There's a pall hanging over the Washington Redskins and, for once, it doesn't have to do with the team looking up hopelessly at the Giants, Cowboys and Eagles. In an otherwise exciting football year in D.C., the specter of quarterback Kirk Cousins' impending free agency looms after every game — with each serving as a public referendum on Cousins' future in Washington. Will the Redskins bring him back under the franchise tag, sign him to a contract worth between $80 million and $90 million (a funny-money guess based on how much the far-inferior Brock Osweiler got in free agency in 2015) or let him walk away? The question has overshadowed a promising season — the future clouding the present.
The risks on all sides are obvious. The Redskins can sign Cousins to that big deal, watch him regress (or get injured) and waste four years waiting to get out of a contract so unwieldy it doesn't allow the team to build a foundation in other areas. It's happened before. Or they can let Cousins go and spend the next decade watching him lead a rejuvenated Bears franchise that beats the Redskins every two or three years just to rub it in. No one really considers the best-case scenario: Cousins plays like a quarterback in or around the top 10 of the league and the new-look Redskins front office builds a team around his competence that can compete annually.
D.C. sports pessimists (so, like 95 percent of them) think only about the first two possibilities and have already made up their mind about the former.
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“Sure, pay Kirk Cousins $80 million. If there's anything we've learned over the course of 20 years it's that Washington is a place where quarterbacks and overpaid free agents flourish. Seriously, I'm asking, what has happened that would make anyone believe this could work for another five years?” – A D.C. sports fan who wishes to remain nameless because if Cousins gets signed and actually manages to outperform his contract he wants to be able to say he saw it coming
That's a reasonable position. Going by history, it's perhaps more reasonable than hoping Cousins gets signed and lives up to the deal. Albert Haynesworth, Bruce Smith, Adam Archuleta, Jeff George, Dana Stubblefield and Deion Sanders provide the compelling case as to why. Then again, all those were free-agent transfers. Washington rarely gives one of its own a massive contract — last year's extension to Trent Williams, which was the largest in NFL history for an offensive tackle, might have been the first.
With each additional win, Cousins gets closer to becoming the second and possibly earning the biggest contract in history for a team that knows something or five about big contracts. Right now, the Redskins are 6-3-1, their best record through 10 games since 1996. They're 11-4-1 in their past 16 regular-season games, the third-best mark for any NFL team. That record makes for the best season-long stretch since the final year of Joe Gibbs 1.0.
Cousins is the straw stirring the drink. He's played 26 games since becoming the full-time starter and is throwing for 279 yards per game on a 69 percent completion clip with 46 TDs, 18 interceptions and a QB rating of 100.4. Over that aforementioned 16-game stretch, he's thrown for 4,772 yards, 31 TDs, eight interceptions and a rating of 107.2. He throws a gorgeous deep ball. He looks off receivers. He and tight end Jordan Reed have a connection that brings to mind Brady and Gronkowski. There are mistakes — holding onto the ball too long, audible calls into busted plays, unfortunate passes — but the good far outweighs the bad. All season I've been saying that barring a meltdown the Redskins are going to have to stick with Cousins, stats and record be damned, for the simple reason there's no one else available. Now it's different. The Redskins are going to stick with Cousins because he's earned the money and there's every reason to believe he'll keep doing so.
Consider that even if Washington's worst-case scenario comes true — winning two of the final six, let's say — Cousins will still have led the franchise to a winning record in back-to-back years, something that hasn't happened since 1996-97, when Washington was a juggernaut that went 9-7 in '96 and followed that up with a 8-7-1 record the next year. (Last year's division champs went 9-7. This year, the team has a tie on its ledger. Could it be another 9-7/8-7-1 finish? This is where the pessimism of a Washington sports fan kicks into hyperdrive.) The last back-to-back playoff appearances came a year after the 1991 Super Bowl title, and that's happened only eight times in the Super Bowl era (five of which were with Gibbs). Right now, Cousins is on the verge of erasing a slew of two-decade droughts by getting Washington back to the playoffs and putting the team in great position to go on a run D.C. hasn't seen since years before the Internet.
That's why he has to return. If his last six games are average or below average, that shouldn't be a sign to keep looking. It merely lowers his price. Yes, a contract might take some soul-searching for Washington fans who think they're perpetually stuck in the 1980s and with a front office that loves to get in its own way. It should be pretty simple, though: The Redskins have a quarterback playing more consistently over 26 games than any time since before Lawrence Taylor met Joe Theismann's leg. (Mark Rypien's 1991 still stands as the best full season by a Washington quarterback in the last 30 years, but Cousins is challenging that in 2016.)
The cold feet are natural. For years, the Washington sports scene was a study in disappointments. D.C. never got to have fun things. Then all of a sudden, over the course of eight years, Joe Gibbs returned, baseball did, too, the Capitals took a surefire superstar at No. 1, the Nationals got two and the Redskins were going to spend a decade watching Robert Griffin III take them to the playoffs.
It all came crashing down. Gibbs 2.0 was a disappointment, though it resulted in the most playoff appearances for any Redskins coach since Joe Gibbs. (And don't sleep on what Gibbs did with a subpar roster, particularly in 2007, when the team rallied from the midseason murder of Sean Taylor to go on a four-game winning streak and make the playoffs.) The Nationals were mediocre-to-horrible for years. Despite tremendous regular-season success, Alex Ovechkin and the Caps can't win a playoff series. Stephen Strasburg got hurt. Bryce Harper won an MVP, then had a season best described as “you'll get 'em next year.” The team is 0-3 in playoff series despite having the second-best record in baseball over the last five seasons. And RG3? His tale is the stuff of 19th-century Russian literature.
Outlaying a possible nine figures to a quarterback who isn't worth it can get even the best-run franchises into a rut. (Washington only need look 25 miles to the north for an example.) That's not a worry the Redskins can afford to think about. When you have five playoff appearances and just two postseason wins since 1992, you don't get to keep searching for a Peyton Manning or Tom Brady. You realize you haven't had it so good in 30 years. You realize discarding quarterbacks is the mark of the mediocre. You remind yourself, and are thrilled, that you somehow got a franchise cornerstone in the fourth round of a draft in which you took another quarterback at No. 2 overall. Then you pay the man his money.