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Kirk Cousins, franchise QB? Plus, Tony Romo's future and more

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Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his weekly notebook. The topics of this edition include:

» What is Tony Romo's future in the NFL?

» The recent surge in two-point conversions.

» An argument for the Raiders having the best offense in the NFL.

But first, a look at the uncertain future facing one of the league's hotter quarterbacks ...

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Is Kirk Cousins really a franchise quarterback?

That's the 20 million dollar question dominating conversations around the nation's capital, with the fifth-year pro in the midst of a hot streak that has seen him put the Washington Redskins squarely in the playoff picture for the second season in a row.

Since stumbling out of the gate to an 0-2 start, the Redskins have gone 5-1-1 in their last seven games, beginning to flex their muscles as one of the most dynamic offenses in football. Cousins, who is playing on the franchise tag this season, has led the way with his spectacular play during this stretch. Since Week 3, he has completed 67.6 percent of his passes, posted a 13:4 touchdown-to-interception ratio and compiled a 100.2 passer rating.

If those numbers aren't impressive enough, Cousins has been one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL since the "You like that?!" game in Week 7 of the 2015 season. Over this span, Cousins has led the Redskins to a 12-6-1 record while posting a 69.5 percent completion rate and a 37:10 TD-to-INT ratio. Not to mention, he has posted a 106.2 passer rating and averaged 287.5 pass yards per game since that point.

Considering how hard it is to find solid quarterback play in the NFL, the Redskins should break the bank to retain the services of a winning quarterback, right?

Not so fast, I say.

While I love what Cousins is doing as the director of the Redskins' electric offense, which ranks fourth in total yards, I believe he is playing in the perfect scheme and surrounded by a supporting cast that makes it easy for him to shine as a trigger man. For one, he is playing behind a beefy offensive line that has done a solid job of keeping him upright in the pocket. Washington, after all, has yielded the second-fewest sacks in the NFL (12). It also helps that Cousins is flanked by a host of catch-and-run specialists with superb route-running skills and exceptional open-field running ability. Pierre Garcon, DeSean Jackson and Jamison Crowder are dynamite playmakers on the perimeter, particularly on quick-rhythm routes (slants, quick outs and short crossers) that enable them to use their quickness and elusiveness in space. All three receivers have punt-returning experience, so they're capable of making multiple defenders miss in traffic, which allows Cousins to ring up big numbers on throws that are routinely delivered within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. Additionally, with Jordan Reed and the re-emerging Vernon Davis posing matchup problems as "move" tight ends with big bodies and receiver-like athleticism, the Redskins have a variety of weapons they are able to throw at the defense to create easy targets for their quarterback.

That's why I'm reluctant to call Cousins a "truck" (quarterback who carries the team) in my evaluation. His supporting cast just alleviates so much pressure on him. Really, he is a "game manager" or "trailer" (quarterback carried by his team) on a league-wide scale.

Think about it this way. The Redskins have a 10-3 record when Cousins doesn't throw an interception, but they are 6-5-1 when he tosses one pick and 0-9 when he throws multiple interceptions. Thus, the Redskins are good enough to win if he simply makes good decisions and accurate throws.

That's probably why the team has been reluctant to write a big check or fully anoint him as the franchise quarterback to this point. To change that perception, Cousins needs to play strong down the stretch and prove to the naysayers that he delivers the most important stat of all: wins.

Redskins coach Jay Gruden certainly can help his quarterback continue to play at a high level by building upon the momentum created the past two games. Looking at the All-22 Coaches Film and Next Gen Stats, I noticed that the team's offensive emphasis has changed from the beginning of the season. During Weeks 1 through 7, the Redskins were in a shotgun formation on 51 percent of their offensive snaps, while operating in a single-back formation (with Cousins under center) on 37.8 percent of their plays. Interestingly, Cousins was more efficient in single-back sets (he compiled a 72.8 percent completion rate and a 99.1 passer rating) than shotgun formations (65.7 percent completion rate, 90.7 passer rating) during that period.

After presumably conducting a self-scout, the Redskins balanced out their formational approach by featuring more single-back formations (46.8 percent of snaps) than shotgun sets (45.5 percent) during Weeks 8 through 10. As a result, Cousins has become more efficient and effective (see: his 77.7 percent completion rate and 131.1 passer rating in single-back sets compared to a 60.3 percent completion rate and 86.5 passer rating in shotgun) from the pocket and added some spice to Washington's aerial attack. With Cousins adept at hitting crossers, post-corners and flats while on the move, the shift to run-heavy formations has helped the Redskins' running game and passing offense gain traction in recent weeks.

In the end, Washington has found something in the former fourth-round draft pick, but the jury is still out on whether he is a franchise quarterback capable of delivering a championship back to the nation's capital. While Cousins has shown impressive traits during his most recent run, how well he finishes the season could determine whether he cashes a big check in the offseason.

ASK THE LEAGUE: Does Tony Romo still have value as a franchise QB?

Tony Romo's emotional press conference on Tuesday signaled a changing of the guard at the quarterback position for the Dallas Cowboys. The veteran ceded the starting job to Dak Prescott and appeared to set the stage for an eventual departure at the end of the season. With Romo expected to be on the market in the offseason, I thought I would reach out to a few NFL executives to get their take on his talents and potential at this stage of his career. Here's what I asked them and their responses:

Does Tony Romo still have a starting future? Which team outside of Dallas would be a perfect fit for him?

NFC pro personnel director: "His franchise days are over. Not because he isn't talented, but you can't trust that he is going to be in the lineup. ... Arizona is the first team that comes to mind as a possible fit. The window for him and them is closing, and I don't think Carson Palmer's heart is in it."

NFC assistant pro personnel director: "He can still play. When he is healthy, there aren't many who are better than him. He can make all of the throws and he makes everyone around him better. I don't think Jerry (Jones) wants to let him go because injuries can happen, and (Romo) still might be able to take the team somewhere that Dak can't. ... If he does go to another team, I believe it will be a 'win-now' team like the Denver Broncos or Minnesota Vikings. Those teams have the defenses and supporting cast in place to win but need a quarterback that can get them over the hump."

AFC pro personnel director: "I think he'll play somewhere next season and that will be his swan song, but his franchise days are over. ... He can play as a relief pitcher, but I don't know if he really wants to do that. Plus, he hasn't had the durability to stay healthy the past three years."

AFC vice president of player personnel: "Tony definitely still has value as a top-level quarterback, if healthy. Obviously, health will be a key factor, as well as his age, when looking at his prospects for next year. ... There are so few quarterbacks that can play winning football at a high level that he will be a valuable commodity in the offseason. I think he still has some pretty good football left in his body if he can stay healthy.

"Three teams are in dire need of a quarterback next year: Chicago, New York Jets and San Francisco. They could all draft a quarterback in the first round or go with a guy like Romo if they need a veteran bridge player to a young quarterback. San Francisco is not a great fit with Chip Kelly, but New York and Chicago (could be) because of the solid receiving corps of both teams. ... Another under-the-radar team could be Denver with their youthful quarterback situation, and a dynamic defense could make for a team like they had in 2015 with a (Peyton) Manning-type recipe for them. They do a great job of acquiring veterans to play specific roles for them, so that wouldn't surprise at all."

MY TAKE

Love him or hate him, there is no doubt that Tony Romo ranks as one of the top quarterbacks in NFL history. The former undrafted free agent ranks third in career passer rating (97.1) and is one of only 29 quarterbacks with at least 34,000 passing yards. While it is easy to dismiss Romo's success as the Cowboys' QB1 with Prescott looking like a franchise quarterback, the four-time Pro Bowl selectee is only a year removed from leading the NFL in completion percentage (69.9) and passer rating (113.2), while guiding the team to the 2014 NFC East title. Thus, there aren't many questions about whether he can still play the game at a high level when he is healthy and available to play.

With that being said, I certainly don't blame the team for sticking with the hot hand while sitting atop the NFC with an 8-1 record. Prescott has not only played winning football at the position, but he has played at an MVP level as the leader of the offense. The rookie has completed 66.8 percent of his passes, tallied a 14:2 TD-to-INT ratio and posted a 106.2 passer through nine games. Most importantly, Prescott has come through big in every clutch situation and earned the trust of his teammates.

Now, I'm sure a healthy Romo would've delivered similar production for "America's Team," but it's impossible to ignore how well the group is playing under the rookie's direction. Dallas has emerged as the best team in the NFC and coaches are reluctant to tinker with the team's chemistry in the midst of a hot streak. If the rookie's play starts to decline and he fails to make big plays in key moments, the Cowboys can always turn to the veteran. In fact, I had an NFL executive tell me that the team would be better off with Romo under center.

"Romo could make the Cowboys a more dangerous team down the stretch because he can make plays that Dak can't at this stage of his career," the NFC exec told me. "No disrespect to the rookie, but he has missed some throws that Romo would've made. They might need that playmaking ability to get over the hump in the playoffs."

In the end, the Cowboys are in a great situation with a young quarterback crushing it on the field and a proven franchise quarterback sitting in the bullpen. Considering the impact of quarterback play on a playoff run, Dallas is sitting pretty heading down the stretch.

That brings me to the Cowboys' offseason plans and whether they should jettison the veteran. I believe the team would be wise to explore the possibility of keeping Romo. In a league where good quarterbacks are hard to find, I would be reluctant to deal a quarterback who has won so many games for the franchise and still displays the skills to thrive when healthy. Naturally, Romo would have to want to stay in Dallas for that scenario to work, though, and I'd imagine the ultra-competitive quarterback might want another shot to guide a team. Thus, I would expect him to look at a "win-now" team like the Denver Broncos, Minnesota Vikings, Arizona Cardinals or New York Jets. With each of those teams, he could come in as a short-term fill-in while the organization waits for a young quarterback to grow into the starter's role.

If I had to pick a perfect situation for Romo, I would opt for the Broncos or Cardinals. Each team features a nasty defense with championship-caliber talent, as well as offensive skill players gifted enough to take the pressure off Romo. With veteran coaches adept at working with older quarterbacks, I believe the veteran would thrive in either environment.

TWO-POINT CONVERSIONS: Are NFL teams being too aggressive?

If you're expecting me to nod my head "yes" after watching a number of teams fail to convert in Week 10, you are mistaken. I absolutely love seeing coaches bypass the traditional extra point in hopes of exploiting the math equation that many observers ignore. Just like the three-point shot has changed the way basketball is played, the two-point conversion (and the decision to move PATs back to the 15-yard line) is altering the way forward-thinking NFL coaches are approaching the extra point.

Instead of settling for a traditional kick that is only converted at a 94.8 percent rate, teams are increasingly seeing the value in taking their chances on a short-yardage play from the 3-yard line that adds a bonus point to a touchdown. Based on simple math, the current two-point conversion rates (54.0 percent) bring about a higher rate of return while also changing the game plans for the opponents. For instance, a team jumping out to an 8-0 or 16-0 lead forces conservative-minded opponents to potentially scrap their original game plans to chase points early in the game. Thus, the aggressive play not only benefits the offense, but it puts the defense in a better position to dictate the terms in critical situations.

This brings me back to what we witnessed in Week 10 -- particularly with the Pittsburgh Steelers, but also with a host of other teams aggressively attempting two-point conversions in a variety of situations. While the conservative think tank took a number of coaches to task for their aggressive failures (NFL teams converted only 4 of 13 attempts in Week 10), they reserved most of their critiques for Mike Tomlin after the Steelers went 0-for-4 on two-point tries against the Dallas Cowboys. Now, I certainly understand the arm-chair quarterbacking after their failures, but Tomlin's decisions made sense based on the team's track record with the two-point attempts. Prior to Week 10, the Steelers had converted 14 of their 17 two-point tries over the past two seasons, which is why Ben Roethlisberger campaigned for the team to go for two after every touchdown during the offseason.

With the NFL conversion rate hovering at 60 percent through the first nine weeks of the season, it is easy to see why the Steelers elected to take their chances early in the game to put the Cowboys behind the eight ball. In fact, I don't begrudge any of these gamblers attempting to cash in on the bonus points. The hidden points accumulated over the course of the season will eventually pay huge dividends, but I wish offensive coordinators would reconsider their preferred method of attack. Instead of solely attacking through the air, I believe more play callers should lean on running plays on two-point conversions. Let me explain ...

Looking at the numbers, it's alarming to see so many coaches rely on passes on two-point tries. NFL teams have converted only 50 percent (24 of 48) two-point attempts through the air compared to the 66.7 percent conversion rate (10 of 15) on the ground. Considering the 69.2 percent conversion rate (9 of 13) on two-point rushing attempts heading into Week 10, I'm astonished more teams elected to throw the ball with bonus points on the line.

I'm sure conventional wisdom suggests putting the ball in the hands of your best player, which is the quarterback in many cases, but the condensed area (13 yards from the line of scrimmage to the back line of the end zone) makes it tougher for passing plays to work. In addition, the preferred route of choice (fade or back-shoulder fade) is essentially a jump ball between a receiver and a defensive back in the corner. With the "alley-oop" amounting to a coin flip, teams should reconsider the over-reliance on the low-percentage throw in key moments. Whether it is a sprint-out option pass with a run-pass option for the quarterback or a rub concept with multiple receivers instructed to inadvertently pick designated defensive backs, play callers must dig deeper in the playbook to exploit the advantages of the two-point equation.

In the end, I applaud coaches for taking more risks, but I'm hoping more explore other alternatives to enhance their chances of cashing in their bonus points.

THE REBUTTAL: Donald Penn explains why Oakland has the top offense.

This week, I caught up with Oakland Raiders' starting left tackle Donald Penn when he dropped by NFL Media headquarters during his off day. Here's our conversation:

What is the biggest challenge you faced as an undrafted free agent trying to make an NFL roster?

DP: "It's hard. It wasn't an easy journey. It's tough because, as an undrafted free agent, you don't get as many reps as guys who have been drafted. You're really at the bottom of the totem pole, so when you do get your reps, you have to make them count. ... You have to make the most out of your opportunities when you get them."

What are the traits needed to be an elite offensive tackle in the NFL?

DP: "You have to have longevity and consistency ... You have to be out there and be consistent. When you look at my film, you know what you're going to get every game. You're going to get a consistent left tackle that's going to play a consistent game. I might not be perfect, but out of 85 plays, you're going to get 80 great plays from Donald Penn."

If you're coaching a young guy, what are the tools that they must have to be a solid player in the league?

DP: "It has a little to do with everything -- footwork, hand placement and technique. ... You have to have a game plan. You have to know how you want to attack guys. For instance, when I played against DeMarcus Ware, I attacked him different than I attacked Von Miller because they are two different players. ... When I got out of sorts, I had to go back to my game plan, my footwork, my hand placement. You have to get back to the fundamentals."

What's the biggest challenge facing a number of elite pass rushers in the AFC West?

Donald Penn: "It's tough. You have to have different game plans to deal with Tamba (Hali), Dee Ford, Justin Houston, D-Ware (DeMarcus Ware), Von Miller, Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram. I can't give away any secrets, but you have to make adjustments. ... It's tough, but I love it!"

There's a lot of conversation about the Dallas Cowboys and Oakland Raiders having two of the best offenses in the NFL. Tell me why the Raiders' offense is better than the Cowboys' offense.

DP: "We have Derek Carr slinging the ball. We have more than one running back running the ball and a variety of threats on the outside. ... We're rolling right now. I have a tremendous amount of respect for the Cowboys and their offensive line. I watch Tyron Smith a lot because he plays really well. I'm close friends with Ezekiel Elliott and we've talked trash all season about which team has the best offensive line. It's looking like we're No.1 and No. 2. We just need to see which team finishes the strongest."

MY TAKE

I appreciated the chance to catch up with Penn at NFL Media headquarters after initially meeting him on Utah State's campus 12 years ago on a school visit. The 6-foot-4, 315-pounder has carved out a nice career after entering the NFL as an undrafted free agent. He not only developed into a much better player than I expected, but he became a Pro Bowl-caliber performer during the prime of his career. During our conversation, I was impressed with his ability to articulate his individual strengths and weaknesses while also acknowledging how he masks his deficiencies through technique and diligent preparation.

From a scouting standpoint, I frequently use Penn as an example of how a player with some limitations can make it in the league. Although I placed a late-round/priority-free-agent grade on him prior to the draft, I probably should've investigated his football character a little more to get a better sense of his willingness to do whatever it takes to make the squad.

Overall, I thought Penn's takes were insightful, particularly his view on the Raiders' offense ranking ahead of the Cowboys' offense. While I agree the Raiders' QB1 and skill players might hold a slight edge over "America's Team," the Cowboys' offensive line features a special collection of players with three first-round picks and their collective dominance is hard to match. Considering how well the unit moves defenders off the ball and keeps the QB1 upright, it is hard to imagine any offense ranking above the Cowboys.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.

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