Many times this preseason, Kirk Cousins has dreamed aloud about being a “steadying force” at quarterback, the constant amid chaos, a player who can transcend personnel and produce using whatever offensive talent he is given. This is the gold standard for him, to be great in isolation. This is the trait most common in the quarterbacks he admires. And, come to think of it, this is also what his critics would bet a month of groceries that Cousins can’t do.
Can Cousins command an offense? Or can he merely run one? Is he capable of enhancing the talent around him? Or will he always be a quarterback who complements and reflects the skill level of his teammates? For two years, the answers to those questions have been debated in and out of the Washington Redskins organization without a definitive answer, mostly because the team has been blessed with a deep collection of receiving options perfect for Coach Jay Gruden’s system. Cousins has fared well under favorable conditions, but even his most enthusiastic supporters would hesitate to declare, “It doesn’t really matter who he’s playing with; as long as Cousins is on the team, it has a chance.”
This season, however, the offense is different. It remains talented but not ridiculously so. For the first time since Cousins became the undisputed starter, he must adjust to a new assortment of offensive weapons.
Right now, he is struggling. The whole team is, really. On Sunday, during a 23-17 preseason victory over Cincinnati at FedEx Field, Washington started so poorly that the Bengals held a 99-1 advantage in yards after the first quarter. Cousins and his team eventually recovered because this is the preseason, and nothing — good or bad — lasts long at this time of year. But while Washington left encouraged by the way it responded after a third straight slow start, it should be more concerned about the overall impression that this team isn’t ready for real football yet. It is behind, without a doubt. And only two weeks remain until the season opener.
For Cousins, the quest to be his team’s steadying force remains an arduous aspiration. The roster churn has been difficult for him. He looks uncomfortable. Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson, two 1,000-yard receivers, are gone. He is still figuring out Terrelle Pryor Sr., his new 1,000-yard receiver. Jordan Reed, the best all-around receiving tight end in football, just returned from injury last week. Jamison Crowder has missed some preseason time, and Josh Doctson has missed even more. Meanwhile, Washington’s offensive line — which essentially has been intact for two years — has been inconsistent. And the running game isn’t a strength.
As a result, Cousins looks like a quarterback burdened with change. On Sunday, he completed just 10 of 19 passes for 109 yards. He didn’t throw for a touchdown, unless you count the interception that Cincinnati linebacker Vontaze Burfict returned 62 yards for a score. Through three preseason games, Cousins is 25 for 44 (56.8 percent) for 258 yards, with one touchdown and one pick. His 72.0 passer rating this August is well below his 93.6 career efficiency.
Now isn’t the time to harp on statistics, of course. But most everything is off. Cousins makes no excuses about injuries. He doesn’t exaggerate the process to develop chemistry with new receivers or old ones in different roles. He wants to be the quarterback who makes those challenging adjustments look easy. But he is straining to have that influence. If that doesn’t change soon, it could be a trying season, especially with Cousins still vying for a lucrative long-term contract.
“That’s certainly a goal of mine, to play well regardless of who’s in there,” Cousins said recently. “In this league, with how much attrition takes place, you’re not going to have the luxury of playing with the same starting receivers for 10 years. So welcome to the NFL.”
On Sunday night, Cousins sounded like a man wrestling with reality. He is still optimistic, but he isn’t glossing over the task as much as he did at the start of training camp last week.
“We have to learn and grow together,” Cousins said.
Later, the quarterback admitted that he doesn’t think “we’ll really know what kind of team we have until maybe October.” He added that, even while searching for identity and consistency, the team must find ways to win games in September. But he seems to be bracing for what the preseason has taught him: Don’t expect much to come easy.
“I think it’s always evolving,” Cousins said. “You’re learning, but we’re going to have to be ready. We don’t have a choice. So if the question is if we’re going to be ready, the answer is yes. We’re going to be ready to go.”
For this slow-developing team, perhaps the second quarter Sunday served as the most important part of the game. After that awful first quarter, the offense responded by outgaining Cincinnati 161-39 in the second.
Early in the second quarter, Cousins made the defining blunder of another long preseason night, throwing the interception to Burfict, which he said was “entirely my fault.” But after a dangerous failed attempt to tackle Burfict, Cousins helped the offense find a rhythm. Rob Kelley (10 carries, 57 yards) led a rejuvenated running game, and the entire offense flowed better during a 75-yard touchdown drive immediately after the interception. By halftime, Washington had trimmed a 14-3 deficit to 14-13. And the evaluation of this performance changed from a total debacle to an uneven effort. The competitive response mattered as much as the terrible start.
“I was impressed with that,” Gruden said. “That was good stuff.”
That represented a solid ending to a bad preseason for the first-team offense. On Thursday, the starters won’t be available to play, so we don’t have to worry about overanalyzing them in the final preseason game. It’s not the worst thing to have flaws exposed in August. Better now than in Week 1. At the same time, there is great urgency for Cousins, who wants to be known as more than an above-average system quarterback.
“I think that consistency and that ability to deliver a similar result no matter what’s going on around them says a lot about [great quarterbacks] as football players and as people,” Cousins said. “And that’s the kind of continuity and stability we want to have here in Washington.”
More than ever, it’s on Cousins to be that steadying force. The next phase of his career is all about proving he can be that player. If the preseason is any indication, it will be the hardest thing he has attempted as a pro.
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.