After a season in which Kirk Cousins broke numerous passing records en route to an 8-7-1 season, the Redskins face another offseason determining whether they will retain their starting quarterback.
Quarterback Kirk Cousins' second to last throw of Sunday evening's 19-10 loss to the Giants effectively ended the Redskins' season and began the New Year on a sour note.
His interception over the middle of the field intended for wide receiver Pierre Garçon sucked out the excited anticipation inside of FedExField and filled it with the disappointment that this team wouldn't be returning to the playoffs for consecutive seasons.
That play, at least for the past few days, also threatened to undermine another career year for Cousins, who enters free agency once again after taking more strides in his second full season as starting quarterback. In 2016, he broke numerous team records, many of which he had already set himself the previous year, but now Cousins and the Redskins face the familiar feeling of determining his future.
Just like last year, the team can leave him as a free agent, sign him to a long-term contract, or, like last year, place the franchise tag on him, which will have increased to about $4 million more than last time.
"I'll leave that up to the negotiators in our building, Eric Schaffer, Dan [Snyder] and obviously Scot [McCloughan]," head coach Jay Gruden said when asked about Cousins' chances of returning. "We all have to come to a conclusion of how we want to pursue this thing. So that's going to come. We're going to have player evaluations for the next couple of weeks here with our staff and general manager and Bruce [Allen]. We'll go from there."
As time begins to heal the initial sting of Sunday's loss, it should also put Cousins' accomplishments this season into greater relief.
Cousins set single-season team records in attempts (606), completions (406) and passing yards (4,917, where he ranked third in the league) and matched his team record with seven 300-yard passing games. Cousins also posted the third-highest completion percentage (67.0) and tied for the sixth-most passing touchdowns in a season in team history (25).
Bolstered by a cohesive offensive line, Cousins managed to start all 16 games for a second straight season, too, joining Jason Campbell, Mark Rypien and Joe Theismann as the only Redskins quarterbacks to do so.
Kirk Cousins has been named the NFC Offensive Player of the Month for November. Check out these images from the past month.
There are plenty more figures like these – stats that combine both of his starting seasons – that paint a broader picture of where he stacks up with other quarterbacks in the league. Numbers do not tell the entire story, but they help provide structure and objectivity in what can sometimes be a visceral, emotional negotiation process.
Gruden acknowledged Monday that anytime a quarterback throws for nearly 5,000 yards, there are many positives that come as well, notably a lack of negative plays. Cousins took fewer sacks this season and besides his two interceptions against the Giants, did much better in protecting the football.
That was bolstered by a run game that found some strength midway through the season once Robert Kelley emerged as the team's featured running back. It also didn't hurt to have a plethora of receiving options, each capable of posting 100-yard games.
Both Garçon and DeSean Jackson eclipsed 1,000 yards on the season, while tight end Jordan Reed and wide receiver Jamison Crowder each contributed with 66 and 67 receptions, respectively, and that's without mentioning strong contributions from tight end Vernon Davis and running Chris Thompson.
According to Pro Football Focus, Cousins benefited with deep-ball numbers, collecting a 118.1 passer rating on passes aimed 20 or more yards downfield, the fourth-best mark in the league. His Turnover-Worthy Play percentage (the number of time a quarterback commits a turnover or near-turnover) was the 12th lowest this season, up from 19th in 2015.
Cousins, as he gently stated in September this year, is still a work in progress, after completing just his first full offseason knowing he was the team's starting quarterback. When asked what things Cousins could improve, Gruden cited making more off-schedule plays specifically.
"I think just overall understanding of the game – scheme, protections – and that's going to come with time," Gruden said. "This is his second full year playing and he's learned a lot, but he's got a lot more to learn, both from a mental side and then from a physical side, maybe the ability to create some plays once in a while would be good – like he did against Chicago. A couple scramble first downs, some off-schedule plays that you see some of these guys make. Athletically, he's not like Russell Wilson, or some of those guys, but still, maybe if he can buy time in the pocket a little bit, something he can continue to work on, get a feel for [and] take his game to the next level. He's already at a very high level."
Cousins refused to discuss the possibility of returning to the team at his press conference following Sunday's game. The team may also have to factor in the potential loss of offensive coordinator Sean McVay, who is reportedly interviewing with a couple of teams for a head coaching position.
"It's really not my decision to make," Cousins said. "They chose to tag me and the same is true this year, so if they don't choose to tag me then I think that question is answered at that point, but right now the ball's not in my court."
This week, the quarterback has stated that the idea of a "hometown discount" doesn't appeal to him primarily because it would affect his peers in the league and prevent them from potentially receiving what they've earned.
Regardless of how the next couple months go – the Redskins have between Feb. 15 and March 1 to assign him the franchise tag if they so choose – Cousins will take the next week or two to recover from the season and the heartbreaking way it finished.
"This isn't my first time dealing with this," Cousins said on Sunday. "Tough times don't last, tough people do. I sound like a broken record but I'm going to keep saying that until I'm retired. All I know is it's going to give me an edge. I'm going to go into this offseason with a hunger that has always been there, but certainly when the season ends this way, it will be there and it will be strong."