Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

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49ers film room: Kirk Cousins is not a franchise quarterback - Part 2

Chris Wilson
Aug 13, 2017 at 4:57 PM3

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Quarterback Kirk Cousins will likely be a free agent after the upcoming season, and may have his sights set on joining the San Francisco 49ers. Unfortunately, Cousins -- who will be 30 years old at the beginning of the 2018 season -- is still a developmental project who expects to be paid like a franchise quarterback.

This is the final installment of a two-part series analyzing Washington Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins.

In the first installment of this series, we analyzed Cousins' film, dug into his stats, and discussed the reasons behind his recent failures in the red zone. In this second installment, we'll bring you the good and the bad from Cousins' 2016 game film.

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Quick Play-Action Passes to his First Read

Cousins is deadly on play-action passes to his first read when the defense reacts as the offensive play is designed. In this first example, the half-step Dallas Cowboys linebacker Anthony Hitchens takes toward the line of scrimmage is all the separation Redskins tight end Jordan Reed needs down the seam. Cousins sees this immediately, and begins his throwing motion before he hits the back step of his drop. The result is a pass that only Reed can catch and a 25-yard first-down reception:

The Baltimore Ravens linebackers bite hard on the play-action fake before bailing back. Cousins hits the back of his drop and immediately fires the on-target pass to his open receiver. With the safety initially racing back, he can't change direction in time to make a play on the ball before the catch:

After attacking the line of scrimmage on the play fake, Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Jordan Hicks is slow to diagnose the passing play, and is unable to help cornerback Jalen Mills with the faster receiver DeShaun Jackson. The deep route on the opposite site of the field keeps the single-high safety from cheating; it's a well-designed play by the Redskins, and great execution by Cousins:

Successfully Staring Down his First Read from a Clean Pocket

When Cousins has a clean pocket, he throws one of the best deep balls in the NFL. Cousins takes advantage of the split safeties and receiver Jamison Crowder's speed advantage over Green Bay Packers corner Quinten Rollins, as he drops the ball over Rollins into Crowder's hands for the score:

After the snap, Cousins stares down Pierre Garçon, but Packers cornerback Ladarius Gunter can't keep up with the receiver, and Garçon heads into the end zone for six.

Cousins benefits from another clean pocket, as he stares down the streaking Jackson. However, just before releasing the pass, Cousins gives a quick head fake to keep the New York Giants safety in place. The Redskins owe their touchdown to Cousins' perfect 50-yard pass, but the fact that Cousins is at least attempting to control safeties from the pocket is a positive for the quarterback's future development:

It's difficult to find a completed 30-yard pass where an NFL quarterback stares down his first read as long as Cousins does on this play. Fortunately for the Redskins, none of the Cowboys who were reading the quarterback's eyes were able to get to the sideline in time to make a play on the ball:

Unsuccessfully Staring Down his First Read

Unfortunately, in the NFL, staring down your first read usually leads to trouble. Here, Cousins' mistake costs the Redskins a first down, as well as a potential deep touchdown pass. Redskins tight end Vernon Davis gets a clean release, and avoids Arizona Cardinals linebacker Deone Bucannon's half-hearted redirection attempt. Instead of immediately hitting Davis for the easy completion, Cousins takes an extra second to stare down his receiver. Cardinals safety Tony Jefferson has his eyes in the backfield and leaves his deep-half responsibility -- and the streaking DeSean Jackson -- to break on Davis before Cousins begins his throwing motion. As Jefferson expected, Cousins ignores Jackson and throws the pass to Davis, and Jefferson is in position to defend:

Here, Cousins assumes a defender has a different responsibility, and doesn't realize his mental mistake because of his lack of field vision. Cousins assumes that the highlighted defender -- Cleveland Browns linebacker Christian Kirksey -- has either curl/flat responsibility (and should follow Garçon's initial out route), or man responsibility (and should follow Crowder's drag). However, as Cousins stares down Reed's dig route, he fails to see that Kirksey is still sitting back in the middle of the field. The only saving grace for Cousins is Kirksey doesn't fully trust what he sees in the quarterback's eyes, and is a second late breaking on the pass:

This is fantastic example of a defender following Cousins' eyes as he telegraphs a pass. Similar to the last example, Cousins is only saved by the defender not fully trusting Cousins' obvious deficiency. Detroit Lions safety Miles Killebrew fakes the blitz, and then backs off into coverage. Killebrew simply follows Cousins' eyes right to his intended receiver; without his last-second hesitation, Killebrew may have taken the pass back to the house. Even safety Rafael Bush -- No. 31 -- has a hard time staying in position as he follows Cousins' eyes and drifts toward the intended receiver:

Here, Cousins is confused by simple defensive coverage. When Cousins got back to the sideline, he probably told his coach he thought he could fit the pass between Cowboys linebacker Justin Durant -- who was initially facing the wide side of the field -- and Sean Lee -- who Cousins assumed would be focused on the underneath receiver Crowder. Instead, the Cowboys defenders simply watched Cousins lock onto Reed, and broke on the pass. Luckily for Cousins -- who had Crowder and running back Chris Thompson uncovered -- neither linebacker was able to intercept the pass:

Cousins tries to force this pass between four defenders, and hits Eagles cornerback Malcolm Jenkins in the hands. Without Jackson's defensive play on the ball, this would have been another interception in the red zone for Cousins:

In this example, Cousins is unpressured against a vanilla defense, yet throws an interception directly at a defender. Perhaps prior to the snap, Cousins expected to have enough space to get the pass over Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier, who may have been focused on Matt Jones if the running back wasn't so slow to release from the backfield. With the safety shaded toward the short side of the field, the play was designed perfectly for a deep pass to the opposite side, where Davis was running down the numbers for a relatively easy score:

Cousins incorrectly assumes the Browns are in man coverage, and ignores their outside defenders. Cousins doesn't survey the field, and throws the ball as soon as Crowder makes his break toward the sideline. Browns cornerback Jamar Taylor simply follows Cousins' eyes for the easy interception:

As Cousins locks onto Garçon, Cowboys defenders Barry Church and Sean Lee abandon their responsibilities and drift toward the receiver. As they expected, Cousins -- under no duress -- throws the ball into heavy traffic, and Church comes down with the pick:

Carolina Panthers safety Kurt Coleman sits back in the secondary with his eyes in the backfield. When the pocket begins to close, Cousins telegraphs his pass to Davis, and Coleman steps in front of the tight end for the easy interception:

The Eagles bring a safety blitz, so Cousins wants to get the ball out quickly to his first read. Unfortunately, Eagles cornerback Leodis McKelvin is waiting to jump the short route, and Cousins doesn't have the arm strength to get the ball to his intended receiver Jackson. McKelvin steps in front of the pass, and takes it back for six:

Choosing his Receiver Prior to the Snap

Cousins often decides where he will throw the ball prior to the snap, especially on third downs. On this horizontal stretch play on third-and-short, Cousins decides he will throw the pass to Reed, even though Giants cornerback Eli Apple is pressing the tight end with outside leverage. Cousins stares down Reed -- who is blanketed by Apple -- and then throws a bad pass from a clean pocket, while ignoring the open receiver with an eight-yard cushion on the wide side of the field:

On this third-and-short, Cousins decides to go deep. Cousins even looks off Crowder -- who is open due to the corner blitz -- to throw the deep pass over the head of his receiver who slipped coming out of his break:

On another third-and-short, Cousins decides the ball will go to Jackson, who motions to the left size of the formation prior to the snap. Panthers cornerback Daryl Worley does a good job of fighting through the rub, but Cousins throws the ball anyway. A perfect pass could have netted the Redskins a score, but Cousins throws a wild incomplete pass behind his receiver:

This two-point conversion attempt is going to Reed no matter what. However, Reed is well-covered, as Cousins' pass in the direction of the tight end bounces out of bounds near the pylon:

This is a designed play -- either called by the coaching staff or via audible by Cousins -- that is read perfectly by Steelers linebacker Arthur Moats, but Cousins throws the pass anyway. As Moats steps in front of the slant route, Jackson cuts off his route to give Cousins a target for the pass. Instead of throwing the ball to Jackson -- or out of bounds -- Cousins throws the ball right into the hands of Steelers cornerback Ross Cockrell:

Pressured on first down in field goal range, Cousins should simply throw this ball away, but instead he decides to lob the ball up for Davis. Redskins wide receiver Ryan Grant doesn't know the play call, but is lucky enough to get in the way to break up the interception:

Cousins does a good job stepping up into a nice pocket, before throwing the ball as far as he can toward a double-covered receiver:

With the Redskins needing 15 yards for a first down, the Cincinnati Bengals defenders break back as the ball is snapped. Cousins throws the deep ball in Jackson's direction, and into the hands of safety George Iloka:

Staring Down his Second Read

As discussed in the first installment of this series, when Cousins is forced to go through his route progressions, once he makes his decision, he stares down his receiver and takes an abnormally long time to assess the speed of the receiver in order to determine the exact location to throw the ball. In this example, Cousins first looks at Crowder before progressing to Garçon, who is open on the slant thanks to the rub. Instead of immediately firing the pass, Cousin takes an extra step -- while staring down his receiver -- which allows Cowboys linebacker Justin Durant to make a play on the ball:

Cousins progresses from Crowder to Davis, who is running a drag route across the formation. Cousins' poor footwork and telegraphed pass to Davis allows Cowboys safety J.J. Wilcox to step in front of the tight end to knock the ball away:

Cousins takes a quick look at Crowder before locking onto Reed. Cousins sees Reed beat Ravens cornerback Jerraud Powers to the inside, but somehow doesn't see linebacker C.J. Mosley. The Ravens are in a vanilla defense, so Cousins either forgot about the inside linebacker, or expected him to leave his position. The combination of Cousins' confusion and lack of vision results in an interception for the Ravens:

This is my favorite play from Cousins in 2016, and encompasses who he is as a quarterback at this stage in his career.

The Redskins are in 13 personnel, and run play-action, with the single receiver running deep across the field in an attempt to either get behind the secondary, or take as many defensive backs with him as he can. Both Minnesota Vikings defensive backs Xavier Rhodes and Harrison Smith follow the receiver across the field, leaving the deep third uncovered. Cousins sees that his receiver is double covered, but he doesn't recognize where the second defender came from, or the area the defender left exposed. Reed sneaks off the line and past Anthony Barr, who assumes he has help behind him. With no one there, Reed runs uncovered toward the end zone. At this point, Davis has made his way from the right side of the formation to the numbers on the left side, and is followed by Barr. Cousins sees that Davis has a step on his man, and that the deep left has been vacated by the defense. However, Cousins doesn't see Reed -- or remember where Reed should be -- running free down the field. Cousins throws the ball to Davis, who catches the underthrown pass and is tackled into the end zone. Reed's body language transitions from confusion to surprise to excitement as he sees Davis catch the pass and take the ball in for the score:

Here is an example of Cousins throwing to his second read without staring down his receiver before throwing the pass. Cousins originally looks to Crowder, and although Crowder has a step on his man, Cousins is concerned with the positioning of the safety. Cousins then looks to his right, and sees that the second safety isn't in position to help against the single-covered Garçon, who has his man beat. Since it took too long for Cousins to switch his focus from Crowder to Garçon, he's forced to throw the pass quickly, since Garçon is about to break toward the sideline. Unfortunately, Cousins' pass is well off the mark, which allows Giants cornerback Janoris Jenkins to make up the ground necessary to defend against the pass:

Since Cousins doesn't deal well with pressure, the Redskins regularly provide their quarterback with at least one outlet option in case he is unable to find an open receiver. However, if Cousins faces immediate pressure, he often throws to his outlet receiver without first looking to see if the receiver is covered. Here, Cousins wants to hit Garçon, but Cowboys linebacker Justin Durant reads Cousins' eyes and sprints toward the receiver. Cousins decides to go to his outlet, running back Matt Jones. Cousins lobs the ball over the line to Jones, who almost gets his head taken off by linebacker Sean Lee:

As defenders become more comfortable with Cousins' tendencies, they begin to take more chances in coverage. Here, Cousins first looks to Jackson down the seam, but doesn't like the coverage in front of him. Seeing this, the highlighted Steelers safety Mike Mitchell totally ignores the dangerous Reed; he lets him run right by and doesn't even try to redirect him, because he knows Reed is a non-factor in the play. Instead, Mitchell keys on Crowder, who Cousins quickly locks onto as well. As Cousins releases the pass, Mitchell tries to jump the route, and almost comes up with the interception:

The Redskins run a play-action fake, but the Ravens have Jackson covered. Feeling a bit of pressure coming, Cousins fires the pass to his outlet Jones without first checking to see if the running back is covered. Fortunately for Cousins, linebacker Albert McClellan -- who snuck back to cover the running back -- drifted a few yards away from Jones, and is unable to intercept the pass:

Passing Under Pressure

The majority of Cousins' problematic passes are thrown from a clean pocket. So what happens when Cousins is forced to contend with pressure? Cousins usually simply lobs the ball out of bounds, but when he decides to keep the ball in the field of play, things can get interesting. In this example, the Redskins run a play fake, but the Bengals don't buy it. Jackson -- Cousins' first read -- is blanketed, and with pressure in his face, Cousins needs to get rid of the ball. Without looking, Cousins fires the pass to Crowder, who is well-covered by cornerback Josh Shaw. Due to his tight coverage, Shaw isn't expecting the pass to be thrown his way, and it whizzes by his head for a reception to Crowder:

Cousins takes the snap from shotgun and quickly looks right, but the Vikings have the short side of the field covered. Vikings nose tackle Linval Joseph's bullrush pushes the Redskins linemen back into Cousins, as the quarterback looks for his outlet Reed. Both Vikings linebackers Eric Hendricks and Anthony Barr stand between Reed and his quarterback, but that doesn't stop Cousins from attempting the pass. Hendricks and Barr play excellent defense against each other and the ball falls incomplete:

The Redskins run a play fake, but Eagles defensive end Marcus Smith heads straight for the quarterback. Cousins tosses a weak pass to Davis, and cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, who followed the tight end across the formation, steps in front and takes the ball to the house:

Down by a score with 48 seconds remaining in the game, seven Cardinals defenders move up to the line of scrimmage for the blitz. As expected, Cousins is pressured at the snap of the ball, but Crowder is open over the middle for a potential score. Unfortunately, Cousins throws the ball well behind Crowder and into the arms of Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson:

Our last example is from the Redskins' last drive of the 2016 season. On first down, Cousins takes the snap and quickly stares down Garçon. As Cousins steps up in the pocket to throw the pass, he feels potential pressure from his right side, which causes him to take a step to his left. Garçon still has a step on his defender -- Giants cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie -- so Cousins continues with an off-balance pass attempt. Unfortunately, Cousins' arm isn't strong enough to complete the pass, as Rodgers-Cromartie steps in front to intercept the pass and end the Redskins' season:

In Washington Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins's game film, there's a lot of good, and a lot of bad. He can drop a pass into the hands of a blanketed receiver 40 yards away, and he can throw a pass directly at a defender in simple zone coverage. His stats are good outside of the red zone, but his game film looks like the film of a much younger quarterback who has the physical talent to be a star -- and can flash highlight plays -- but doesn't have a full understanding of the quarterback position.

Cousins has the potential to become a franchise quarterback, but it's difficult to argue that he is a franchise quarterback right now. Can 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan teach away Cousins' rookie mistakes? How confident is Shanahan in his ability to mold Cousins into a franchise quarterback?

The upcoming season will be telling for the Redskins' signal caller. If Cousins can limit his mistakes and progress as a quarterback, he'll likely command one of the highest salaries in the NFL. But if he continues the mistakes highlighted above, and his stats regress due to a decreased level of talent around him, Cousins may miss out on his record-breaking payday.

2017 will be an important year for Cousins -- and for 49ers fans who may be watching their quarterback of the future.
  • Chris Wilson
  • Written by:
    You may have seen Chris Wilson's work on NFL game theory, statistical analysis, and film breakdowns at Minute Media, FanSided, Niner Noise, Insidethe49, LockedonSports, ClutchPoints, and others. Follow Chris on Twitter @cgawilson.
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


  • Mike Mahalo
    You can pick apart any and all abs. To make a definitive statement that he's not a franchise qb based on your limited analysis is weak at best. What is a franchise qb? What about intangibles? Leadership? C'mon man.
    Aug 14, 2017 at 12:24 PM
    Response: Mike, I reviewed his most recent 600+ passes - I'm not sure I'd define that as "limited." I do agree with you about intangibles. From what I've read, he has the leadership skills necessary. Of course, the biggest intangible of all is winning...
  • Jeff Bacon
    Analyze any qb like this--Cousins, Rodgers, Brady, Manning, etc--and you will come up with criticisms in the way they play. After Kirk's two stellar years statistically, the bigger test is whether he can adjust to the different level of talent on the team in 2017 and whether he can lead Washington to the playoffs and beyond with this talent. But remember: A team is called a team for a reason. Everyone has to contribute for success.
    Aug 14, 2017 at 12:17 PM
    Response: Jeff, Rodgers, Brady and (Peyton) Manning don't make the mistakes that Cousins does. That's the point. But that doesn't mean that a good QB coach can't coach these mistakes out of him. I agree with you about your next point re: 2017 - which is why I wrote exactly that at the end of the article.
  • NCommand
    Football Outsiders have concluded that over the past 3 years, the Redskins were the most injured team (SF a close 3rd). The fact that they are even vying for the playoffs makes them an outlier of correlation to wins. The only time you'll see that is if there is a franchise QB in place.
    Aug 14, 2017 at 6:21 AM
    Response: Well, just looking at last year, the Redskins' offense was super healthy. Between their QB, WR1, WR2, WR3, WR4, RB1, RB2 and TE2 they missed a COMBINED TOTAL of one game. Reed missed 4. And the entire OL missed a combined total of 6 games due to injury.

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