An extraordinary cast lifts a regular QB
After signing Kirk Cousins to a one-year, $20 million deal under the franchise tag, GM Scot McCloughan gave his quarterback an additional guarantee: "We're going to build this roster to where you can be average and still be good." That's what McCloughan did for Russell Wilson as a member of Seattle's front office, and that's what McCloughan has done during his first two years in D.C., reinforcing the offensive line and receiving corps.
That strategy paid off last season: Cousins completed a league-leading 69.8% of his passes, while his wideouts more than held up their end of the bargain. Just look at Cousins's game-winning TD to an outstretched Pierre Garçon in Week 4. After Garçon took a hit to deliver a victory over the Eagles, Cousins ran over to him on the sideline. "I thanked him, gave him a pat on the helmet, told him how great he is," Cousins recalls, "but the nature of the NFL is the very next week, I ask him to do it again."
And in this case, the next year as well. The top eight pass catchers return, including big-play wideout DeSean Jackson, back from hamstring and knee injuries that dragged down his 2015 numbers. At running back, bruising second-year man Matt Jones (who ran for 490 yards but averaged a meager 3.4 per carry in his rookie season) replaces Alfred Morris as the starter. Such continuity can only help Cousins. "In OTAs you noticed it with being able to install the offense and not having to slow down," he says. "We can start to expand upon those plays and [add] wrinkles."
Third-year coach Jay Gruden sees the benefits too. He has been moving around more during practices, speaking to players individually and even jumping into a few drills now that he feels comfortable with his assistants. And once the season starts, he intends to open up the offense. "Last year, we had so many new players, we were maybe a little more conservative early in the season," Gruden says. "I think we can be in attack mode early."
After much shuffling this time a year ago, the O-line is set, giving the modern-day Hogs time to focus on their relationships. Left tackle Trent Williams invited them all to train in Houston, where they did footwork drills in matching T-shirts until Williams wanted to throw up—and then laughed about it over dinner. During OTAs alone, right tackle Morgan Moses and right guard Brandon Scherff talked more than they had during all of last season, Moses says. Tight end Jordan Reed says he's seen the line grow tighter. He's also felt his QB become more trusting. "He's going to give me opportunities that he might not have given me in the past," Reed says. "Sometimes if it's tight coverage, he'll still try to fit it in to me."
Cousins is banking on Reed's ability to make those tough catches, as he did last year. The QB's reputation—and future earnings—will be a function of the team's success, but he says that is nothing new. He may be making more money now, but this is just another season for Cousins to hit his targets and hope for the best.
"It's common sense going back to Pop Warner football that a quarterback is only as good as the guys around him," the quarterback says. "I've always known that and understood that I'm a reflection of the team, so I'm just grateful to be on a team that has a lot of returning pieces in place, and it gives me a chance to be successful." If McCloughan has held up his end of the bargain, all Cousins needs to do is be average. The rest will take care of itself.
TAKE THIS GUY AWAY AND THE OFFENSE CRUMBLES
The Redskins have one of the most creative downfield passing schemes in the NFL, and the biggest reason is 26-year-old tight end Jordan Reed. A third-round pick in 2013, Reed has blossomed into the preeminent route runner at his position, and it's not even close. Coaches tend to pause when describing Reed because they can't help but make awkward comparisons with Aaron Hernandez, Reed's predecessor at Florida. Like Hernandez, Reed has an uncanny smoothness. No linebacker and few safeties can guard him one-on-one; even corners find him to be a handful. Washington builds formations around the mismatches Reed creates. You'll often see him split wide, forcing the defense to tip its hand: If a safety lines up across from him, it's likely man-to-man; if it's a corner, it's zone. Kirk Cousins not only benefits from that presnap information but also from having Reed in a favorable matchup outside.
SI's 2016 Prediction: 7--9
2015 Record: 9--7
SEPT. 12 vs.PIT
SEPT. 18 vs.DAL [PREDICTED WINNER]
SEPT. 25 atNYG
OCT. 2 vs.CLE [PREDICTED WINNER]
OCT. 9 atBAL
OCT. 16 vs.PHI
OCT. 23 atDET
OCT. 30 atCIN
NOV. 13 vs.MIN [PREDICTED WINNER]
NOV. 20 vs.GB [PREDICTED WINNER]
NOV. 24 atDAL
DEC. 4 atARI
DEC. 11 atPHI
Dec. 19 vs.CAR [PREDICTED WINNER]
Dec. 24 atCHI [PREDICTED WINNER]
JAN. 1 vs.NYG [PREDICTED WINNER]
= PREDICTED WINNER