No matter how awkward the Washington Redskins looked getting to this point, they enter the second half of an important transitional season in playoff position. Right now they’re the No. 6 seed in the NFC, the final team in the field. Sometimes it’s better to be clumsy than good.
Then again, with eight teams less than two games back of Washington’s 4-3-1 record, the midseason playoff picture is so muddled that Coach Jay Gruden doesn’t even know where his team stands.
“We’re right now, currently, I guess the No. 7 or No. 8 seed,” he said Wednesday.
Getting warmer, Jay.
“Whatever it is, we’re in a good position, but we’re in a position where we don’t have a lot of room for error,” he said.
Now that’s the truth, and it applies not only to this season but the state of the entire rebuilding effort. In most years, Washington would be trying to catch up. Instead, rampant NFL mediocrity has given the team an opportunity to make the playoffs for a second straight season.
When the year began, I told you that returning to the postseason might not be the most accurate barometer of progress for the franchise. I was wrong; I didn’t forecast such an uninspiring NFL season. The bar is so low that making the playoffs has become a telling measurement again.
Let’s take it a step further: The final eight games of this season — and how the franchise reacts to the team’s performance — will go down as the most important moments in General Manager Scot McCloughan’s tenure.
Why? For all the hope that McCloughan has inspired over the past season and a half, the truth is that Washington is still a disjointed franchise that needs to keep this project on schedule to avoid making foolish, contentious decisions that could tear apart the progress already made. The leadership isn’t going to abandon the plan, but it could use positive reinforcement to frame some difficult choices ahead that the franchise has to get right.
Washington isn’t — and never will be under owner Daniel Snyder — a traditional, orderly franchise. There is no troublesome bickering currently, but instead of perfect alignment, there are factions within the franchise that have to work around each other to keep the organization afloat. Of course, the fickle Snyder runs the show, but he’s more of a patient overseer than he ever has been, at least for now. Beneath him, there’s Bruce Allen, the team president who remains a strong force and continues to be invested in some of the moves he made as the top personnel executive before McCloughan arrived. Allen is also a valuable buffer between the owner and football operations staff and the most steadfast supporter of Gruden, who is only in the third season of a five-year contract. And there’s McCloughan, who operates more as a super scout overseeing football operations than an everything-stops-here GM. And then there’s Gruden and his coaching staff, trying to merge McCloughan’s vision with theirs.
In this structure, McCloughan doesn’t get everything he wants. No one does. There is a ridiculous amount of checks and balances. For the most part, they have all functioned with a forward-moving spirit, but they haven’t had many polarizing issues. And the team has won. Not big, but it has won.
But polarity is coming.
That’s why success is so important this second half. Some close calls need to be made soon, most notably the future of quarterback Kirk Cousins. The wrong move could be to overspend on a good quarterback who may not be able to live up to a lucrative contract that might leave the team financially hamstrung. Or the wrong move could be to underestimate the production and stability of a solid player manning the most difficult position in team sports and venture into the unknown of finding a replacement.
So what’s the right move? It would be much easier if Cousins settled it on the field, if he left no doubt. If he doesn’t, Gruden will have to battle to keep Cousins, and he figures to face a room of people who range from unimpressed to ambivalent. If you think the Cousins conundrum is polarizing in the public, it’s far more complicated in private. Because the franchise remains in “I don’t know” mode, it doesn’t inspire much confidence that it will make the right decision. And let’s not even talk about trying to keep Cousins — a good man who deserves clarity — happy and not feeling jerked around in the process.
To stay on a linear path, Washington needs to keep Cousins. That doesn’t mean it will ultimately be the right move, but if the team wants to see how far it can go quickly, it can’t change quarterbacks, not when Cousins has established himself as a legitimate and often prolific NFL starter in Gruden’s system. On the other hand, if Cousins regresses or plateaus, that linear path will lead to a dead end. The organization needs another impressive second half from Cousins to make the decision clearer. It’s not about yards; he’s on pace to throw for an incredible 4,908. It’s about better production in the red zone, on third down, at the end of halves and games. It’s about making big-time throws when the opportunity is there.
Cousins isn’t looking back to 2015 for inspiration. He’s competing in the present.
“I don’t know that you ever look at last year and hope for something to be repeated in the sense that every year is different,” Cousins said. “It’s its own year. But we certainly did some good things last year in the second half of the season and would love to go on a run like we did last year.”
Last year, Washington had a 6-2 record in its final eight games. If it does so again, it will return to the playoffs. It probably won’t catch Dallas in the NFC East, but a wild-card spot should be in play, especially since Washington plays most of its playoff competition during the challenging remainder of its schedule.
Gruden claimed last week that his team is “ascending.” These final eight games will be a truth teller. He will need to push more of the right buttons, when it comes to both motivation and improving struggles in key situations. The defense, which is limited, must continue its general trend of improvement. Most vital is that some of the promising young players who have struggled — cornerback Bashaud Breeland and linebacker Preston Smith, in particular — return to form. Defensive coordinator Joe Barry envisions a bigger role for rookie linebacker Su’a Cravens the rest of the way, and Cravens needs to emerge as a consistent star. Young cornerbacks Quinton Dunbar and Kendall Fuller also must keep improving.
But most of all, the playoffs and progress depend upon some clear direction in an organization that has shown indecision as it pacifies its various factions. A prime example is running back. Matt Jones is a 2015 third-round draft pick, but undrafted Rob Kelley is a better overall player and fit right now. But there are other areas in which Washington spent the first half of the season trying to justify personnel decisions and forcing the issue with players who aren’t worthy of their roles.
That has to stop. Players can still develop in practice and in smaller roles than what’s envisioned for the future. It’s about winning now. It’s about making the postseason, which is now a part of keeping the franchise solid and on track.
On Sunday, the most important period of this fledgling project begins. The franchise hasn’t matured enough yet to stay consistent without obvious, forward progress. The season has presented an opportunity to stumble into another feel-good playoff appearance, and stumble, it must.
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.