Despite defying skeptics and pleasantly surprising cautious fans, the Washington Redskins still do not seem to have offered a clear picture of their capabilities and trajectory. At 6-4-1, Washington is still very much in the playoff picture. However, with a slate of games against competitive, potential playoff teams waiting to round out the schedule, the future of the Redskins’ season still remains questionable. Regardless of the final win total, though, this season will have serious implications for Washington moving forward as a franchise.
A Thanksgiving Day loss to the Dallas Cowboys was hard to stomach for a number of reasons. Losing to any Cowboys team, especially one that is the hottest in the NFL, hurts. Missed opportunities again stand out — particularly two missed field goals from Redskins kicker Dustin Hopkins. Glare from the sun aside, this team cannot afford to leave any points on the table down the stretch. While the Thanksgiving game felt out of reach for the most part, the Week Eight tie against Cincinnati in London — a result of a missed Redskins field goal on the last play in overtime — could ultimately break the Redskins playoff hopes in a crowded wild card field.
The Redskins currently hold onto the six seed, or last seed in the NFC playoffs. Behind them lurk 6-5 Tampa Bay and Minnesota, along with the Eagles at 5-6, hamstrung by a loss to the scrabbling Packers. Ahead are the Lions and Falcons at 7-4 and the Giants at 8-3. For Washington to keep pace with this pack, it must compete with a series of essentially desperate teams — the Cardinals, Eagles and Panthers — along with one more game against the Giants.
While Washington holds a slight edge, the team is in a tenuous situation. At best, the team is lined up to play the Cowboys — to whom it lost twice — in the second round of the playoffs. A much more optimal four seed could be reasonably expected with 10 wins, but that is still not guaranteed.
Thus, the fate of the 2016 Redskins will become much clearer in the next couple of weeks, as things tend to do after Thanksgiving in the NFL. With tough contests in Philadelphia and New York looming, and the Redskins seeking at least three wins, a win against Arizona this week would provide critical breathing room. In the case of a loss, however, Philadelphia could quickly be circled as a season defining game, requiring a win for the team to stay afloat.
Beyond this season, though, bigger questions loom for the Redskins. The first, and most obvious, is what to do about Kirk Cousins. Cousins did not receive his long-term deal last season, settling with a one-year franchise tag. His performance this season would determine his future with this team, and, by all accounts, Cousins has done all that could be asked of him — and more — this season. Cousins sits behind only Drew Brees and the supercharged Saints offense in completions, passing yards and yards-per-game and owns the sixth highest passer rating in the league with a 101.4 rating.
The dynamics of the quarterback market, however, may necessitate that Cousins receives another one-year, $24 million franchise tag, while his true value is assessed. People more versed than I in the politics of contracts indicate that Cousins does not appear likely to get a big deal this year, simply because with the franchise tag the Redskins feel no pressure.
Another hurdle in resigning Cousins is the team around him. Looming free agents include wide receivers Desean Jackson and Pierre Garcon, critical parts of the elite receiving corps that turns Cousin’s passes into completions. Defensive end Chris Baker will also need a payday to stick around, and if the Redskins wish to preserve an offensive line that looks consistently competent, some extensions are probably in order.
In short, the Redskins will have a lot of people who deserve bigger paychecks, yet not enough money to go around, which is the classic conundrum of the parity-driven, strict-on-cap-space NFL. The relatively advanced ages of players like Garcon and Jackson make these decisions even more difficult, adding to the risk of paying them.
Kirk Cousins is not going anywhere. The franchise is going to do what it must to keep him in D.C., but his supporting cast remains a big question. The final weeks of the season allow the team to continue to assess younger talent and consider its options. But the puzzle of the Redskins payroll at the moment appears to have too many pieces. For now, that is a good place to be, and this team has a realistic chance to win more skeptics. But the questions are going to keep arising for the Redskins, and the answers are murky.