Questions about Kirk Cousins will linger for some until he proves it again

The question shifted in one season, going from wondering if quarterback Kirk Cousins could be an effective starter for the Washington Redskins to this: Can he do it again?

The Redskins have said privately and publicly that they like what they have in Cousins. But they don't yet like him enough to secure a long-term deal at his asking price.

With Robert Griffin III gone, Cousins is officially in charge after throwing 29 touchdowns and 11 interceptions last season. It will be his first offseason as a full-time starter, which the Redskins say will help him develop. They loved how he developed in the subtleties of the position last season as well.

And there’s little doubt he’s confident in his abilities – it’s why he’s fine playing for the $19.95-million franchise tag. Instead of accepting the Redskins’ offer of $16 million per year, Cousins, entering his fifth year, is betting he’ll have another strong season and cash in next offseason.

Don’t forget that Cousins’ entire career, from the time he left high school, has been about successfully proving others wrong. For him, this is just another step in that process.

The Redskins believe Cousins’ play is sustainable because of what they saw last season: throwing with anticipation, taking command of the offense, playing in rhythm. To take the next step, though, they want to see more plays like the one he made in the regular-season finale vs. Dallas: On an off-scheduled play, he lofted a deep ball down the left side to a covered Pierre Garcon, who made a leaping catch and scored.

“It’s not a leap of faith,” one executive with another team said of projecting Cousins’ play in the future. “[Cousins] progressed enough and he’s going to get better. I wouldn’t say he’s peaked by any means.”

His critics point out Cousins didn’t beat a team during the regular season with a winning record. In those three losses to winning teams, he threw a combined three touchdowns, four interceptions and had a 69.9 passer rating. But in six regular-season games against defenses ranked in the top 10, Cousins threw for 11 touchdowns and four interceptions as the Redskins went 3-3. He threw one touchdown and no picks in a playoff loss to Green Bay.

“Everyone wanted to see him play better in the playoffs,” said Matt Bowen, a former NFL safety Matt Bowen and current NFL analyst for ESPN.com. “What he did during the season … he played smart football and made others around him better. He found the matchups he wanted. Jordan Reed made him better, but he made Reed better, too.

“The top quarterbacks last year were 32 years or older. Kirk is still a young guy. You build around those players. You hope that he continues to develop and that arrow goes up.”

Not all are sold.

“I don’t know about his arm talent and what’s he going to look like if he doesn’t have a lot of good parts around him,” one former general manager said. “With Cousins you have to have a hell of a defense. I see Cousins right underneath Dalton and Alex Smith, but not with their talent, and that makes me nervous. When you pay a guy, talent is never in question. You love everything about him intangibly, but there’s gray area with his talent. I like him, but that’s a lot of money.”

The Redskins haven’t had an issue with Cousins’ arm strength. He ranked ninth in terms of passer rating (95.1) on throws outside the numbers last season, according to ESPN Stats & Information. His average air yards per throw overall was 7.75, which ranked 20th – but was one spot behind Drew Brees and one ahead of Tom Brady. And Cousins ranked 12th on throws traveling 20 yards or more with a 93.7 rating. His yards per attempt of 7.67 was eighth in the NFL, one spot behind Cam Newton. Cousins’ overall QBR of 70.1 was sixth in the NFL.

“He had the poise in the pocket to sit back there and know where he’s going with the ball and be accurate,” said a scout for a team that faced Washington last season. “I know early on he wasn’t real accurate and then all of a sudden he got comfortable and started putting the ball on the money. They should feel good about him.”

But as former NFL executive and player and current ESPN analyst Louis Riddick said, if the Redskins need to see more to pay a certain price, why wouldn’t he?

“I want to see if in a new year, different opponents, playing better defenses and they have a much tougher schedule this year, can you sustain it?” Riddick said. “I wouldn’t want to pay him based off this last year. Get to the playoffs and win some games. If you got to the playoffs and say he completed 70 percent of his passes and threw three touchdowns and the defense gets blasted and they lose, that’s not his fault. If you do that, I’m much more open to saying, ‘OK, we can talk about that 19, 20 million a year.’ I think that’s what they’re looking for. Give me one more of those and then we’ll talk.

“But you can’t take away the fact that the kid improved. He steadied his performance and stopped becoming the absolute interception machine he had been. We’ll see this year.”