Verdict split on direction of Redskins QB Kirk Cousins

Kirk Cousins has finished four games with a passer rating of 70 or less, and three above 90 this season. Gail Burton/AP

ASHBURN, Va. -- The verdict arrives at different times, perhaps triggered by a game or series of them. Maybe it’s a throw that remains an issue, or progress that stagnates. Or maybe it’s the opposite; snippets of growth remain visible, allowing teams to be more patient.

Which brings us to Washington Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins. He has now started 16 career games and is coming off a career day. But that historic day was preceded by a bad one. A D-plus outing one week; an A the next. Does that mean he’s a career backup -- yes, says ESPN analyst Louis Riddick. Or does that mean he’s still ascending, as some others say. They aren't questioning the decision to play Cousins, but more trying to figure out what level he'll eventually reach.

"Every time he has a good game, if you’re on that side of the ledger as far as what you think he can become, you say see he showed it," said Riddick, a former player, scout and NFL front office executive. "If you’re not you say 'here comes the valley again.' Peak and valley players are backups. Those are guys who get you to 7-9, 8-8 or maybe 6-10 or 5-11. That’s not getting you anywhere."

Cousins certainly has had peaks and valleys: he led a game-winning drive against Philadelphia followed by consecutive two-interception games against Atlanta and the New York Jets, in which he struggled with ball placement. That, of course, was followed by his historic day against Tampa Bay for which he was named the NFC Offensive Player of the week. This season, Cousins has finished four games with a passer rating of 70 or less; he’s had two over 100 and a third over 90.

And that is why others say no verdict has yet been reached on Cousins. One NFL executive said they need to give him two solid years running Jay Gruden’s offense as the starter (12 of his starts have come under Gruden). "Andy Dalton was up and down for four years and is playing at a higher level now," the executive texted.

Another NFL assistant coach said, "Kirk has already shown he can do it. He just hasn’t shown he is consistent enough to do it without help."

Former Redskins quarterback and current ESPN analyst Mark Brunell was a fifth-round pick who did not become a full-time starter until his third season. He advocates for more time.

"It wasn’t until halfway through my fourth year, that I started feeling comfortable,” Brunell said. "I’m talking about recognizing defenses, making the correct check at the line. I went into games thinking 'I got this, I know what it means to play well, I know what’s expected of me and I know what the job is.' In my third year starting I felt I had it."

For Brunell, the telling signs of stagnated growth would be making the same mistakes -- struggling with the same route, for example. The NFL assistant coach said he gauges it by how a player performs in practice, too. They can see the ability; but then they have to see how they handle adversity in games. Cousins has handled it better this season, responding to mistakes stronger. But there have still been ups-and-downs.

"It’s your decision-making, recognizing the defense," Brunell said, "getting guys in position. There has to be progress. It’s hard, because let’s say the quarterback is making progress and getting better but they lose games. Then the head coach is fired and there’s a new coach in and now you’re starting over. It’s not an exact science."

This week, Redskins coach Jay Gruden said Cousins had shown flashes, but they wanted more consistency. That’s what others in the organization need to see as well. If it doesn’t happen, then the Redskins will be searching for another starting quarterback in the offseason. If it does, then Cousins could put his grip on the job for a few more seasons. Like his results, opinions on him are mixed around the NFL. Those who have worked with him believe he can be a quality starter. Others, like Riddick, are skeptical.

"Even watching it you see he can play," Riddick said. "He knows what he’s doing. But when it’s time to process and pull the trigger and put the ball where it needs to be put and make the right decision he doesn’t physically make it happen all the time."

As the offense regains more weapons -- tight end Jordan Reed's return last week helped; DeSean Jackson might return after the bye -- then Cousins will be helped more as any quarterback would.

"It’s all about getting better-and-better and showing us he has the right to be a starter," Gruden said. "He’s done that over the first seven games."

The Redskins do point to subtle areas of growth, from handling protection calls to running concepts they could not have run last season. But Cousins knows what he must do -- and that he can’t listen to critics. His focus must remain on himself.

"You don’t feel the growth week in, week out, but when I look back now after seven weeks, I do feel like I’ve grown," Cousins said. "That’s encouraging. Seven more weeks from now, I think I’ll be even further down the road. Trust the process and let the results take care of themselves."