Josh Norman, clearing out his locker.  (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
Editor/columnist

“We’re just scratching the surface.”

“We will get better.”

“Next year, this is going to be a team to reckon with.”

“The sky’s the limit for this football team.”

Those little gems of optimism spilled out of the locker room after the final Redskins game two years ago, a playoff loss to the Green Bay Packers that many saw as a cheery stepping stone into the future. But stepping stones can lead in the other direction, too. Since that moment of projected progress, the Redskins have lurched toward an ever-more tenuous status with their starting quarterback. They have lost their best two wide receivers — and failed to replace them. They have seen their top personnel man depart in a messy split that left fans disenchanted. They lost one of the finest young offensive minds in the sport, who has his new team in the playoffs. And they have seen their won-loss record in gradual retreat: from 9-7 to 8-7-1 to 7-9.

If you’re feeling rosy, you might still consider this Jay Gruden-and-Kirk Cousins era more hopeful than not. The past three seasons represented a rare Washington flirtation with sustained mediocrity. The Redskins at least temporarily avoided the Sunday morning news ticker of disarray. Gruden will become Daniel Snyder’s first head coach to reach a fifth season. And there were enough valid excuses in 2017 — from the brutal schedule to the rash of injuries — that a mildly sub-.500 season seems only mildly disappointing.

Step back and look at those three seasons as a whole, though, and there’s a different impression: one of opportunity lost. The Redskins had chances to accomplish feats worthy of all those sky’s-the-limit quotes — in personnel decisions, in public relations and on the field. They repeatedly came up somewhere short of the sky.

It starts with the Cousins contract impasse, whose original sin was committed well before it became clear that Washington had one of the best 15 or so quarterbacks in the world. Bruce Allen’s posturing last offseason — “I don’t think it’s as complicated as everyone wants to make it, and we’ll get together with his agent, and I’m sure we’ll come to an agreement,” the executive said — was silly on its face; Cousins’s dad later told Sports Illustrated that his son would have turned down even a deal making him the highest-paid player in league history.

But there was a time when the team could have secured Cousins for cheaper — whether that time was before the 2016 season, when the Redskins are believed to have offered a deal with an average salary of roughly $16 million per season, or even earlier, before he had seized control of the job.

Sure, the team would have been taking a gamble by extending a young quarterback with uneven results. And, yes, many of us doubted whether he would become a star back then. The Redskins should have known more about Cousins’s potential than anyone else and should have understood the risks of repeatedly betting against their most important player. They could have flipped off the yearly franchise-tag polka before it got stuck in all our heads. At least one local radio host started screaming about signing Cousins to a modest extension as early as Week 5 of the 2015 season, and local sports-radio hosts should not be out-thinking NFL front-office executives.

“You know, we kind of messed up in Washington not getting him done earlier,” former GM Scot McCloughan acknowledged, and it was that error that led to the rest of this mess: the two years of uncertainty, the week-by-week evaluation, the unpleasant remaining options, the dilemma that virtually no NFL team has ever faced: getting priced out of keeping your own productive quarterback with locker room support. (“He’s an amazing quarterback; he’s an elite quarterback in my eyes,” tackle Morgan Moses said Monday.)

“I know that’s the story right now: if Kirk will be back or not,” linebacker Will Compton acknowledged, when asked about the Cousins uncertainty. “It is the same old story, but now it’s more real than ever.”

If the Cousins debacle could have been avoided, so could have the McCloughan fiasco. The Redskins, always a few Jenga blocks short of stability, didn’t have to choose a man with a very public history of personal issues to appease an angry fan base. And when the move didn’t work, they didn’t have to cut ties the way they did: with an anonymously sourced suggestion that the GM drank himself out of his job. Many fans haven’t and won’t forgive the team for its actions in that divorce, and this was an entirely self-inflicted wound. The franchise needed to discover a classy exit strategy. It instead started rummaging in the equipment shed for a bucket of slime.

The coaching decisions are more complicated; maybe there was just no way to keep a rising star like former offfensive coordinator Sean McVay. But there’s something galling about seeing him take the downtrodden Los Angeles Rams to 11 wins in his first season — a total Washington hasn’t reached since 1991, the longest such drought in the NFL. The guy behind that record was right here last year, right inside the building. And now he is flourishing alongside defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, a man Washington might have hired three years ago, after an interview he later described as “strange, to say the least.”

This three-year Washington era has been fine enough, but what if the team had paired McVay’s offense with Phillips’s defense from the start? And so next weekend’s Rams playoff game will be a reminder of yet another missed opportunity.

Then there are the individual games themselves. The two most memorable results of the 2016 season remain those home losses to the Carolina Panthers and New York Giants: both at home, both as substantial favorites, both with a chance to lock down a playoff berth. The two most memorable results of the 2017 season might well be a pair of agonizing road losses to playoff teams: the Monday nighter in Kansas City, when the potential game-winning touchdown catch was in Josh Doctson’s arms, and the November loss in New Orleans, when the Redskins burped up a 15-point lead in the final three minutes.

So Sunday’s season finale felt fitting, in a way. Here was the most modest opportunity imaginable: an 8-8 record, three straight non-losing seasons, a respectable win streak to tote into the offseason. And here was the most Redskins result imaginable: a loss to a flailing franchise whose offensive linemen were declining to play, marked by perhaps the worst Cousins performance in three years, flipping the season-ending mood from hopeful to sour.

“I felt like it was a failure,” D.J. Swearinger said of the season.

“Crap,” summarized Josh Norman, when asked his feelings about this season.

There’s just so many things we’ve got to fix,” Moses said. 

Just two years ago, the soundbites were hopeful and sunny. And you can still make the case that these three seasons have represented some minimal level of progress. But think back on all those missed opportunities, and the gradual back-sliding, and you have to wonder how the progress wasn’t greater. For now, that’s the identity of this era of Redskins football: forever just scratching the surface.

More on the Redskins and the NFL:

27 things I hated about the season-ending loss to the Giants

Everything you need to know about the NFL’s coaching carousel

Bruce Arians leaves the Cardinals on his terms. He will be missed.