Tinkering with the makeup of a middle-of-the-road NFL team can be a tricky business.
In the parity-centric league, there is precious little separating 12-4 from 4-12. Or 12-4 from 8-7-1, for that matter. Redskins fans can attest to the fact that Washington was a half-dozen plays away from a first-round bye.
On the other hand, the Redskins were also a play or two away from losing half or more of the games they won.
The margins are razor-thin in the land of salary-cap football. If a team has discovered the elusive formula for perpetual success (New England), they stick with it, and if they're totally lost (e.g. Cleveland), there's little risk in blowing everything up.
Like 90 percent of the league, the Redskins aren't in either boat.
Now, it's time for Washington to choose.
OPTION ONE: "Stay the course." The theory goes something like this: The Redskins were on the verge of being one of the better teams in the NFC this year. They should re-sign Kirk Cousins, who is one of the top 10 quarterbacks in the NFL. It’s easy to lose sight of just how good Cousins is because we spend so much time scrutinizing his (admitted) imperfections.
Then, Washington will have to decide between DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon, because the Redskins won't have the resources to keep both. Overall, though, the offense is one of the best in the league when everyone is healthy and in sync.
Yes, the Redskins need to make changes on the defensive side of the ball, but that process has already begun. Joe Barry is gone. Scot McCloughan gets to pick his own DC now, and that guy gets to assemble a defensive staff. McCloughan can then use the draft and cap space to upgrade at key spots (especially safety) and/or tailor the personnel for the new DC's system.
This option is partially dependent upon the belief that, while the Redskins went 8-7-1 and missed the playoffs, they were actually a better football team in 2016 than they were in 2015. But there is another point-of-view . . .
OPTION TWO: "Seattle." Here’s how this one goes: What we saw the past two years is Kirk Cousins' ceiling. He'll put up pretty stats, but he won't be able to win playoff games. At crucial moments against good teams, he's going to throw interceptions or miss open receivers downfield. And Sean McVay’s departure to Los Angeles could also mean that it is more likely than not that Cousins has peaked.
This argument says that Cousins is a rich man's Andy Dalton, another Gruden quarterback who had some nice regular seasons. Dalton has even made a couple of Pro Bowls. But, in four playoff starts, he's 0-4 with one touchdown pass and six interceptions.
Even if Cousins is better than Dalton, this theory goes, you don't give him a monster contract because it will prevent you from making the change you really need to make: Building an elite defense. That's what McCloughan helped do in San Francisco and Seattle, and that's what he can do in DC.
Instead, you franchise Cousins, leverage him for two first-round draft picks in a trade to a QB-desperate team like, say, the 49ers. That gives you some extra high picks to begin putting the pieces in place to make a real run at a Super Bowl.
Yes, there will be drop-off at quarterback. But a moderate downgrade to someone like Colt McCoy is acceptable if you can build that elite defense. Put bluntly, Trent Dilfer and Brad Johnson have Super Bowl rings. Dan Marino and Dan Fouts don’t.
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The Redskins have to pick a path. It’s possible that either may lead to a championship, but it’s much more likely that only one might. And, unless McCloughan has access to a plutonium-powered DeLorean, there’s no way to know for certain which is the right one.
While I continue to have some minor concerns about Cousins, I think sticking with him is probably the right call. The Redskins are already in a position to improve defensively, thanks to having more cap space than all but four teams in the league.
This is a more conservative approach, to be sure, but having a solid quarterback is such a rare thing in the modern NFL that I would be too risk-averse to let Cousins walk . . . unless there is some team out there that is so desperate that they will give up a huge chunk of their future for him.
That’s my “Bradford Proviso.” I think back to the deal the Vikings and Eagles made to send Sam Bradford to Minnesota. I was incredulous that the Vikings would make that kind of deal for what was essentially a one-year player, assuming Teddy Bridgewater can come back healthy this fall.
I still can’t believe that they did it. If there is a team foolish enough to put together an analogous deal for Kirk Cousins, the Redskins would have to trade him.
Cousins is much more valuable than Bradford was, and a comparable deal that takes that value into account could set the Redskins up to be championship contenders for as long as McCloughan remains in the organization.
Short of that, though, I’m more confident that the Redskins can get better on defense while keeping Cousins than I am that Washington will remain this productive offensively without Cousins.
Unless a deal with a minimum of two first-rounders is on the table, I would keep Cousins, add a couple of nice pieces on defense that fit the new DC’s scheme, and try to reach a (now) realistic goal of 11 or more wins in 2017.