City Paper is not for tourists
Theoretically, the great thing about sports is that there’s no ambiguity. Or, more accurately, any ambiguity resolves itself in a concrete, objective fashion once a game is underway. Ball don’t lie. Scoreboard tells the story.
Which looks like a real problem for the local NFL squad.
Coming out of the offseason, it seemed that all they had were questions. Rather than offering their quarterback a reasonable long-term deal that would pay him like a top-tier starter, they used the franchise tag to pay a lot of money for a second-straight one-year commitment. Faced with the departures of several key pieces of their mostly successful offensive attack—including top wide receivers and the rising-star wunderkind offensive coordinator, Sean McVay—they used free agency and internal promotions to line up less-proven (and in some cases less-promising) replacements.
Even head coach Jay Gruden, who is not exactly in the proverbial hot seat, really needs to demonstrate that he’s anything more than a solid, mediocre NFL head coach with a 21-26-1 record in Washington.
The team headed into its regular season opener, at home against division rival Philadelphia, under a cloud of vague ennui. The Washington Post’s D.C. Sports Bog welcomed opening weekend with a post headlined “Is anyone actually excited for this [Pigskins] season?” Over at The Ringer, Bill Simmons, his writers, and podcast guests have been hammering on the even broader idea that the NBA has supplanted the NFL as the top driver of sports conversation in America.
I thought both of these theses, while not without validity, would be proven wrong once the regular season—with its “meaningful” games—got underway. The NFL has tons of problems, not least the ongoing question of just how fatal the game is for its players. The local team has all the NFL’s problems, plus the ongoing issue of its derogatory name, plus a quarter-century of mediocrity as the ceiling of success. (The situation is thrown even further into relief by the local baseball squad, which just clinched its fourth division title in the last six years, and has objectively removed any ambiguity around its status as one of the elite MLB teams.)
It’s very difficult to judge a season on the macro level after just one full day of games (although a cohort of interesting rookies and unexpected victories felt like a promising step toward reclaiming public interest in the league), but on a micro, local level things were non-conclusive at best, and detrimental to the team at worst.
Gruden resolved none of the ambiguity around his status. If anything, he put his worst tendencies on display. The team again appeared unmotivated, out-hustled, and out-coached. The playcalling, now in Gruden’s bailiwick, was uncreative and nonsensical. The team has yet to win a season opener under Gruden.
The replacements for departed players, most notably the wide receivers, served mainly to highlight just how good last year’s guys actually were. The departed offensive coordinator led a maligned Rams team to a dominating victory, albeit over a depleted, moribund Colts squad that was missing its star quarterback.
But Kirk Cousins is yet again one of the most (perhaps the most) egregious examples. Over the summer, a hot take posited that the only thing that could justify the team’s decision to do a one-year deal was for Cousins to regress. But it was always presented as a joke, a way of saying “this team is so dumb that they don’t realize they’re betting against their own QB.”
Instead, it appears to be the most pressing question of the season: What if the team was actually absolutely right not to commit to Cousins long-term? If Cousins resolved any ambiguity around his status, it was only toward confirming the negative. All of his worst traits were still present—questionable decision-making, streaky inconsistency, a baffling tendency to deliver the worst plays at the most crucial moments. His strengths, meanwhile, seemed diminished. It was impossible to ignore the Rams’ win, where a QB, coming off a terrible and viciously derided rookie campaign, appeared to flourish under McVay’s tutelage.
If owner Dan Snyder and GM Bruce Allen had given Cousins the long-term deal he sought, the storyline coming out of Sunday’s game would’ve been “LOL, typical job overpaying for mediocrity.”
(In fact, it would be easy to make an argument that all of the team’s offseason moves were designed to emphasize Cousins’ mediocrity and retroactively justify the lack of a contract. That would be insane, of course, but also completely consistent with everything that showed up on-field on Sunday.)
In Week 2, Cousins and the team travel to Los Angeles to face McVay’s Rams head-on. It’s a chance for the team to further address some of these questions, but it feels probable that they won’t like any of the concrete, objective answers they offer themselves.