains because the defense isn’t prepared to defend them. Cousins is no Lamar Jackson, but he’s mobile enough where he can take those often easy yards a defense will give him in those situations to move the sticks or turn what would be a third and long into third and manageable. The key for him is to train himself mentally for that option when it presents itself.
These “play-maker” skills are no more difficult than learning all the other quarterback skills Cousins has already learned, and learned well for the most part.
But perhaps the more difficult skill for Cousins to learn, but still very doable, is to improve his in-pocket awareness and plan his exit route should he need to escape the pocket. I say it may be the more difficult skill for him to learn because in the past he hasn’t been particularly elusive in avoiding rushers and escaping the pocket. Quarterbacks that scramble more often typically have that ‘plan b’ in the back of their head on every drop-back, and probably becomes part of their progression if their first or second read isn’t open, for example. If that happens, they exit the pocket and continue their progression, and ultimately improvisation as the play breaks down. The key is having an exit route in mind should he need to exit the pocket. Of course this isn’t something that can be planned with precision, but perhaps based on the play, defensive read, and knowledge of who your best pass protectors are, a more likely or preferred exit route may suggest itself pre-snap.
Like most skills, after doing it for a while it becomes more instinctual. For Cousins, not having to learn a new scheme and with more experience as a starting quarterback, he has the opportunity to add this to his repertoire, as he has more time in practice and mentally to work on it.
Practice Makes Progress
Cousins was able to make progress on his focus last year on winning, and becoming more than just a .500 quarterback. Of course a lot of factors go into that other than just Cousins, but he was able to step-up in at least a couple games to get the win. And that made the difference between 10-6 and making the playoffs and 9-7 and a season ending in December. It also made the difference between one-and-done and going deeper into the playoffs.
This off-season and training camp isn’t ideal with Covid-19, but now with a year of continuity, and in a scheme and situation he’s both comfortable with and suits him well, Cousins is in a good position to expand his skill-set.
And he appears focused on improving his skills as a play-maker. It’s not a skill a QB develops overnight, but for an established quarterback that has the required physical traits, has mastered the key skills like passing accuracy, reading defenses, scheme fluency, performing well in both a clean pocket and under pressure - as Cousins has - he’s likely to make progress as a play-maker if he puts his mind to it.
Time will tell.
Who knows, he may even become a bona-fide grill-master in time.
Will Kirk Cousins improve as a play-maker this season?
This poll is closed
Yes - he gets better at it every year.
No - just isn’t his thing.