It has taken a couple of preseasons and a number of clutch regular season moments to build the legend of Kirk Cousins in Washington, but in just over a year, the Redskins have taken a fourth round pick (one received from Oakland in exchange for QB Jason Campbell), and turned it into one of the league's top assets. They've taken a page straight from the A&E network.
Kirk Cousins development-to-date reminds me a lot of how Mike Shanahan handled Jay Cutler early in his career. There's obviously no starting job here for Cousins to grow into, but when Shanahan drafted Cutler in 2006, he decided not to retain his young backup from the previous season, Bradlee Van Pelt, on the roster with Cutler. The starter going into that season, Jake Plummer, was a veteran who was notoriously uninterested in helping to develop his successor. The immediate goal with both Cousins and Cutler was to prepare the young quarterback to handle the NFL on a situational basis first, so that Mike Shanahan could put a backup on the field who offers great upside.
That upside was ultimately reflected in Cutler's trade value, when the Bears turned and dealt two first round picks, a third round pick, and their starting quarterback Kyle Orton, to get Cutler once Josh McDaniels took over in Denver. Cutler built up that value over two-plus seasons as a starter in Denver in a VERY quarterback friendly system. Just two years after his pro bowl 2008 season where Cutler had the best sack rate in the league, he posted the very worst sack rate in the league with the Bears. The adjective I would use to describe Cutler's tenure as Broncos quarterback was "managed."
It's not that Cutler wasn't talented or that he didn't have a bright future ahead of him as QB of the Broncos post-Shanahan, it's that the whole excerise in building up the value of the player to the point he was traded was very much a practice in illusion and storytelling. Cutler's statistics told a story. It told a story that the scouting reports back. Mike Shanahan proved to be a master story teller. And the reality of the situation was…something different. Cutler WAS young and he WAS talented, but the Broncos were able to create a myth and market for a player they were not really ever planning to sell to the highest bidder until about a week or two prior to the trade.
The Redskins are going to find themselves in a similar situation with Kirk Cousins very soon. Cousins spent this offseason in the unofficial role of "interim starting quarterback" of the Redskins during Robert Griffin's rehab from offseason surgery. From talking to other fans around the league, I didn't get the sense that a lot of other teams without quarterbacks considered Kirk Cousins a legitimate option for their QB needy teams. He just didn't play a ton last year, and although he played well against Baltimore and Cleveland at the end of the season, he had mixed results in his first half of play against the Falcons in Week 5. I think the league had a very tempered enthusiasm for Cousins future, but that enthusiasm was drowning in the excitement pool featuring Russell Wilson, Nick Foles, and other quarterbacks that slipped out of the first round in 2012.
Given the national reaction to Cousins' pre-season performance as a starter in charge of the Redskins offense against a Titans' team that is not expected to be that great, we may have underestimated his trade market this past offseason. It's not just Redskins fans that are really excited about Cousins performance. Jets fans, Bengals fans, Browns fans, Jags fans, and even (sure) Titans fans are being much more open now about dreaming up trade scenarios where their team acquires Kirk Cousins (without giving up anything, of course). But as more teams get more frustrated with their quarterback situation (or lack thereof), Cousins' name is going to be right at the top of a lot of team's wish lists. And at the risk of angering any Redskins fans who want to hold on to Cousins until he is eligible to leave in free agency, I'm wondering exactly when the Redskins should trade him.
Now, in theory, the point at which the Redskins could have received the most for Cousins by shopping him is already passed. That would have been this offseason, coming off the Redskins playoff run, when he has three full years remaining on his contract. But the argument could also be made that Cousins was never going to be more important to the Redskins than during the Griffin rehabilitation period when any sort of a setback would have meant that someone else would have had to start the Redskins season. The Redskins minimized a lot of risk by holding onto Cousins through the offseason and having him prepare for the season as the starter, and by doing so, they carried a lot of credibility into the season that they would have lost if the had Rex Grossman playing the role of interim starter.
The thing is, there may be even a better opportunity for the Redskins to turn Cousins into a first round pick plus, even though Cousins is theoretically less valuable the closer he gets to free agency. That point is any time before the trade deadline. This season.
When I look at the AFC, I see a conference that is going to produce a LOT of mediocre teams with aspirations of making the playoffs (and keeping their jobs) because after the top three or four teams, the whole conference is a mediocre mess. Some of the teams that are invested in younger quarterbacks right now are going to have concluded by the end of September or even before that they have a real issue at the quarterback position.
They're also likely to make this conclusion prior to the point where they will conclude that their playoff chances aren't very good. And that is going to drive the market up for Cousins for those teams whose scouts are currently in the process of falling in love with Kirk Cousins.
Like the Cutler situation, a lot of the buzz around Cousins is the result of storytelling. Now, when I graded Cousins coming out of Michigan State in the draft, I had him rated as a first round prospect, just lower than Nick Foles out of Arizona, but well above Ryan Tannehill out of Texas A&M. That means I thought Kirk Cousins was good enough to be a starter before the Shanahan's ever touched him. However, being good enough to be a quality starter is one thing. Being good enough to take a division away from Andrew Luck, Joe Flacco, or JJ Watt is something different entirely. I think the Shanahan's have proven excellent at allowing the stats and scouting reports to build a narrative and actively doing their best to feed that narrative.
Like the Cutler case, there's no reason to believe that the Redskins are planning on trading Kirk Cousins at any point. But let's say that the Rams came back offering to return the Redskins their 2014 first round selection in exchange for Cousins when they conclude that they misevaluated Sam Bradford's ability to excel at this level. Considering that Robert Griffin is going to be the quarterback of the Redskins now, and into the future, I think they would be very foolish not to get what they can for Cousins as soon as possible.
Because as soon as the 2014 draft rolls around, the Redskins can grab the talented quarterback that drops to the third day, and repeat the process all over again. And as polished as Kirk Cousins looks to be heading into his second season as a pro, the Redskins are much better off as a QB development machine than as the franchise that always fears the worst about their starting quarterback's health, and allows that to affect how they make their personnel decisions.