Yesterday in this same space I referred to the drug that is hope in the NFL, one which gives normally good, sane-minded football folk that addict twitch. It may not often be mentioned directly, but as Combine activities begin today with interviews there will be many lost souls wandering Indianapolis who are absolutely baked on hope. They’re the people who eventually end up spending an early first-round pick on the Blaine Gabberts of our world.
Which brings us to a more specific sort of NFL drug, and a more dangerous strand of the hope virus: quarterback desperation.
There really isn’t a cure yet for the most extreme cases. Clearly we all know and understand that quarterbacks are sort of important, especially in today’s NFL where offense is rooted in passing. But if a team is constructed properly elsewhere and the offense is designed in a way that fits the currently employed pivot, it’s entirely possible to win games without investing heavily in your quarterback either in the literal sense, or through a high draft pick. Just look at the Seattle Seahawks season which culminated in a championship only a few weeks ago, and they paid Russell Wilson the NFL equivalent of a half-eaten cookie.
But that requires patience, and patience requires job security, and job security requires winning, and winning usually requires a quarterback who at least meets the definition of league average. That’s the math equation which leads to a price set far too high on a promising young backup nearly every offseason, and teams actually entertaining said price. Enter Kirk Cousins, and the reported second-round pick the Redskins are asking for in return.
That’s what Mark Maske of the Washington Post passed along yesterday, though he noted that even if a price has been set it’s not clear if Cousins will be traded. More importantly, it’s also unclear how much interest the Redskins have received league wide in Robert Griffin III’s backup, and if a second-rounder — or anything even close to it — is therefore reasonable.
I have a guess on that last part: no no no no no. After being a fourth-round pick two years ago Cousins has predictably given us a small sample size while serving as the ideal glass case behind an increasingly brittle Griffin. The legend of Cousins grew when he threw for 329 yards at a pace of 8.9 per attempt with two touchdowns and an interception during a one-game spot start in 2012 after Griffin initially suffered his knee injury. That game also featured a passer rating of 104.4 and 22 rushing yards.
But then when Mike Shanahan attempted to get Costanza’ed by benching Griffin for the final three games of this year and giving Cousins a three-game audition, there was promise followed by a face plant. In the first game against Atlanta he threw for 381 yards at a pace of 8.5 per attempt with three touchdowns, but he also chucked two interceptions. Then in the next two he didn’t top 200 yards and overall on the season his YPA rested at a meager 5.5, with a 52.3 completion percentage. Worse, Cousins showed his youth and inexperience with poor decisions which led to seven interceptions over only 155 pass attempts.
Those aren’t the numbers of a quarterback worthy of a second-round pick. That’s lofty draft real estate, and to put a few names to the those early second-day draft slots and better gauge the value, here’s just a handful of second rounders who quickly turned into key contributors this past season (a list that includes two rookie of the year candidates, and the winner): Giovani Bernard, Kiko Alonso, Le’Veon Bell, Jamie Collins, Montee Ball, Robert Alford, and Eddie Lacy.
That’s why after some java was spewed on computer screens, this was the common reaction to Maske’s report…
Redskins want second-round pick in Kirk Cousins trade. And I want to be 6-5 and have a new Ferrari
— Pete Prisco (@PriscoCBS) February 19, 2014
Here’s where the problem of the quarterback desperation drug begins. The root of its danger is projection, and basing a projection on a small sample size. Maybe there’s a team like, say, the Browns (a team that just hired Kyle Shanahan) who want to address another need with their high first-round pick and see enough in Cousins to declare him a viable option, one that can be groomed into a future starter under the right direction. Cousins to Cleveland is unlikely, but just work with me here for a second.
Fine. Get your man then, but have the patience and sense to negotiate his price down. If the desperation runs too deep and the drug has taken hold, that doesn’t happen, and recent history offers examples of caving to ballooning values.
In Kansas City the Alex Smith trade worked out just peachy thanks to an offense that pretty much avoided Alex Smith, rarely asking him to throw a pass that traveled more than 15 yards through the air. The Chiefs won games with Jamaal Charles and an imposing defense for most of the season, yet they still gave up the 34th overall pick for a quarterback who then led an offense which averaged only 208.8 passing yards per game.
That trade came a few years after a far more disastrous quarterback calamity in Kansas City, when Matt Cassel was acquired for a second rounder (along with Mike Vrabel). But at least Cassel had a full season as a starter in New England to evaluate, and of course Smith had a far larger sample size as a starter in San Francisco. There are exceptions (most notably, Matt Schaub), but far too often the potential which rests in the eyes of the purchaser amounts to little more than promise when a quarterback’s experience in meaningful NFL games is highly limited.
The eye-widening effect of booming numbers in a small window also now infamously led to Matt Flynn getting $9 million in guaranteed green from the Seahawks. But even more troubling is the annual Ryan Mallett shopping that will eventually make someone a sucker, with the Patriots still reportedly asking for a second rounder. Gentle reminder: Mallett has attempted four regular-season passes.
The likely ending for Cousins is no ending, and for at least one more season he’ll remain as one of the league’s best backups, an important yet still second-place title. But right now it’s the best title he’s proven worthy of, as he hasn’t elevated his value by two full rounds after only four starts.