ASHBURN, Va. -- The comments weren't terrible. They weren't over-the-top accolades, either. They were somewhere in between. Washington Redskins coach Jay Gruden praised his quarterback but also pointed out the team's 7-9 finish. Gruden mentioned the record three times.
That sums up the dilemma Washington faces with Kirk Cousins in the offseason. He's a good quarterback, but at what cost? And if you're going to pay someone such a princely sum, what do you expect in return?
Reading between the lines, here's an interpretation of Gruden's comments:
The Redskins are afraid they won't be able to build around Cousins if they pay him a certain amount per year. If you're going to hand a guy, say, more than $25 million, you're going to expect a great return. A 7-9 finish does not qualify as such. The Redskins would like him back; they also want him at a pay level commensurate with his perceived talent level.
Of the 12 highest-paid quarterbacks this season, only two made the postseason -- Ben Roethlisberger of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints. And the Saints were coming off three straight 7-9 finishes with Brees. Two quarterbacks were injured -- the Green Bay Packers' Aaron Rodgers and the Indianapolis Colts' Andrew Luck. In 2016, seven of the 12 highest-paid QBs missed the playoffs. You'd best believe the Redskins are aware of this stat. Those teams didn't miss the postseason only because of what they paid the quarterback -- it's the most important position in the game -- but it speaks to needing cap room to build a consistent winner. And a front office can't use this reason to explain failures. You can still draft well; you can still sign productive free agents. The Redskins did not miss the playoffs this year because Cousins was making $24.4 million. Still, it shows you need more and, in some cases, a lot more.
There were injuries, of course, but the Redskins could look at the roster and say: "This is what it'll look like in the future if we can't afford a lot of other pieces." Therefore, you need the quarterback to play well consistently. Cousins, down the stretch, did not. If injured players such as tackle Trent Williams, tight end Jordan Reed and running back Chris Thompson would have played, it could have helped. But they needed Cousins to play well, or consistently, in the other games. Some of his throws were missed or forced; that wasn't an injury issue.
Gruden was honest. Cousins did have very good games -- two of his best occurred in losses at Kansas City and New Orleans. He also had clunkers -- two of his worst as a starter occurred on the road against the Los Angeles Chargers and the New York Giants in the finale. The Redskins see the wide variance, especially at the price point it would take to keep him around long term.
It's not just Gruden or the Redskins who would be worried about building around Cousins. It's Cousins himself. In multiple conversations with people close to him, it's clear that he shares that same concern: He doesn't want to hamstring a team by making it impossible to add or keep other pieces. He knows what he needs around him. Cousins' salary will make that difficult regardless and there's doubt he'd take a big cut in market value to help. That's also why Cousins will look hard at teams -- be it in Washington or elsewhere –- that can build and sustain a winner.
Last offseason the Redskins wrestled with this question: Could they get the same production from backup Colt McCoy? They will debate that same topic this offseason. Gruden has always believed in McCoy (teammates love his leadership) because of his knowledge of the offense and ability to go off-schedule with ease. But Gruden also chose Cousins to be his starter. So that's not to say he'd view McCoy as necessarily better, but someone who could accomplish similar things. It's also no guarantee they'd go this route because the decision involves multiple people, not just Gruden. The Redskins have made moves in the past without having the head coach in lockstep. Regardless, Gruden's comments help set the stage for the offseason.