Let’s Not Jump on the Kirk Cousins Bandwagon Just Yet

The NFL is still two weeks from officially closing the books on the 2016 season and opening the 2017 league year. This timeline isn’t stopping fans and pundits across the country from wading shoulder-deep in the speculation quicksand. This week, there is a lot of news simmering that the 49ers will look to trade for Kirk Cousins sometime around the NFL Combine. (Source)

And why?

Oh, because he was in Kyle Shanahan’s offense in Washington! That trade makes perfect sense!

Whoa, whoa, whoa. Stop the clock.

Cousins had a total of four starts while Shanahan was calling plays for Washington. In those four starts, Cousins was 114 for 203 – a 56.2-percent completion percentage – with eight touchdowns and ten interceptions. In fact, Cousins only won one game under Shanahan.

A lot has changed for Cousins and Shanahan since 2013.

Cousins has thrown for over 4,000 yards in two straight seasons. However, he’s only amassed a 19-21-1 record and has more experience in a Jay Gruden/Sean McVay offense than in Shanahan’s.

Since leaving Washington, Shanahan had a rough year in Cleveland before taking Atlanta to the Super Bowl in 2016. In his nine-year career, Shanahan’s called an offense that ranked as low as 27th and as high as first.

What do we learn from this information? Nothing.

Cousins might be the best available veteran quarterback, and Shanahan’s offense has been somewhat inconsistent during his professional career.

But how did Cousins look while Kyle Shanahan was calling plays? Let’s review.

December 16, 2012 – Cousins gets his first NFL win (box score)

If you just looked at the box score for this game, you’d notice Cousins distributed the ball to eight of his receivers, with six having a catch of 19 yards or greater.

The film tells a slightly different story. Cousins had a rough start to the game, throwing five incomplete passes including a forced throw into single coverage that Cleveland intercepted.

However, Cousins rebounded late in the first quarter with a deep touchdown pass from his 46-yard line. Shanahan called a play-action to the left, with Cousins rolling back out to his right. He had a clear field in front of him but threw on the run to hit his backside receiver running a post. If you look at the play from the coach’s film, three defensive backs converged on the receiver, but Cousins fit the ball in a small window, allowing his receiver to keep running for the score.

Early in the second quarter, Shanahan called another play-action form an I-Right-Slot formation. The Browns covered the two receivers running deep routes, leaving the fullback open on a quick out. Cousins zeroed in on his fullback before finishing his drop and missed a wide-open Alfred Morris on a sneak route. However, the play gained eight yards, resulting in a first down.

Shanahan used a lot of play-action this game, often calling for Cousins to roll left or right, thus cutting the field for him to read. Play-action bootlegs are a common strategy for a quarterback making his first NFL start. However, Cousins rarely gathered himself and set his feet to throw, resulting in a few under/poorly thrown footballs. In fact, Cousins looked much better and kept his fundamentals when dropping straight back in the pocket.

After Washington’s defense picked off Weeden to start the third quarter, Shanahan again called a play-action with a boot left for Cousins. He hit Josh Morgan with a soft touch pass just beyond the line of scrimmage, and let Morgan run for 12 additional yards. While Kaepernick can put touch on his throws, 49ers fans have been hungry for a simple play like this for the last few years.

The second touchdown pass came on another play-action pass, but just as Cousins was about to start his bootleg, he had a defender in his face. With the calmness of a Tibetan monk, he politely floated it over the defender’s head to a wide open receiver in the right flat. A great call and quick decision making put Washington up in the third quarter.

With 10:05 left in the fourth quarter, Cousins led a great five-minute drive that resulted in Washington’s last score of the game. The drive opened with, you guessed it, a play-action pass with a slight waggle to the left. Cousins, throwing with anticipation, hit Morgan on an 11-yard dig route and allowed Morgan to run for 21 additional yards. Shanahan called the right play to beat the Browns who were in Cover 3.

Cousins finished the day 26 for 37, for 329 yards, two touchdown passes and victory, a fine start to his career.

December 29, 2013 – Cousins worst loss under Shanahan (box score)

Now, I understand this was the last game of a dreadful season for Washington, but Shanahan called 49 pass plays for Cousins. Unfortunately, Cousins completed only 19 attempts. That’s 39-percent if you’re doing the math at home.

Throughout the game Cousins looked inconsistent, throwing the football out of reach for his receivers to make a play. He was locking onto his receivers early, especially when Shanahan called short or intermediate routes. Cousins simply couldn’t make a big play or capture the momentum when it swung Washington’s way.

Midway through the 2nd quarter, Washington recovered a fumble inside New York’s territory. On 2nd and 8, Shanahan called for an empty set, with five receivers running routes. Cousins took a short drop from shotgun and locked onto a bracketed receiver as soon as he hit his back foot. The result was an incomplete pass, and he never saw his tight end splitting the coverage on a seam route.

In the 3rd quarter, on a 3rd and 11, Cousins took a short drop from shotgun, hit his back foot, and was ready to deliver the ball. He had a clean pocket to climb and find his slot receiver running a deep corner. However, he checked it down to a receiver four yards short of the sticks.

Knowing an offense doesn’t automatically make a quarterback efficient or a master of it. There are a wide variety of skills and intangibles a quarterback must have to have the season Matt Ryan had under Shanahan.

Despite the last two ‘successful’ seasons for Cousins, there simply isn’t enough evidence showing that the 49ers should trade a high draft pick on an uncertain future for him. It might be best to take a quarterback in the second or third round and bring Kaepernick back for the 2017 NFL season.

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