It's rather impossible for NFL fans to count blessings on the heels of a lopsided playoff loss, but the Washington Redskins and their followers should feel nothing short of enthusiastic about their future entering 2016 after Sunday's wild-card playoff defeat to the Green Bay Packers.
The evening started with such promise, as the Redskins raced out to an 11-0 lead. Washington's defense got a sack and safety on Aaron Rodgers, and a Kirk Cousins-led offense was the only one producing drives early on.
Cousins ended with 329 yards passing on 29 attempts, but all of it was for naught as the defense lost its footing in the second half. Green Bay closed on a 35-7 run, dominating every facet down the stretch to win in convincing fashion, 35-18.
Rodgers' typically potent offense hasn't been its usual self this year with depth issues on the outside and inconsistent rushing, but the Redskins made it look as strong as ever. After four opening drives that yielded negative-two points, the Pack scored on five consecutive possessions—four of them touchdowns.
It was no secret in the midst of that onslaught where the Washington defense needs help most, as Charley Casserly of NFL Network noted:
A game like this is good for the #Redskins to see what they need to get to the next level - Corners— Charley Casserly (@CharleyCasserly) January 11, 2016
The defense did prove itself as not quite ready for the playoff stage in Sunday's loss, but the pieces are certainly there as it has shown throughout the season. Linebacker Ryan Kerrigan didn't have his best game but continues to improve, and with the increased presence of fellow linebackers Will Compton and Mason Foster in the middle, the defense is only a couple of stud corners away from reaching the next level.
While there is potential on the defensive side for Washington, fans can also look toward a bright future with Cousins despite an up-and-down playoff debut.
He didn't get much help from the offensive line throughout—he was sacked six times—and that pressure led to his worst moments. When protected, Cousins made it happen, even calling his own number on a big rushing touchdown to take the lead early in the third.
Cousins may not have been able to leave the field chanting his trademark saying, but considering he wasn't even the presumed starter until late in the preseason, a 9-7 division-winning year is still surpassing expectations for 2015, as Alex Nibert of WBWH (Bluffton, Ohio) reminded us:
the Redskins weren't supposed to be in the playoffs. First year w/ new GM and Kirk at QB, certainly not a bad start for the new regime— Alex Nibert (@alexnibert) January 11, 2016
The question of what becomes of Robert Griffin III was practically the only one not answered in a positive fashion for Washington this season, and that's a problem that the emergence of Cousins all but squashes.
Cousins possesses the type of chemistry with emergent tight end Jordan Reed that could dominate the NFC East for years to come. And there's more than enough around him, namely Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson, to field an explosive offense. Add some strength up-front to protect Cousins and jump-start the run game, and this offense will hit the next level in 2016.
Many players proved their worth throughout this year, but after the pain of defeat washes off, nobody will emerge more inspired than head coach Jay Gruden. After a front office shakeup had him on the hot seat following his initial season, his team is now on an upward trend, as he reminded media Sunday, per Washington's Twitter:
"It stings right now, but I think we're building something good here." Coach Gruden says #Redskins are "on the right path."— Washington Redskins (@Redskins) January 11, 2016
Haters around the NFL will point to a weak NFC East as the reason Washington made the playoffs. But the rules aren't changing—division winners make the postseason. And with the New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles mired in coaching changes and the Dallas Cowboys treading mediocre waters, Washington is all but assured to be the leading candidate for the division in 2016.
A playoff defeat is never an easy one to swallow, but it's not tough to find the silver lining if you're a Washington fan. There's a vision for the future that isn't single-handedly reliant on a star quarterback, but instead on one capable of making the right plays and elevating his team.
If that vision keeps playing out in an ideal fashion for Gruden and Co., this should only be the start of this team's presence in the postseason.