After 21 starts at quarterback over three years at San Diego State, Kevin O’Connell had distinguished himself in a number of areas. He was 10th in Aztec career history in passing yardage, eighth in passing attempts, seventh in completions and fifth in total offense with 5,530 yards.
There was one area in which his success was superlative: O’Connell’s 906 rushing yards — that’s 43 per start — were the most in school history by a quarterback.
Fast forward to today and O’Connell, 32, is in his first year as the Redskins quarterbacks coach. His task is to take Kirk Cousins, who threw for nearly 5,000 yards last season, and make him better. A bit of extra mobility may be just the thing.
“It’s all situational,” O’Connell said. “Understanding, maybe it’s in the red zone, maybe it’s third down when a defense drops eight into coverage, you know you’ve got a little bit extra time to hold it and try to see if Jamison or Jordan can work their way open, maybe, versus double coverage, and then if all else fails he’s plenty athletic enough to go steal us a first down or two.”
O’Connell, who was drafted by the Patriots in 2008 and was a journeyman backup in the league until 2012, has been a quarterbacks coach once before, with the Browns in 2015. He was also on the 49ers offensive staff for the 2016 season. In neither of those situations was he responsible for developing a quarterback of Cousins’ caliber.
Cousins, entering his third year as a starter, wants to add to his game without, as he put it, trying to “reinvent the wheel.” One way Cousins wants to do this is by using his legs a bit more.
“Are there ways to play off-schedule to make some scramble plays happen?’ I don’t know that I will ever be Michael Vick or Aaron Rodgers, but can we do that a little more? Are there times I can use my legs? I think there is more athleticism there than I give myself credit for,” Cousins said.
“Can I run for a first down here or there more often? There are little things. I don’t think I am going to try and turn into a zone-read quarterback but there are times in the game where you say, hey, maybe you could emphasize this more, that more.”
Cousins, who ran for 96 yards and four touchdowns last season, experimented with his legs in offseason practices and minicamp, but scrambling in a non-contact jersey has limited benefit. On one play during minicamp, where Cousins scrambled for a touchdown during 11-on-11 drills, safety D.J. Swearinger hollered that he was going to get his “block knocked off” if he tried that against a defense allowed to hit.
That’s certainly not what O’Connell has in mind. He was quick to point out that the Redskins only carry three quarterbacks, making injuries especially costly. He also pointed out games against Chicago and Detroit last season when Cousins used his legs successfully and said that he has “clearly demonstrated that he’s got the ability to steal you some yards.”
“We’ll pick our spots,” O’Connell said. “Three-man rush, in the red zone, every once in a while there’s going to be a third down where they take off and they’re on the sideline and they’ve got to get us that extra yard or two but other than that we’d like those guys to be sliding when they can and protecting themselves for sure.”
Most of the Redskins coaching changes this offseason came on the defensive side of the ball, but O’Connell moved into the quarterbacks coach job after Matt Cavanaugh was bumped up to replace Sean McVay as offensive coordinator.
O’Connell is only four years older than Cousins who, like backups Colt McCoy and Nate Sudfeld, have more experience in the Redskins offense than O’Connell does. Yet O’Connell feels as comfortable as, say, Swearinger, giving all three quarterbacks corrections for a couple reasons. One is good support from Cavanaugh, who was O’Connell’s own quarterbacks coach with the Jets. Cavanaugh still works closely with the quarterbacks and is an experienced voice in the room when O’Connell needs one.
That doesn’t happen often, however, because all of Washington’s quarterbacks take coaching well, O’Connell said. A player who has accomplished as much as Cousins has could be dismissive, but O’Connell said that he’s always comfortable speaking up and offering corrections because he knows they will be taken seriously.
“He’s open to new things and new thoughts both fundamentally and scheme-wise and it’s been awesome being able to work with a guy like that that’s established but also willing to be coached like that,” O’Connell said.