In less than a year, the Redskins completed a stunning turnaround, ascending from a laughingstock in 2014 to a division champion in 2015. But now comes the difficult part: taking that all-important next step and improving from a franchise that was fortunate to get into the playoffs to one that can do some damage once it gets there. And that work begins right now for Jay Gruden, Scot McCloughan and the players.
In the coming weeks, Redskins reporters Tarik El-Bashir and Rich Tandler will examine the 25 biggest questions facing the Redskins as another offseason gets rolling.
Will Kirk Cousins improve in 2016?
El-Bashir: Yes, I do think Cousins will be a better quarterback in 2016.
Why? Let’s start with this: Cousins’ work ethic and meticulous preparation have always helped him overcome the fact that he’s not 6-foot-5 with a cannon for an arm. And that insatiable drive will continue to serve him well, I suspect.
When Cousins was relegated to benchwarmer in 2014, we learned recently that he flew in a private quarterbacks coach to help him refine his game…after he practiced with his full-time employers. Cousins continued to work with that coach last offseason and even sought help from Jon Gruden. Cousins also spent hours each day studying defenses and top-tier quarterbacks in his spare time.
When I heard about Cousins hiring a Chicago-based QBs coach—on his own dime and time—and then working with him after that day's Redskins practice, that pretty much told me all I needed to know about his makeup. He’s a worker, dedicated to his craft and determined to be the best player he can be. At the pro level, that's half the battle.
Now that he’s on the verge of signing a lucrative, long-term extension, I know some will wonder if he’ll take his foot off the gas and enjoy the fruits of his hard work. I don’t suspect that will be an issue. If anything, I think he’ll double down and feel that he’s now got even more to prove.
And, finally, I think Cousins will benefit from an offseason that’s going to begin with him riding a wave of confidence and momentum. An offseason that’s going to begin with him taking all the first team reps. An offseason that’s going to begin with a playbook that the coaching staff has tailored to his strengths.
My only concern is that the negotiations could prove to be a distraction, particularly if the team ends up using the franchise tag on him and/or talks drag out into the summer. Athletes often say they won’t allow contract issues to detract from their focus. But anyone who has gone through the process knows that’s not entirely possible.
Tandler: I have no doubt that Cousins will work as hard as he can to get better in 2016. I also doubt that the contract situation will be a distraction; even if it goes unresolved past the franchise tag deadline, Cousins simply won’t put any entries into any of the color-coded 15-minute blocks in his daily planner.
But there are things that are out of his direct control that will affect how well he plays in 2016. One of them is the Redskins’ running game. It was not good last year as they ranked 20th with 1,566 rushing yards and a dismal 29th with 3.7 yards per carry.
Cousins’ ability to put together a solid year despite the team’s poor performance running the ball is one of the least appreciated aspects of his season. Of the eight NFL quarterbacks who averaged 7.7 or more yards per attempt, Cousins (7.7/att.) had less support from the running game than any of them in terms of yards per carry. Same for the six who had passer ratings over 100 (Cousins 101.6).
If Jay Gruden and Scot McCloughan can make good on their 2015 vow to have a powerful, effective running game that will take a lot of the pressure off of Cousins. If the defense is guessing that makes the play action game more effective and opens up a lot of things that Cousins does well.
An upgrade in depth at receiver would help Cousins, also. At times it seemed that targeting Andre Roberts and Ryan Grant was the same as throwing the ball into the dirt; they combined to catch just 53 percent of the passes thrown their way. And Rashad Ross needs to figure out how to evolve from being a fast guy to being a fast NFL wide receiver.
25 Questions series
· Today: Will Kirk Cousins improve in 2016?
· Tomorrow: Who will start at inside linebacker?