There was a searing moment in mid-October that seems to be, in hindsight, the one in which the entire Washington Redskins' season pivoted. Kirk Cousins had just thrown two interceptions in a Week 6 loss to the New York Jets -- his fourth multiple-interception game of the young season -- and Washington was, not surprisingly, off to a 2-4 start.
Cousins had been his team's best quarterback in the preseason, and Jay Gruden had made the dramatic decision to cast his fortunes with Cousins instead of Robert Griffin III. In retrospect, it was clear that Gruden and the rest of the Washington braintrust wasn't entirely sold on Cousins as the future of the franchise, just that they thought he was the best option for right now. Griffin was active that October day, though he essentially acted as Cousins' bullpen catcher, keeping the starter warmed up by throwing the ball back and forth with him on the sideline. But Gruden faced a question that afternoon that might have changed the course of the season -- and certainly the tenor of the team -- had the answer been different.
The question was designed to probe Gruden's level of commitment to Cousins, to divine whether there was an opening through which Colt McCoy or even Griffin might slip.
There was not, and Gruden's answer made clear that the Redskins had invested so much time in developing Cousins -- and that injuries had limited what the offense could do early in the season -- that there was no other choice.
"I'd like to see what happens when we get our full cast of characters back," Gruden said that day. "We stand behind Kirk."
The payoff -- short-term and big picture -- has come. In the eight games that have followed that loss to the Jets, Cousins has thrown 16 touchdown passes and just three interceptions while completing 72.8 percent of his passes (he leads the league in completion percentage for the season at 69.7 percent). There have been no more multiple-interception games. The Redskins are 5-3 in that span and, with a win over Philadelphia on Saturday night, will win the NFC East.
Considering that no NFC East team is above .500, that may be equivalent to scaling the shortest mountaintop this season, but a division title will give Washington a home playoff game -- and they are 6-2 at home this year. And, in a point that is not to be underestimated, Gruden's decision to stick with Cousins, and Cousins' ability to capitalize on it and show he deserves the chance to grow, has brought a measure of stability to a team -- and a position -- that had been a daily drama since the day Griffin was drafted, engulfing the entire team.
And it has allowed the Redskins to accomplish one of their most important goals heading into this season: to figure out the quarterback position, at least for now, because the team has nobody signed for 2016.
On Monday, Cousins said during his weekly radio appearance on Washington's 106.7, that after the Jets game, he and Gruden watched a game tape of Tom Brady, with the message being that there was nothing Brady was doing that Cousins wasn't capable of -- but that it took time and discipline and attention to detail to elevate his performance. Whether the film session was truly the turning point or if it was something more like improved timing and chemistry with DeSean Jackson (who was injured early in the season), is almost beside the point. Washington's offense is clicking, allowing the team to take advantage of a down year in its division (for example, the Redskins' seven wins have all come against teams that currently have losing records).
"I just showed him the success of another quarterback," Gruden said of the tape session on Brady. "How he's managing the game. He's not doing everything himself. He's letting his players do the work for him. I think it's mainly on Kirk. I think Kirk coming out here, progressing, studying the tape really, studying the practice reps. You can study and be the backup and don't get the reps. He's studied and he's getting all the reps and he's learning from the reps and his mistakes in practice. Taking every first-team rep for 30 weeks has been very important for him."
The secret to Cousins' success is obvious: He has cut down on mistakes, which has been the knock on him since college. During training camp and the preseason, Cousins showed an ability to get the ball out quickly and get it to the right target. But Cousins has improved by limiting the negative plays that stymied him and the Redskins early in the season. The addition of quarterbacks coach Matt Cavanaugh this season has surely provided a steadying influence among the QBs.
"When he got pressure, the ball just came out," said former Redskins general manager and current NFL Media analyst Charley Casserly, who has studied Cousins throughout the season and was an early advocate for the Redskins starting him. "When he got behind, he didn't have the mental toughness or maturity to fight through."
He and the Redskins still have a few points to prove on that front. The Redskins have won only once on the road this season (Saturday's game is in Philadelphia), and the offense has been particularly dreadful away from home. It has averaged 7.5 fewer points, 100 fewer yards (75 fewer rushing yards) and has given up eight more turnovers on the road than at home, despite still having two more road games to go. Cousins' completion percentage dips by 10 points on the road.
The key to rectifying it, Gruden said this week, is to continue to distribute the ball as the Redskins do at home and to remain balanced. The problem has been when the Redskins have gotten into third-and-long situations on the road -- against the Jets and Patriots, for instance -- the offense has become one-dimensional and defenses can tee off on Cousins.
It doesn't help that two of the six road games the Redskins have already played were at New Englandand Carolina -- currently the top seeds in their respective conferences. The Eagles, despite a stunning victory against the Patriots, are not in either team's class defensively, ranking near the bottom in most categories. They have allowed at least 40 points in three of their last five games.
Barring an absolute meltdown by Cousins in these final two weeks that might reframe the conversation, the Redskins are in a corner with Cousins, who likely will want significant guaranteed money when negotiating his contract this offseason or will be willing to bet on himself and play under the franchise tag that is likely to be about $20 million.
"The good news is you have him," Casserly said. "The bad news is he's not signed. The problem is you don't have a big enough body of work. He's a free agent, and you can't lose him. You have no alternative. They're in a pickle. They're going to have to cough up the money."
There is, of course, no way to predict which direction Cousins' development will go in the next few years after observing just one full season as the starter, just as there is no way to know right now what his contract will look like. But for all of the difficult decisions the Redskins have faced with quarterbacks in the last few years -- from the blockbuster trade that started it all to the backup who has finally seemed to steady the franchise in the last two months -- this is the dilemma that will be blissfully routine for a team used to handling far more drama.
Three more games with significant playoff implications
1) The New England Patriots are so banged up that Bill Belichick allowed that he might have to give some thought to resting players in the final two games of the regular season. (Tom Brady is the Patriots' only player to start every game at the same position.) That would help the Jets, and they need all the help they can get as they try to stay alive in the playoff chase. New England is playing to secure the first overall seed in the AFC field, but New York has to win out -- against the Patriots and the Bills next week -- to give itself the best chance to snag a wild-card spot. The Jets came achingly close to beating the Patriots in Foxborough earlier this year -- they held a 20-16 lead early in the fourth quarter, and it would have been more had Brandon Marshall not dropped a third-down pass in the end zone -- mostly because their defense gave up a lot of yards but held firm in the red zone, forcing three Patriots field goals in the first three quarters. A similar defensive effort would give the Jets' offense a chance to atone for those kinds of mistakes. They are markedly improved in the four-game win streak, with Ryan Fitzpatrick throwing 10 touchdown passes and just one interception. A critical caveat: The Jets have not yet beaten a team with a winning record.
2) AJ McCarron vs. Brock Osweiler, with six career starts between them, is not the way anybody imagined the AFC playoff picture being shaped when they looked at the schedule earlier this season. The Bengals and Broncos have top defenses (the Bengals are the top-scoring defense, the Broncos first against the run, pass and in sacks), so a low-scoring game is likely. Both teams need to regain their early season momentum -- the Bengals are 3-3 after starting 8-0, and the Broncos are 3-4 after starting 7-0. Denver's offense has been shut out in the second half of three straight games. The Broncos, at home, need this victory more than the Bengals. They are only one game ahead of the Chiefs in the AFC West, and the Chiefs hold the tiebreaker if they finish with the same record. The Bengals have already clinched a playoff berth, but a win would secure the AFC North title and a first-round bye.
3) For a Packers offense that has just not clicked the way we are used to seeing -- they have fewer than 250 passing yards in five straight games -- a matchup against the league's sixth-ranked scoring defense, which has held its last four opponents to 20 points or less, would not be welcome. But the Cardinals have lost safety Tyrann Mathieu for the season. With both of these teams already in the playoffs, the thing to watch here is how the Cardinals adjust to life without their Defensive Player of the Year candidate, who has played the highest percentage of defensive snaps on the team and had 89 tackles (11 for a loss), five interceptions and 16 passes defensed. A win by the Cardinals assures them a first-round bye. The Packers lead the Vikings by one game in the NFC North.