Life After Robert: The Future of QB Play in Washington

On a pleasant Sunday in Landover, Maryland, approximately 80,000 football fans were still settling into their seats when Robert Griffin III attempted a pass on Washington’s second possession. Griffin landed awkwardly on his left ankle, suffering a dislocation, and is expected to be sidelined for at least six weeks. As Washington again turns to third-year backup Kirk Cousins, we took a look at Cousins’ film to highlight what fans in the nation’s capital can expect from the former Michigan State Spartan.

Play-Action Plus

In evaluating Cousins, what first stood out was his efficiency on play-action throws. First under former head coach Mike Shanahan, and now under first-year head coach Jay Gruden, Washington relies on play action to create throwing windows for the quarterback. On these plays, Cousins shows great technique in executing the fake and solid mechanics in making a throw.

Cousins made his first NFL start in Cleveland during his rookie season with Washington in the playoff hunt late in the year. Cousins led Washington to their fifth straight win to keep their post-season hopes alive. The rookie threw for 329 yards and two touchdowns in the road victory. The first play we’ll look at took place early in the second quarter of that game, with Washington facing 2nd and 6 on their own 37-yard line. They come out with 12 personnel, using wing trips to the right and with wide receiver Pierre Garçon split to the left. Cleveland shows Cover 1 using their base 4-3 defense. Washington runs a play-action fake to the right, and Cousins comes back with a strike to Garçon over the middle.

The end-zone view shows Cousins executing this play flawlessly. He carries out the fake handoff and immediately plants his right foot. Then he wheels his head to pick up Garçon’s location and delivers a great throw for a 16-yard gain.

Last week Cousins entered the game in the first quarter after Griffin suffered his ankle injury. On the final play of the that period, Washington has a 1st and 10 on the Jacksonville 24-yard line. The offense has their 22 personnel in the game with a wing tight end to the right and an I-formation in the backfield. They fake an off-tackle run using Alfred Morris to the left and Cousins comes out of the fake on a half rollout back to his right. As he comes out of the play fake, Cousins again turns his head to quickly locate tight end Niles Paul who is running a corner route. Cousins sets his feet and makes a quick throw to Paul, leading him to the outside and away from the coverage. On this play, Cousins shows great technique in carrying out the fake and then locating his receiver for a big gain.

One more example of Cousins making a big play in the play-action game comes from his first pro start. Trailing 7-0 late in the first quarter, Washington has taken over near midfield after a short punt. This is a perfect situation for both play-action and a deep play, and Cousins delivers. The offense has 21 personnel on the field, with a tight end and wide receiver to the left, a split receiver to the right, and an I-formation in the backfield. The Browns are in their base 4-3 and run Cover 2 in the secondary. After a fake off-tackle run to the left, Cousins comes back to the right on a roll-out, and finds receiver Leonard Hankerson on a deep post route. Cousins throws a great deep ball that goes for 54 yards and a touchdown

Touch and Accuracy on Deep Throws

While a strong arm is important for a quarterback, success on deep passes also depends on pinpoint targeting and deft control of ball speed and trajectory. Here are two examples from Cousins’ second career start last season in Atlanta. On the first play, Washington has just taken over following a touchback and faces 1st and 10 from their own 20. They have 12 personnel on the field with one tight end aligned as an H-back and a slot formation look to the right. Cousins fakes a handoff to Morris and then takes a deep drop in the pocket. He recognizes that wide receiver Aldrick Robinson has beaten the coverage and loads up for a deep throw downfield. His mechanics are excellent as he drives off his plant foot using a quick release with the throw leading Robinson downfield. It takes a great play from the defender to stop a touchdown.

In the second quarter of that Week 15 contest, Cousins again hits a deep throw down the field, this time for a touchdown to Garçon. Trailing by 10, Washington has 11 personnel aligned with trips to the right and Garçon split to the left. Garçon makes a double move on the outside and Cousins helps adjust the secondary with a pump fake to Garçon. The wide receiver beats the coverage deep and Cousins makes a great throw, leading Garçon to the outside and away from the coverage for a touchdown.

Great on the Run

While he will never be mistaken for Robert Griffin III when running with the ball, Cousins also seems very comfortable moving in the pocket and throwing on the run. Here are two examples that demonstrate Cousins’ ability to throw accurately while on the move.

On the first play, Washington has their 22 personnel on the field with a wing to the right and the running backs in the I formation. Atlanta counters with their base 4-3 alignment and personnel and shows Cover 1 in the secondary. Washington fakes the off-tackle run to the left and Cousins comes back to the right on a rollout. While still on the run, he finds his tight end Fred Davis on a corner route for a touchdown.

This angle illustrates how Cousins delivers an accurate throw while moving his feet. With the coverage closing in on Davis, the quarterback decides to throw on the run rather than taking the time to set his feet, and he delivers an accurate toss for a score.

Another example of Cousins throwing on the move comes from a 2013 road start against the Giants in Week 17. On this 3rd quarter play, Washington has 11 personnel on the field with a bunch to the left and a single receiver split to the right. They fake a stretch play to the right and Cousins peels away from the fake, rolling out backside. While on the run to the left, he can throw to either Robinson on a short out route or Garçon on the deep drag route; ultimately, he makes the more difficult throw downfield to Garçon. From the end-zone view, notice the sound mechanics exhibited by Cousins on a difficult throw for a right-handed quarterback. It all begins with his turn of the left shoulder, making sure he gets his shoulders perpendicular to the line of scrimmage. This allows the passer to generate enough power in the throw and make a completion downfield for a first down.

Despite his obvious strengths, our examination of Cousins illuminates two areas of concern. One flaw will likely fade with experience, while the other is an inherent physical limitation of which Cousins needs to be cognizant when trying to make certain throws.

Live Another Down

On two different plays, Cousins tries to force the issue and makes a pass downfield rather than throwing the ball away or taking a sack, either of which would have at least provided another down. Both of these throws are intercepted, putting the Washington defense back on the field in difficult situations.

The first play comes from the second drive of Cousins’s first start in Cleveland. Facing 3rd and 10 in their own territory, Washington has 11 personnel on the field and they use motion to align in a trips formation on the left. The Browns have their nickel defense in the game showing Cover 2, which they then roll to Cover 1 at the snap. Cousins tries to hit a deep post play on the left but the route is covered by both cornerback Sheldon Brown and safety T.J. Ward, who is breaking on it from the deep middle zone. The cornerback tips the ball and Ward secures the interception, returning it to the Washington six-yard line. Cleveland scores the game’s first touchdown on the next play. Given the situation, Cousins should have taken a sack or thrown the ball away rather than forcing a throw and putting his defense in a bad position.

Another example comes from the Atlanta game. Here the Washington offense is backed up on their own goal line, leading by three with 8:27 left in the 3rd quarter. With 12 personnel on the field, they run a play-action pass. Cousins waits in the pocket and attempts a throw late down the middle against the coverage, but strong-safety William Moore cuts under the route to intercept the ball and returns it to the Washington two-yard line. Atlanta scored on the next play to take the lead for good.

Average Arm – Floated Throws

Finally, while Cousins can throw the ball deep with touch and accuracy, his arm is not strong enough for him to rely on when making intermediate throws over the middle into tight windows. The previous play is one such example, and Cousins threw a second interception in Atlanta that further illustrates this point. In the fourth quarter of that contest, Cousins and Washington take over possession on their own 18, trailing by four with 5:00 left in the game. On first down, Washington has Garçon and Santana Moss in a tight slot to the left and they send Moss on a deep route while Garçon breaks inside on a deep in cut. Garçon is open but the throw hangs in the air allowing Falcons cornerback Desmond Trufant time to close in on the ball and make the pickoff.

Summary

With Robert Griffin III out for an extended period of time, Washington will need to rely on Cousins to make plays in the passing game. If Jay Gruden and the coaching staff work to his strengths in the play-action game and down the field and Cousins refrains from forcing throws to help his defense out when necessary, Washington may be able to stay in the NFC East race even with Griffin on the shelf.

Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkSchofield.

Mark Schofield has always loved football. He breaks down film, scouts prospects, and explains the passing game for Inside the Pylon.

22 thoughts on “Life After Robert: The Future of QB Play in Washington

  1. This is reminiscent of Bledsoe/Brady and probably career defining for Cousins. He has been in the League a few years, and this is a fair test, as he has weapons and the team is reasonably healthy. If he is mediocre or worse, Cousins is probably looking at a career as a backup. If he is good or better, he will probably force a decision here one way or another and be an NFL starter. All in.

  2. This is reminiscent of Bledsoe/Brady and probably career defining for Cousins. He has been in the League a few years, and this is a fair test, as he has weapons and the team is reasonably healthy. If he is mediocre or worse, Cousins is probably looking at a career as a backup. If he is good or better, he will probably force a decision here one way or another and be an NFL starter. All in.

     
    I would agree with all of this. Injury to Bledsoe also happened in Week 2, just like RG3.
     
    Cousins will get at least four weeks early in the season to show his worth. They play @ Philly, home against the Giants, home against the Seahawks, and at Arizona. four NFC games, two in the division and one game against the defending Super Bowl Champion. A stern test to be sure, but he has a shot to win this job now.

  3. That interception rate is just not close to acceptable, so he has to get that down.
     
    I think his future is as a backup or the Josh McCown/Matt Flynn annual quarterback who gets paid but is actually a terrible starter award winner.

  4. Yeah, the INTs are definitely an issue. Part of that (IMO) is the fact that as a back-up, you often have the mindset of “I need to make a play to win the job.” Human nature. In the next four weeks or so the job is his, so we’ll see if he takes better care of the ball.  

  5. It is kind of a big test for them this week.  While Cousins started 3 games last season, by that point the season was such a shitshow it is hard to really draw any conclusions.  Looking back to 2012 he made a good accounting of himself in the Atlanta game (RGIII concussion) in a loss (with a pick or two), the Baltimore game (RGIII knee) with a nice win capped by a rush for a 2pt conversion to go into OT and in Cleveland (start) where he looked to run more or less the RGIII offense and grind up the Browns pretty well.
     
    Can’t put much from last week as the Jags are not quite NFL caliber.  So this week gets him a pretty good Redskins team against a pretty good Eagles team in a tough environment.
     
    Looking forward to 1pm on Sunday.

  6. Yeah, the Jacksonville game really isn’t worth much in terms of evaluating him. Washington had receivers open all over the field. Even on some of their bigger plays Cousins missed other guys who were open (but it’s hard to knock a guy to throwing to one of three receivers with no one around them).

  7. This is reminiscent of Bledsoe/Brady and probably career defining for Cousins. He has been in the League a few years, and this is a fair test, as he has weapons and the team is reasonably healthy. If he is mediocre or worse, Cousins is probably looking at a career as a backup. If he is good or better, he will probably force a decision here one way or another and be an NFL starter. All in.

     
    An interesting observation but lacking one key component: the contract. Cousins and Griffin were taken in the same draft but in different rounds; Cousins contract expires a year sooner. The extra year for Griffin also increases his value on the trade market, possibly yielding more than he would only one year remaining on his deal. 
     
    Suppose Cousins plays like 2001 Tom Brady and leads Washington to the playoffs. What do you do?

  8. If you don’t think Griffin is the long-term answer and someone is offering a high pick for Kirk Cousins?  It will never happen, but trade both QB’s and use the bounty to acquire a long-term solution.

  9. If you don’t think Griffin is the long-term answer and someone is offering a high pick for Kirk Cousins?  It will never happen, but trade both QB’s and use the bounty to acquire a long-term solution.

     
    I wonder about a team like Miami offering a second if Cousins plays well over the next month and Tannehill continues to Tannehill. The issue is that I can’t see Washington letting him go for a second if he’s playing that well, given RGIII’s injuries. If he leads the Redskins on a miracle playoff run, I think the answer is simple, you keep Cousins as the starting QB and look to trade RGIII. Teams are no longer crippled by rookie salaries so the biggest issue from a Redskins perspective would potentially be PR, but if Cousins is successful, I don’t think fans are going to be so excited about RG3 returning anyway.

  10. Is Kirk Cousins the next Matt Flynn or the next Matt Schaub? (I doubt he’s the next TB — that lightning probably doesn’t strike again)
     
    RGIII is something else when he can stay on the field, but does his size and his style of play preclude that from ever happening?  His injuries, though very different from Gronk’s, are similar to his in the sense that they came about from normal activities within his style of play.
     
    Cousins is likelier the safer but less sexy choice.  I think that in this next offseason, one of them gets traded.  

  11.  
    I wonder about a team like Miami offering a second if Cousins plays well over the next month and Tannehill continues to Tannehill. The issue is that I can’t see Washington letting him go for a second if he’s playing that well, given RGIII’s injuries. If he leads the Redskins on a miracle playoff run, I think the answer is simple, you keep Cousins as the starting QB and look to trade RGIII. Teams are no longer crippled by rookie salaries so the biggest issue from a Redskins perspective would potentially be PR, but if Cousins is successful, I don’t think fans are going to be so excited about RG3 returning anyway.

     
    Heath Shuler / Gus Ferrotte part 2???
     
    If Cousins does something during his 4-6-8 weeks whatever that Griffin is out he really forces the hand of Gruden and will once and for all reveal if Snyder is truly in the background.  If Cousins is 3-1, 5-1, 6-2 playing well and gets replaced for Griffin, Snyder had a hand in it.  If not Allen / Gruden are really in charge.

  12.  
    An interesting observation but lacking one key component: the contract. Cousins and Griffin were taken in the same draft but in different rounds; Cousins contract expires a year sooner. The extra year for Griffin also increases his value on the trade market, possibly yielding more than he would only one year remaining on his deal. 
     
    Suppose Cousins plays like 2001 Tom Brady and leads Washington to the playoffs. What do you do?

    Correct about the contract. They would undoubtedly pick up RGIII’s option year unless they deal him next offseason. The problem would be with Cousins, whose contract is up next year, which means you have to deal him after this season.

    What I would do if Cousins plays like an 01 Brady depends on what the rest of the team looks like. If they look solid — and they probably have an improved defense, and undoubtedly have more playmakers – I’d probably deal RGIII and hope to get a 1st round pick.

    He is an unquestioned health risk at this point, and he’s at least a full season of playing away from being a competent traditional style QB.

    As for playing the style he played in 2012 — forget it. His body will not last, he knows it, which is one of the reasons he wants to go the traditional route.

  13. Who is giving a first for him for one season if he’s not going to play a competent QB for that season?

    The trade would occur after this season. The acquiring team would have 2015 and an option for 2016.

  14. The trade would occur after this season. The acquiring team would have 2015 and an option for 2016.

     
    Right, but would you rather trade for 2 seasons of RG3 and his one leg or draft Jameis Winston for 5 seasons? Obviously, that could change depending on when Jameis comes off the board, but I’d have to think many teams are going to evaluate that there are better options at QB with a first round pick. Maybe someone gives up a second, but I’d wager a third is more likely.

  15. If Chipadelphia could get their hands on RGIII it would be worth a first. I don’t know if there are any other teams that have the need and the ability to get the most out of RGIII. Edit: Maybe Houston?
     
    Why are we bringing up Jameis Winston? To me at least, all he’s done is prove he’s a huge fucking idiot. I’d rather have RGIII for 2 over Winston for 5.

  16. If Chipadelphia could get their hands on RGIII it would be worth a first. I don’t know if there are any other teams that have the need and the ability to get the most out of RGIII.
     
    Why are we bringing up Jameis Winston? To me at least, all he’s done is prove he’s a huge fucking idiot. I’d rather have RGIII for 2 over Winston for 5.

    Just noted in another thread that Winston had best stay in college for another year. He appears to be an idiot, and at this stage given the position he plays, I imagine he is off the draft boards of the better run teams, or headed in that direction. It is inconceivable that anyone sane would hand them the keys to their offense.

  17. I don’t really understand the hype about cousins, he has a poor arm, and has only had success in a very limited stretch while he was awful against the Cowboys and Falcons last year, who had two of the worst d in the league.

    I fully expect him to blow up vs philly this week because that is what happens but I must be missing what someone is seeing because I don’t see a starting qb arm there.

  18. I don’t really understand the hype about cousins, he has a poor arm, and has only had success in a very limited stretch while he was awful against the Cowboys and Falcons last year, who had two of the worst d in the league.

    I fully expect him to blow up vs philly this week because that is what happens but I must be missing what someone is seeing because I don’t see a starting qb arm there.

    It’s not hype so much as hope.

    Last year’s games should not be weighted heavily because they were hurt and the team was in a death spiral with the Shanahan/RGIII/Snyder nonsense.

    He’s a quick study, practices well, and is well regarded by Gruden and, previously, the Shanahans. And he was instrumental in getting them the division in 2012.

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