When Washington named Kirk Cousins its starter prior to the 2015 season, the team thought it was leaving quarterback drama in the past. But now, Washington has started the 2016 season 0-2 and Cousins has been a significant factor in the losses.
And rumor has it, his teammates are frustrated.
Washington players are "grumbling" about Cousins in the locker room and would perhaps prefer backup Colt McCoy, a source told Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio.
"At least (McCoy would) play with poise," the source said.
Cousins isn’t in immediate danger of getting benched, but concerns about his decision-making aren’t only happening behind closed doors. Cousins’ teammates are visibly disgruntled on the field, too.
In Week 2, Cousins threw a late-game interception against the Dallas Cowboys that was, to put it mildly, a terrible decision. Washington was leading by three points with an opportunity to extend the lead to 10 with 11 minutes remaining. Then, on third-and-goal, Cousins stared down his first read and threw the ball directly into the arms of Dallas’ Barry Church.
After the interception, wide receiver Pierre Garcon threw up his arms at Cousins and stomped angrily on the field.
Cousins recognized his mistake in reading the defense after the fact.
"When you wait that long and look at it that long, that’s when the backside safety is able to make their way over and that’s what happened," Cousins said.
A breakthrough in 2015
Cousins had a productive season in 2015 if you base that assessment purely on his stat sheet. He finished the season with 4,166 yards, 29 touchdowns, and just 11 interceptions. If you look more closely, though, Cousins had a rocky first half of the season.
Nine of Cousins’ 11 interceptions came in the first eight games of the season. He threw two picks in four separate games in the first half of 2015, taking a 10-9 touchdown-interception ratio into Week 10. After that, he turned things around, finishing the season with 29 touchdowns and 11 picks.
The season culminated in Washington winning the NFC East but falling to the Green Bay Packers in the Wild Card round of the playoffs. After the season, Washington applied the franchise tag to Cousins, which gave him a $19.95 million salary for 2016.
At the time, Washington general manager Scot McCloughan said the decision was based on the need to field a complete team and not just emphasize the quarterback position.
"He’s our leader on offense. He’s our quarterback," McCloughan said. "He won the East last year and that’s pretty cool because that’s what we need here. We need those types of guys, and those are the kinds of guys I’m trying to draft, but also, we can’t go crazy because it’s about 53, it’s not about one."
But McCloughan also seemed content to let Cousins play on his one-year tag rather than reach a long-term agreement with him. It’s possible that the team was wary based on Cousins’ early season start last year and decided to proceed with caution.
Another slow start, but new problems
This season isn’t off to a stellar start for Cousins, either, which makes Washington’s decision look prudent. Through two games, he’s thrown for 693 yards, but has just one touchdown to three interceptions.
Washington has been inept offensively in the red zone, scoring just once in four trips during Week 1 against the Pittsburgh Steelers, and twice on six trips against the Cowboys. In addition to the end zone interception against the Cowboys, Cousins threw one in the red zone against the Steelers. His quarterback rating for the season so far is 78.6, but inside the 20-yard line, it’s a league-worst 19.6.
It’s more troubling when Cousins’ performance in the red zone is compared against last season, when he threw 22 touchdowns and no interceptions inside the 20.
Washington has also struggled to convert third downs. Last season, Cousins converted 69.2 percent of his third down passing attempts, and this season that percentage has dropped to 61.9 percent so far.
Head coach Jay Gruden said the team has faith in Cousins and his teammates have to continue to do their jobs to turn things around offensively.
"He has proven that he can be a successful quarterback in this league," Gruden said. "He can make all the throws, without a doubt. Guys have got to just continue to run hard for him, block hard for him, and good things will happen."
For what it’s worth, not all of his teammates seem to be bothered by Cousins.
"Hopefully, him, as a quarterback, he’ll figure it out and get us rolling as an offense," Washington wide receiver DeSean Jackson said, via Howard Fendrich of the Washington Post. "I think he’s been doing a good job, just a couple of unfortunate plays out there. Sometimes things go wrong."
Cousins understands the frustration and takes full responsibility for his performance.
"I think people respond with emotion, like you said. 0-2 is 0-2," Cousins said on WJFK-FM in Washington. "It's tough. No one wants to be there. I think we all feel like we're too good to be 0-2. We have too many players, too much talent. In a lot of ways, (we) aren't playing at the level we're capable of."
A different QB, but same old drama
Washington has a storied history of locker room tensions surrounding quarterback play, and much of it begins with the way the team is managed. Robert Griffin III was at the center of a similar controversy that began toward the end of the 2013 season. Friction developed between Griffin and then-coach Mike Shanahan when Shanahan benched the quarterback, who didn’t take it well.
The genesis of the conflict surrounding Griffin was always that Shanahan’s system revolved around a traditional pocket passer and Griffin was always more of a dual threat at quarterback. Still, Washington owner Dan Snyder drafted Griffin anyway and gave up quite a bit of capital to make it happen. When Shanahan was fired in 2014, the team hired Gruden, whose offensive philosophy was also not the best fit for Griffin.
When Griffin was sidelined by an ankle injury in Week 8 of that season, McCoy put together a strong outing in his place and calls for McCoy to start permanently increased. Jackson, not known for vocal leadership, had to encourage the team to unite in supporting Griffin as the starter.
In 2015, with confidence in Griffin waning, there were reports (refuted by Griffin) of friction between Cousins and Griffin. The reports suggested that things had escalated between the two quarterbacks to the point that they couldn’t even be in the same room. Cousins won the starting job, while Griffin sat on the bench for the season, eventually ending up in Cleveland with the Browns as a free agent.
But now, Cousins finds himself at the center of his own quarterback controversy — about whether he has what it takes to be Washington’s franchise quarterback.
With the team’s decision on Cousins’ long-term future in Washington looming, the quarterback is under pressure to get this season on track and live up to expectations set by his performance last year. He’ll need his teammates’ support to make it happen.