WASHINGTON — Scot McCloughan was waiting for a sign.
At the very least, he was waiting for more information. That’s why the general manager, who has fortified the foundation of the Burgundy and Gold’s offensive and defensive lines since his arrival, decided to put the franchise tag on quarterback Kirk Cousins rather than offer him a massive, multiyear contract extension last offseason. He needed to know if Cousins was really worth it or if he could get away with spending the many millions it would take to retain him on other parts of his roster.
On Monday night, a trend that has rippled under the surface finally crystallized for me and, perhaps, for McCloughan — Cousins’ success is directly tied to Jordan Reed.
Reed played Monday night, but was clearly compromised by his shoulder injury, severely limited even before aggravating it, then punching his way to an early exit.
In Kirk Cousins’ 26 career starts before Monday night when he has had Reed in the huddle, the quarterback has gone a sparkling 16-9-1, including last season’s memorable playoff push. But Cousins has also started 11 games without Reed over the past four seasons — three apiece in 2013, 2014 and 2016, and two games last year. His record in those contests?
The record is staggering enough, but the difference in Cousins’ performance in starts with and without Reed is equally galling. In the 27 games he’s had his tight end (including Monday night), Cousins has completed 69.7 percent of his passes at a rate of 8.16 yards per attempt, throwing 48 touchdowns and just 19 interceptions. In the 11 starts without Reed, his completion percentage drops to 58.8 and his yards per attempt fall to 6.86. He’s thrown just 16 touchdowns, with an equal number of interceptions. His quarterback rating drops from 102.5 — which would be second only to Aaron Rogers’ career mark in NFL history — to 75.6, equal to Wade Wilson (the career backup quarterback, not, you know, Deadpool).
But it’s not just the drop-off from Reed’s own production that Cousins suffers without. Reed’s presence helps open up the rest of the offense. DeSean Jackson has averaged fewer than 50 receiving yards per game on just over three catches in the three contests Reed has missed this year, while averaging nearly 5.5 receptions and 71 yards per game — along with all four of his touchdowns — when the tight end plays.
You might think Cousins’ best possession receiver and route runner Pierre Garcon would be picking up Reed’s slack in these instances, but that hasn’t really been the case. Garcon’s production is incrementally worse both this year and over the past three seasons (53 ypg vs. 49 ypg) without Reed.
The positive narrative that has developed around Cousins goes something like this: He has matured; he has overcome his early, interception-throwing ways; he has grown into the kind of quarterback that deserves the paycheck everyone thinks he is going to get.
But what if he’s simply a product of the many weapons around him, specifically one of the most prolific tight ends in the game, when healthy?
That “when healthy” caveat then looms enormously large not just for Reed, but for Cousins and his future employment in Washington. Reed has been the most productive tight end in the NFL this side of Rob Gronkowski, but like Gronk, he’s also perpetually banged up.
Reed is still just 26 years old, but has played just 45 of 62 possible games the past four years and has gutted his way through a few of them despite being banged up (Reed has received a single target in five career games, in which his team has gone 1-4). In addition to his current shoulder injury, Reed has suffered at least six major concussions since college, including another this year, making his long-term future a major question mark despite his recent extension.
McCloughan and Co. no doubt realize this already. But if you can’t count on Reed as part of your future in Washington, why would you invest $100 million or more in Cousins? Why would you hamstring your ability to continue to make improvements to a defense that needs major upgrades? Washington ranks 29th in yards allowed per game, 28th in penalty yardage and 30th in opponents third-down conversion rate.
The NFL is a quarterback league and the dynasties are built on the backs of those signal callers who prove their mettle as being worthy of mega contracts. But the ones who are worth it — Tom Brady, Rogers, Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger — find ways to succeed even as the pieces around them change, even without Randy Moss, or Greg Jennings, or Marques Colston or Hines Ward.
Over the past four years, Cousins hasn’t done the same without Reed. Knowing that, if McCloughan isn’t confident about Reed’s long-term health, the best bet is to walk away.