Future Is on the Line Sunday for Kirk Cousins and the Washington Redskins

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterDecember 29, 2016

LANDOVER, MD - NOVEMBER 20: Quarterback Kirk Cousins #8 of the Washington Redskins celebrates after teammate running back Rob Kelley #32 (not pictured) scores a fourth quarter touchdown against the Green Bay Packers at FedExField on November 20, 2016 in Landover, Maryland. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Rob Carr/Getty Images

The road forks for Kirk Cousins and the Washington Redskins on Sunday.

In one direction is a win over the Giants, a wild-card berth, perhaps a victory (or at least a strong performance) on the road in the playoffs, and then long-term riches for Cousins and confident strides in the right direction for the Redskins franchise.

In the other direction winds the road too often traveled: a big-game collapse, uncertainty, doubts, rumblings among the Redskins brain trustnot to mention the impatient Beltway fanbasethat the team is listing sideways. Then, perhaps another year of franchise-tag staring contests. Or even free agency and the dreaded “fresh start” for everyone.

That’s what’s at stake Sunday: tens of millions of dollars, years of commitment, an organization’s long-range fiscal plan, its image and probably its self-image. For Cousins, a win over the Giants keeps him on the rising-star trajectory. A loss makes him look like a quarterback who cannot win big games, which is not the phrase you want atop your LinkedIn profile when seeking a new contract.

This is precisely the situation the Redskins and Cousins courted when they agreed to disagree on a contract seven months ago. The Redskins wanted a year to wait and see on a quarterback who followed an early-season turnover fest with a hot streak against second-rate opponents. Cousins figured he could live off $20 million while he proved his point.

Cousins and the Redskins have spent the whole year stepping up to this crossroads and then backpedaling. Like so many important decisions, this one will be made at the last minute.

Cousins has had an impressive season by all statistical indicators: 4,630 passing yards, 24 touchdowns with just 10 interceptions, a sixth overall rank in passer rating, third in Football Outsiders’ DYAR, fifth in ESPN’s QBR, fourth in Pro Football Reference’s ANY/A metric and 10th in Pro Football Focus’ overall ratings for quarterbacks. The numbers, not to mention Cousins’ sparkling off-the-field reputation, scream “PAY THE MAN.”

But then there are those "big games." Cousins delivered a shaky performance on Monday night against the Panthers in Week 15, when a win would have solidified Washington’s playoff chances. He was worse against the Cardinals in Week 13, often looking jittery against that dangerous defense. The Redskins came up short against the Cowboys on Thanksgiving Day, and the stage looked a little too big for Cousins in the Monday night season opener against the Steelers.

Tim Ireland/Associated Press

There was also the London game. There’s something symbolic about tying Andy Dalton’s Bengals when the spotlight is on that could make the Redskins wary of hitching their future to a quarterback who always seems to get stopped at the velvet rope outside the Brady-Rodgers VIP entrance. The Redskins don’t want to become the Bengals, stuck in third gear for half a decade.

Yoking Washington’s big-game struggles to Cousins is not entirely fair. There were plenty of defensive lapses, missed field goals, questionable coaching decisions, running back fumbles and other miscues to go around in the Redskins’ losses and ties. And Cousins’ three-touchdown effort in a 42-24 prime-time playoff rematch against the Packers showed that he can, in fact, sometimes play exceptionally well and win big games.

The losses and near-misses focus attention on all the little flaws in Cousins’ game, however. He fumbles too readily when he takes a sack. His short passes wobble and dip when the pocket collapses, while his mid-range sideline passes sail high and outside. Cousins looks like he doesn’t have a plan when he drops back to pass near the goal line, though that may be more of a scheme problem than a quarterback problem. And while Cousins has cut way down on the interceptions that plagued his early career, the ones he does throw make you wonder what he was thinking.

None of these are fatal flaws. Some of them are nitpicks. But they will all look much bigger if Cousins is guaranteed $50 million and locked in as the Redskins starter for three or more years. The money changes the expectations and the value equation: potential ceases to matter, while immediate results become all-important. 

Breaking down Cousins’ film on a play-by-play basis further clouds the issue. Cousins has enjoyed terrific pass protection this season, even when left tackle Trent Williams was suspended. He has had plenty of healthy passing targets to throw to. Cousins has stood in a clean pocket week after week, distributing underneath passes to wide-open playmakers like Jordan Reed, Pierre Garcon, Jamison Crowder and Vernon Davis, loosening things up with the occasional bomb to DeSean Jackson. Sometimes, it was so easy that it looked like anyone could do it.

Product of the system is one of those loaded, unfair labels to hang on a quarterback, like cannot win the big game. Cousins makes lots of good reads and decisions to find those open targets and drops some surgical strikes to Jackson and others deep. He has made some big plays with his legs. He has led fourth-quarter comebacks and would-be comebacks that fell short due to missed field goals or defensive lapses.

But if great blocking and receiving only get the Redskins to 8-7-1 under Cousins, the organization must wonder how many mountains it must move to reach the Super Bowl. Remember, the Redskins have already invested in cornerback Josh Norman and pass-rusher Ryan Kerrigan to anchor the defense, while decisions loom for Jackson and Garcon. There are only so many cap dollars to go around. A playoff-caliber quarterback who elevates the team is a worthy investment. But a possible product of the system who may or may not be able to win the big game? Not so much.

Kirk Cousins #8 of the Washington Redskins warms up during pre game at Soldier Field on December 24, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by David Banks/Getty Images)
David Banks/Getty Images

Cousins has Sunday afternoon, and then the playoffs, to prove who he really is. The Giants have vowed to play their starters, so Cousins will face their dangerous pass rush and deep, underrated secondary in the most important game of his career. If he wins it, he gets to put on a show, perhaps in Seattle or at Lambeau Field, that erases all doubt that the Redskins are just a tweak here and a plugged hole there from reaching the Super Bowl with him.

The alternative could be ugly. Imagine everyone moving on after a collapse keeps Washington out of the playoffs. Imagine Cousins in San Francisco or Cleveland with a Brock Osweiler contract and a weak, unfamiliar supporting cast. Imagine coach Jay Gruden introducing Tyrod Taylor, some rookie or (ugh) Jay Cutler at the podium, like your divorced brother-in-law bringing his Tinder girlfriend to a family barbecue.

Or, just as likely: Cousins and the Redskins agree to a whopping contract (or another pricey franchise-tag year of indecision) under shotgun-wedding conditions while Cousins, Gruden, Dan Snyder, Scot McCloughan and the talk-radio Greek chorus choke down lingering doubts about one another. To figure out how tragically that story ends, reference the entire 21st century in Washington Redskins history.

Maybe this is all a matter of perception, but perception wouldn’t be an issue if the Redskins were 11-4 right now. The fact that Cousins and the team haven’t made an emphatic statement yet, with the playoffs and a possible nine-figure decision at stake, may be a statement in itself.

Yogi Berra is often quoted as saying, “When you come to the fork in the road, take it.” Cousins and the Redskins have somehow done that all year. But there will be no more middle ground to blaze in 2017. Decision time begins on New Year's Day. No more stepping to the precipice of greatness, then stepping back. No more cute postgame slogans one week and high-profile setbacks the next. It's time to shred the labels, or risk having them stick. 

Sunday determines their path. Play well, fellas. And choose wisely.

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