Take his touchdown pass against the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday – the second of three on the day. Cousins felt pressure, kept two hands on the ball and his eyes down the field, rotating his shoulders before stepping up into the pocket. And delivering a ball only Pierre Garcon could catch.
“Fortunately Pierre went up and made a great play, but it was just the confidence to make a play like that,” Redskins offensive coordinator Sean McVay said, “keeping his eyes down the field and to have a subtle feel.”
Take his throws to tight end Jordan Reed as well. Some throws require touch; others a different trajectory because of how the defense is positioned.
“You look at the touch balls he threw to Jordan and he’s understanding how to make different types of throws,” McVay said.
On a third-and-14 the previous week, in the NFC East clinching win over Philadelphia, McVay saw another throw he pegged as one a confident quarterback makes.
It wasn’t a “wow” play, but it was an important one. Running back Pierre Thomas, running out of the backfield to the left flat, was open as Reed ran to the inside. So Cousins hit Thomas in stride, allowing him to gain 15 yards on a touchdown drive. If it hadn’t been in stride, Thomas would not have picked up the first down and a field goal would have followed.
“That’s a big-time play, man,” McVay said. “You’re seeing him make more mature plays where when we’re operating on different concepts he makes it right because he got an answer and he’s recognizing where the ball should go based on where coverage dictates.”
Cousins’ confidence should be at an all-time high after the past 10 weeks when he has thrown 23 touchdowns and only three interceptions. During this time, he’s the NFL’s second-rated passer and owns the fifth best total QBR, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Cousins’ performance is a key reason why the Redskins have won four straight heading into Sunday’s playoff opener vs. Green Bay.
The better he plays, the harder he works, teammates and coaches say.
“He does work harder,” Redskins coach Jay Gruden said. “Equally hard as when he has a rough game as when he has a great performance where it’s almost flawless. That’s the way you have to be. That’s the way all the great ones are. ... He’s a very humble guy and he knows he still has a long way to improve and the only way to get there is to study and work hard and that’s what he’s going to do and that’s what you love about him.”
But, really, it’s more about working the same as he always had.
“I don’t know what ‘working harder the better I do’ means, but I try to continue to prepare and develop and regardless of the result, still prepare the same way the next week,” Cousins said. “If I do that, good things will happen.”
Good things are happening. That preparation and growth have resulted in gains with other parts of his game, such as pre-snap reads. When center Kory Lichtensteiger returned to the huddle Wednesday for the first time since he was hurt in Week 5, he noticed a change.
“He’s quick to diagnose the defense,” Lichtensteiger said.
Cousins was identifying the middle linebacker on various plays – it can change based on alignment. Or he’d call out the front and adjust the protection. The quarterbacks in this system aren’t always required to do those things, leaving that up to the center (though the quarterback can change protections).
“He’s been good in the passing game and understanding the route concepts and his reads, but now he’s thrown in understanding what the line does on every play,” Lichtensteiger said. “I could see him asking for that responsibility down the road and he wants to be able to see it all, change it all if it needs to be changed. It’s awesome. It takes some of the guesswork out of it. When you have to overthink on something you hesitate. If he can help out with that in any way it’ll make our blocking smoother.”
That’s what Cousins wants to do, allowing him to have greater control on the field. He’s someone who schedules his life into 15-minute increments. He likes that control.
“The quarterbacks who are successful consistently have really good command,” Cousins said. “To have really good command you have to do all those things that are the game within the game. And the longer you play, the more you have a say in how things are run the better you’re able to run the show and have that command.”
But it starts with increased confidence.
“He’s definitely more confident and aggressive on the field,” Reed said. “Before we weren’t really expecting him to throw the ball in tight situations and now he’s feeling good and he’s fitting the ball in tight coverages and giving us a chance to make plays.”
And that’s giving the Redskins a chance to dream about a playoff win Sunday.