Colt McCoy came in and did what Kirk Cousins couldn't do in his last four games, quarterback the Washington Redskins to a win. But rather than a reprieve, McCoy's ascension and Cousins' demotion is merely the latest chapter in a quarterback situation mishandled by head coach Jay Gruden.
The first-year sideline general hasn't just been let down by a struggling backup. He was making a botch of his team's quarterback situation even before Robert Griffin III succumbed to an ankle injury in Week 2 against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Gruden's failed process began with trying to make a dual-threat playmaker wired for read-option schemes into a passer confined to the pocket. Remember how poor Griffin looked in Week 1's 17-6 defeat to the Houston Texans?
It was Gruden's flip-flop from trying to consign the read-option to memory to reintroducing elements of the run-first scheme, that precipitated Griffin's injury. It wasn't simply fate that played a part in Griffin's latest ailment and misfortune.
That led to Cousins seeing the field. As regular readers will be unlikely to ever let me forget, I championed the idea of Cousins staying the starter for this season.
That was based on the idea of 2012's fourth-round pick being a better fit for Gruden's pocket-based West Coast offense. Cousins' first two appearances lent credence to that thought as the Redskins amassed 75 points in two weeks.
But while Cousins is a more natural choice for a pocket-style scheme, his 10 interceptions debunked the idea of him starting for a season. A quarterback who can't protect the ball isn't the right fit for any offense.
Grant Paulsen of 106.7 The Fan made that clear once Gruden sat Cousins down at halftime in Week 7's 19-17 win over the Tennessee Titans:
But watching Cousins in Weeks 2 and 3, compared with his last three games and one half, it's easy to wonder where his confidence went. The fact that his self-belief is on the floor has been evident to most, including ESPN Redskins reporter John Keim:
Those listening to the CBS Sports broadcast of the Titans game would have heard ex-Super Bowl starting quarterback Rich Gannon frequently chide Cousins for his sullen demeanor.
So what happened to Cousins' swagger and belief that he can put up points in this offense? It's been eroded by every interception, every sack surrendered by a porous offensive line and the burden of directing an unbalanced scheme.
The latter issue is a result of Gruden and offensive coordinator Sean McVay's play-calling. It's no secret those calls have been heavily skewed toward the pass.
That's a recipe for disaster with a young quarterback throwing behind shaky blocking and lacking the support of a running game allowed to fall into disrepair. It didn't do Cousins any favors, nor Griffin in Houston on the season's opening day.
It wouldn't be a shock if this play-calling also hinders McCoy and wrecks Griffin's confidence once he's back from injury.
But play-calling isn't the most worrying aspect of how Gruden has dealt with his now three-pronged quarterback situation. There's a pattern of indecision and contrary stances that hardly create an atmosphere of trust and confidence between coach and player.
It started with telling anyone who would listen that the read-option would be phased out for the sake of Griffin's development, only to try to revive it in Week 2.
But the most obvious examples of Gruden's backtracking, and its negative impact, came in the week prior to facing Tennessee. After an increasingly fragile-looking Cousins tossed three fourth-quarter interceptions in a 30-20 loss to the Arizona Cardinals, calls for McCoy's introduction grew louder.
Gruden initially responded with a defiant declaration of faith in Cousins, per Real Redskins blogger Rich Tandler:
"Despite Kirk Cousins’ struggles, Colt McCoy will not be moved into the starting quarterback job until Griffin can play. 'No, he said when asked if he was considering going with McCoy. 'We’re going to go with Kirk again.'"
While this may have seemed like rewarding poor performance, it did show a player struggling in confidence that his coach believed he could turn it around. At least that's how it appeared.
No sooner had Cousins received the boost of an apparent vote of confidence, Gruden pulled the rug out from under him. The coach who was adamant about not turning to McCoy then refused to rule the idea out, per ESPN Redskins reporter John Keim:
He is facing quite a bit of scrutiny and obviously if things continue in this downward spiral, there is always a chance to see Colt. But I think Kirk will play himself out of it. I have total faith that he will and we are going to coach him like he will and he will be ready. But I know Colt will be ready also.
Gruden may have used the phrase "total confidence," but it wasn't exactly obvious from that parsed statement. It's no wonder there's confusion:
Offering a not-so-subtle message to a quarterback already doubting himself that a replacement is ready could only end one way.
Cousins was set up to fail in Week 7. That was obvious by the fact that he was pulled when his numbers were far from terrible, as CSN Washington reporter Rich Tandler noted:
Of course, it's not unreasonable to argue the team needed a spark and the best way to create one is a change under center. After all, McCoy got the win and a W usually makes every decision look like a stroke of genius, even if this victory hardly hides deeper problems.
But what's most troubling is the way Gruden is communicating with his quarterbacks. The messages are far from clear.
First, Cousins is told the job is his, at least for another week. Then, he hears that it's his job only if he doesn't make another mistake.
If a quarterback can't trust his coach—or just as concerning, doesn't know what his coach will do—how can he play error-free football? That's not a problem just limited to Cousins, rather it's one Gruden is creating with his conflicting public statements.
For instance, you have to question the logic of publicly reminding everyone Griffin will start as soon as he's healthy. Gruden made that statement the same week as his verbal about-turn regarding Cousins and McCoy, per Mike Jones of The Washington Post:
He’s got to get cleared first, then we’ll have to have a plan. Once they say he’s healthy and he practices with us and we feel like he’s ready to go mentally and we have a good game plan for him, then he’ll be the starter.
What possible value is there in saying that? The idea that a healthy Griffin will start is not news. He's too well-regarded by team owner Dan Snyder not to be the starter and face of the franchise.
So why does the coach express that publicly? What good does it do the quarterbacks playing during Griffin's absence?
All it did for Cousins was remind him that no matter how he plays, he'll soon be back on the bench. Telling a quarterback he has his coach's faith (at least he thinks he does) only until the other guy is healthy hardly offers encouragement to pull himself out of a slump.
It could work the same way for McCoy. Just so you know, Colt, even three wins in a row while Griffin completes his recovery won't keep you on the field. Now there's an incentive.
It also does Griffin little help to make his position so secure. It almost gives him a free pass to take as long as he needs developing into whatever type of quarterback Gruden actually wants.
Whatever mistakes are made, or however many games are lost during that process, matter little because Griffin's job is safe anyway. That's the wrong environment to help players thrive.
Introduce an element of jeopardy and Griffin has all the motivation he needs to improve his game. Show actual faith in Cousins and maybe this talented but erratic gunslinger passes his way out of the mire.
Dangle the carrot of a possible extended run in the team, obviously based on results, and maybe McCoy, a quarterback already desperate to prove he belongs, seizes his chance.
Instead, Washington is left with a backup most teams would have welcomed as their deputy, now devoid of confidence. He'll soon be joined by a third-stringer expected to work wonders in an offense where pass-first play-calling makes developing quarterbacks the only means for victory.
Worse still, Cousins and McCoy will only be clearing the way for a gifted but raw and brittle quarterback Gruden doesn't know how to plan for. If you're not worried about the long-term state of this franchise, you certainly should be.
The best-case scenario for now is that Griffin comes back and is given a system that accommodates his natural talents. In the meantime, McCoy needs to prove that his late show against the Titans was more than just the flapping of wings in the web.
Those two factors could make this season a little more bearable. However, the future won't look any brighter until Gruden proves he can successfully handle the team's most important position.