LANDOVER, Md. – Sunday at FedEx Field was about resignation, about coming to grips with reality regarding the state of Washington’s NFL team.
A victory would’ve virtually guaranteed a playoff berth pending the late result from Green Bay at Detroit. But the evidence throughout the afternoon and into the evening clearly proved that Washington wasn’t a contender, even if it reached the postseason.
There’s no shame in that fact, except the team should’ve beat a Giants squad that couldn’t improve its seeding and therefore had absolutely nothing to play for.
New York dominated in a manner that the 19-10 final score doesn’t reflect. The margin was aided by a touchdown on the final play from scrimmage, when the Skins’ desperation lateral was picked up and returned 11 yards with no time on the clock.
Washington wasn’t going anywhere this year in the long run, but it had a chance to extend the season moments earlier, driving for a potential game-tying field goal or go-ahead touchdown. But Kirk Cousins gave his critics ammunition for the offseason when he threw an ugly, double-pump interception, late and into tight coverage.
That sealed the outcome of the game and the 2016 season. But folks had been coming to peace with the likelihood all day. It’s shocking and disappointing and unbelievable that Washington couldn’t pull out one more victory to reach the playoffs. However, a postseason berth wouldn’t make the Skins better defensively or better at clock management or better at converting third downs or better in the red zone.
We could’ve forgotten those deficiencies momentarily if Washington came out and routed New York, sending Eli Manning to the sidelines early instead of watching him play the entire game. We could’ve put the necessary improvements on the shelf if Cousins led the offense downfield for a crucial score.
Winning is a great deodorant and a playoff berth is like cologne.
Sunday’s performance could’ve used both as Washington stunk up the place. The stench will linger due to the stakes. But as it fades away, we can acknowledge the strides since 2013 and 2014, when they won a total of seven games.
Lots of us don’t want to think about that right after a heartbreaking defeat. We want to point fingers. We want heads to roll. We want to wallow in what could’ve been and should’ve been and would’ve been.
That’s an easy take and it’s understandable due to the emotions involved, especially when your team appears to be on the brink. The truth is much harder to accept: Washington is much better than it was a few years ago and much better than many other franchises.
Game 16 in an 8-7-1 season won’t be submitted as evidence. The vaunted offense managed just 284 total yards. The first five possessions resulted in five punts and 44 yards. The next three went missed 57-yard field goal, punt, interception. The pick came late in the third quarter, one play after the crowd had its first opportunity to cheer all day, a 49-yard completion to Pierre Garcon down to the Giants’ 23. But Maurice Harris slipped on the next snap, allowing Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to step in front and snag the pass.
Washington’s ability to consistently move the ball was its hallmark all season. Without that unit functioning at a high level, the Skins have little chance to succeed against quality opponents. And Cousins’ performance in another big spot – 22 of 35 for 287 yards with two interceptions and four sacks – makes some wonder if his great statistics will ever translate into good-enough when games matter most.
“Can’t win the big one” isn’t a fair tag when quarterbacks depend so heavily on 44 other players. But no QB wants the label of “doesn’t play well in big ones,” which is more of “you” problem. If a quarterback routinely posts huge numbers but flames out with a playoff spot on the line, chances are he’ll have to do it elsewhere before long.
In accepting that the Skins aren’t a finished product, replete with glaring weaknesses on the defensive side of the ball (and probably the defensive coaches’ room), you’re left to debate whether Cousins is a key to the team’s long-term prospects moving forward. Judging by his outing against the Giants and Carolina in another must-win situation, you might hesitate to agree he’s the answer.
But the reality is he’s done well enough overall to deserve a return engagement next season, on another franchise tag at the very least. Part of coming to grips with the 2016 team is realizing that the starting quarterback isn’t the problem.
“I don’t know what Kirk has to do as a quarterback to prove he belongs in the National Football League as a starter,” coach Jay Gruden said. “I think he had a great year.”
That doesn’t mean he’s a great player. The Skins certainly aren’t a great team. Both proved as much Sunday.
That’s OK, for now. Considering the depths that this franchise plunged to just two seasons ago, it’s still headed in the right direction.