Kirk Cousins can throw downfield more, but perception isn't reality

I typically do a topic of the week, but I turned this one into a mini-mailbag because the more I considered it, the more I wrote. And it stood alone just fine. So here we go.

I'll get into his yards per attempt in a minute, but it's hard to get a great feel for his downfield mindset because we haven't seen him work with DeSean Jackson and Josh Doctson on the field together this spring. So it's hard to say what's really changed in that regard. I will say, Cousins threw decisively and with confidence when we watched Wednesday (the defense has definitely had days where they've stopped him, too).

The assumption by many was that Cousins’ yards per attempt in 2015 ranked in the bottom third of the league. The opposite is true; Cousins’ yards per pass attempt of 7.67 actually ranked eighth in the NFL, just behind Cam Newton and ahead of Tom Brady, per ESPN Stats & Information.

In the last half of the season, Cousins ranked first in the NFL at 9.41 yards per pass attempt. By contrast, in the first eight games Cousins ranked 31st in yards per attempt. One big difference: Jackson’s presence. He played two series in the first eight games, but when healthy, the Redskins’ passing emphasis changed. They actually had someone who could win downfield all the time and if it didn’t result in a big play to him, it opened lanes underneath after the catch for others. You also can’t ignore that Cousins would, or should, naturally feel more comfortable, and therefore a little more aggressive. Don't forget, he entered last season with nine starts. Players with that sort of experience aren't finished products.

Still, I think the number you’re looking for is more his air yards per attempt; Cousins ranked 20th in the NFL (and did not improve with Jackson around). But Cousins ranked one spot behind Drew Brees and one ahead of Brady in this stat, so what does it really mean? Being a good quarterback does not mean you have to throw downfield all the time, but rather move the ball effectively. Having a major security blanket in Jordan Reed has an impact on this, too. Also, I go back to Jackson’s presence and how it enabled them to run different routes – or run them more effectively – leading to more yards after the catch. Indeed, in the first eight games, the Redskins averaged 4.09 yards after the catch (30th in the NFL) compared to 6.14 in the final eight contests (third in the NFL). I liked how the route concepts created lanes, too.

After the first Dallas game, the Redskins changed their offensive approach. Offensive coordinator Sean McVay knew he needed to stay more aggressive with the passing game. That doesn’t mean just throwing downfield, but it does mean taking advantage of the offense’s strength. They have a quarterback who gets rid of the ball fast and has plenty of talent to target. They didn’t necessarily throw the ball more, in part because they were winning and didn’t need to stay aggressive throwing the ball into the fourth quarter. But it would be surprising this season if they adopt the same run-first mentality they had for much of 2015. Their talent, even the line is better in pass protection at this stage, suggests as much.

The Redskins would like Cousins to throw downfield a bit more, especially with a healthy Jackson. Cousins was far more effective on first downs after the first Dallas game – in the next three weeks he completed 35 of 43 passes on first down – he had attempted just 40 passes on first down in the previous five games combined. The coaches loved his deep ball to Pierre Garcon in the second Dallas game because it was an off-scheduled play where he gave his man a chance – and Garcon turned it into a touchdown.

They’d like to see more such plays because their receiving talent definitely suggests it can be an explosive tactic – New England’s receiving talent, in comparison, does not. Still, it’s an area where the Redskins want improvement. Do not mistake more yards per attempt, however, for a better passing attack. If the Redskins keep getting mismatches for Reed, it leads to shorter throws – but productive ones as well. If it leads to points, that's what matters most.