Shortly after 12:30 on Monday afternoon, Redskins Coach Jay Gruden emerged from the team’s weight room and approached a podium. He was whistling.
“Hello,” he told several dozen media members.
Then he flipped the franchise’s future on its head.
“We do have news,” Gruden said. “We have announced that Kirk Cousins will be the starter for 2015.”
Naming a starting quarterback is perhaps the most basic move a professional football team can make, an ordinary action signaling the team’s direction to players and fans. Washington’s professional football team, though, does not operate in ordinary ways.
And so the news that Cousins would replace Robert Griffin III for the Redskins’ Sept. 13 season opener and beyond was months in the making, featuring more unbelievable twists than a straight-to-video horror flick.
Griffin — the one-time franchise savior, for whom the team mortgaged its future in the spring of 2012 — was benched for performance last season, then reinstated in December. He was told at season’s end that he would face a quarterback competition in 2015 but then was handed the starting job in February.
He was promised a full chance to resurrect his career in Washington — symbolized by a one-year contract extension that team President Bruce Allen called “a no-brainer” — and frequently praised by coaches during offseason practices.
Then Griffin suffered a concussion, which he would not confirm, during a disastrous 20 minutes of preseason action against the Detroit Lions on Aug. 20. He was cleared to start Saturday’s exhibition before being ruled out 24 hours later in a confusing 66-word team press release, and speculation grew that his final chance had already evaporated.
Radio hosts called the process a circus and a fiasco. ESPN’s Trevor Matich and Fox’s Troy Aikman both compared the franchise to the Kardashians.
The few starters who addressed the situation in the Redskins’ locker room Monday were matter-of-fact and almost blase. They treated the news the way they might treat the release of a backup long snapper — just part of life in the NFL — and insisted that Kanye West would not be making an appearance in Ashburn.
“I mean, I see all the stuff on Twitter — sources this, sources that — but that’s the outside stuff,” said Terrance Knighton , a former defensive star in Denver who has been in Washington for just a few months. “We have a culture in this locker room, a unified front, where we’re not going to let the distractions hurt this team. I mean, it’s not going to turn into a soap opera. You know, this is not the Kardashians.”
But if players weren’t acknowledging it, this was a landmark day for the franchise. In Griffin’s rookie year, he set NFL records, shared Thanksgiving dinner with owner Daniel Snyder, led Washington to its only division title of the 21st century and sold more jerseys in one year than any player in league history. Even after four years of drama, Griffin’s face is pictured on the Redskins’ opening-game tickets this season, his image in the center of the team’s official app.
His demotion appears to signal that Gruden and first-year General Manager Scot McCloughan are in charge now, that this season will mark the beginning of McCloughan’s tenure more than the end of Griffin’s.
The coach drove home that point by saying that Griffin’s benching was based on performance, not health. Gruden said he had named Griffin the starter in February because he “wanted to put all the distractions aside” but that the competition among quarterbacks had continued. He said that Cousins had “done everything right” in practices and games, that he “has taken a giant leap” over the last year and “gives us the best chance” to win games. And he said that this was no short-term move, that Cousins “has earned the right to be the starting quarterback for 2015.”
Moments later, the new starting quarterback called that faith empowering.
“There’s something powerful about feeling believed in,” said Cousins, still wearing athletic pants and his non-contact yellow jersey. “There’s something powerful about knowing where you stand. I feel like Jay has done that today.”
Some teammates shared that view. Amid the normal decorations of an NFL locker room — a dominoes set, empty water bottles, discarded athletic tape — they were asked about spending 10 days at the center of a media storm 10 months in the making.
“We treat the quarterbacks like different players, but at the end of the day, man, it’s a position in football,” safety Duke Ihenacho said. “The good thing is that somebody was named. That’s all that matters to me. Somebody was named, and now we know who exactly to rally behind. It’s just not in the air anymore. Everything’s out there.”
Well, not everything. Griffin’s future remains unclear despite Gruden saying there have been no discussions about removing him from the roster. And what happens if Cousins gets injured or plays poorly? Gruden said he was trying not to think about that possibility.
“We’re going to do everything we can to surround Kirk the best way we can,” Gruden said. “Good strong running game, good strong defense, special teams and let him play.”
Despite all the noise surrounding them, the players’ schedule Monday reflected the quotidian grind in the NFL, not a turning point in franchise history. Breakfast started at 6:30, treatment for injuries and soreness at 7, with the weight lifting group meeting at 7:15.
At 8:45 was the normal team meeting. Gruden started the assembly with videos highlighting a few plays from Saturday’s win over Baltimore, then addressed the quarterback situation. The meeting lasted five or 10 minutes; players then split up to attend positional meetings.
One player missed the quarterback news because he was visiting the restroom. Another said his only conversation with Cousins on Monday concerned a joking disagreement over whether the quarterback had been sacked during a practice drill.
“I was more worried about how I’ve got to get back out there and practice today,” said outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan, who is recovering from offseason knee surgery. “For us defensively, that doesn’t clear anything up. We’ve got a whole hell of a lot to worry about with us defensively before we start worrying about who’s playing quarterback.”
As players dressed, a team staffer stood with arms crossed in front of Griffin’s locker, telling reporters the former starter would not answer questions.
Cornerback DeAngelo Hall, a team leader, repeatedly explained that he would answer questions only about the defense, referring to himself as “employee 23,” his jersey number.
“I’m not answering any quarterback questions,” he said. “I’m not even trying to get into that.”
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