The Washington Redskins and Denver Broncos got together Sunday for what amounted to a Week 16 exhibition game, the outcome of which mattered little to anyone aside from the smattering of friends, family members and a few other curious onlookers gathered to spend their Christmas Eve afternoon at FedEx Field.
With two teams so firmly entrenched in the planning-for-next-year portions of their lost seasons, the only meaning to be derived from this one was connected to 2018 and beyond. For the Redskins, it is all about the futures of Coach Jay Gruden and quarterback Kirk Cousins.
And while there were no firm resolutions Sunday, and nothing that happens on the field for the remainder of this season really affects those decisions all that much, there were interesting possibilities to ponder.
The Redskins beat the Broncos, 27-11, to move their record to 7-8 and keep a .500 season within reach entering next Sunday's finale against the New York Giants at the Meadowlands. No one should be overly excited about the prospect of an 8-8 season, as Gruden acknowledged this past week. But given the circumstances and the depleted state of the Redskins' offense around Cousins at times this season, holding things together and reaching .500 actually would be a decent accomplishment for Gruden and his players.
"It's important for a lot of reasons," Gruden said. "Everybody wrote us off and questioned the character and quitting. I knew it wouldn't happen. Guys stepped up and played their tails off. There's still a lot to play for. We're playing a division rival on the road. . . . I think these guys will be fired up and ready to play."
The view held by many around the league of Gruden is that he is a competent coach with a superb offensive mind and the even temperament needed to deal with the craziness so often associated with Washington's franchise. He is well regarded, and the belief leaguewide, it seems, is that the Redskins would be wise to keep him even after a second straight non-playoff season.
Of course, the Redskins are not exactly known for doing wise and patient things when it comes to coaches. And they usually have company from other impetuous NFL franchises at this time of the year, as the firing-and-hiring time for coaches nears. There remains a slight suspicion among some that Gruden could be available after the season. And that has produced speculation that Gruden could land in Cincinnati to replace his former boss with the Bengals, Marvin Lewis, who reportedly is poised to move on. The NFL Network reported Sunday that Gruden would be the Bengals' No. 1 choice.
Another obvious alternative for Cincinnati is Hue Jackson, who succeeded Gruden as the Bengals' offensive coordinator and now is completing his second season as the head coach of the Cleveland Browns. Browns owner Jimmy Haslam has declared that Jackson will remain in place next season as Cleveland's coach. But the Browns have all of one victory since the start of the 2016 season. They have a new general manager, John Dorsey, and there has been speculation that Dorsey could try to convince Haslam that he needs to bring in a coach of his own choosing for a total organizational reset.
So the potential that Gruden or Jackson could be in play for the Bengals has complicated the situations in Washington and Cleveland. It is a relatively stress-free situation for Gruden, given that he has a contract with the Redskins that runs through 2020. It's always nice to be wanted and even nicer to have guaranteed money lined up. But it all adds a bit more complexity and drama to a Redskins offseason that won't be lacking in either.
The Redskins' .500 season or near-.500 season, whichever it will be, and Gruden's contract probably ensure that he stays in place. But there are few certainties for coaches on non-playoff teams once the coaching carousel begins spinning, particularly those with a string of seasons out of the playoffs.
That is mostly, of course, because of the potential free agent status of Cousins, provided that the Redskins opt against using a third straight franchise-player tag on him at a prohibitive cost of close to $34.5 million. In what was possibly his final home game in a Redskins uniform, Cousins gave a mixed-bag performance Sunday that included three touchdown passes — one of them to a wide-open Josh Doctson in the fourth quarter that sealed the outcome — and one interception on a throw forced into heavy traffic in the end zone.
"There will be plenty of time to discern all those questions and think about the options come the offseason," Cousins said. "But right now I've got to focus on winning football games. Fortunately the last two weeks we've got it done at home. We have a lot to play for against the Giants to try to avoid a losing season. And then we can go from there."
Cousins rebounded from a 1-for-8 beginning to his passing day and ended up playing pretty well. Nothing that happened Sunday and nothing that happens next Sunday, barring an injury, will really change Cousins's market value. It's going to be very high. But it doesn't hurt to look good against a team with such a desperate need for quarterback help.
One fan in a Broncos jersey showed up Sunday to FedEx Field with a sign saying, "Kirk Cousins scouting trip." Broncos executive John Elway spent part of his week getting a firsthand look at top NFL draft quarterback prospect Josh Allen at Wyoming's bowl game. The fact that the Broncos were left starting the well-traveled Brock Osweiler on Sunday tells all about their current quarterback situation. He spent the afternoon doing Brock Osweiler things, including turning the ball over twice. He's not the answer. Neither, it appears at this point, is Trevor Siemian nor Paxton Lynch.
The prospect that Cousins could end up being that answer for Elway and the Broncos — and that Sunday amounted to an in-person audition for Cousins — at least served to provide some intrigue on a day desperately in need of it.