In a poorly played game against an opponent with nothing to gain from the win, the local NFL season came to an ignominious end just shy of the playoffs. Quarterback Kirk Cousins cemented the loss with a brain dead interception that looked a whole lot like his others, an ill-advised throw sailing into the middle of the field when he had other options (notably running). But the deficiency that put him in the position to finalize the loss was a team effort.
Almost immediately, local pundits of both professional and amateur stripes were declaring this a terrible, spirit-crushing, world-rending loss. Kevin Sheen of ESPN980 called it “one of the worst losses in years.” His former radio partner, Thom Loverro of the Washington Times, exponentialized that to “in decades.”
I get that there are broadcast minutes and sports pages to fill, but these assertions are absurd. Without even looking at the team’s catastrophic recent history, there are several more appalling losses from this year alone:
Week 1 vs. Pittsburgh, a bigger humiliation on national television. Week 7, at Detroit, a more colossal gut-punch with a last-minute collapse undermining an eleventh hour rally. Week 8, in London, a heartbreaking tie following a missed field goal. Week 15, against Carolina, another overt humiliation, seriously damaging the team’s playoff chances.
There’s a recency bias because this last game was a win-to-get-in situation, but those earlier losses are what created the situation.
This was a godawful defeat, but not historically so. Frankly, it probably spared us all from another nationally televised indignity the following week. This was a team with an abundance of flaws, and if there’s any injustice in the way the season ended, it’s that the team’s tie in London allowed it to claim a winning record at eight wins when in fact it’s a mediocre .500 squad.
The tendency toward WORST EVER-style hyperbole seems to be a major issue for this team’s fans lately, because the primary knock on Cousins is basically that he isn’t THE BEST in the NFL—and doesn’t appear to be on pace to become the best either. Statistically, Cousins had a sterling season, maintaining a 67 percent completion percentage (406 of 606) for a franchise-record 4,917 yards, throwing 25 touchdowns and just 12 interceptions.
This meant that touchdowns were slightly down from Cousins’ breakthrough 2015 campaign and interceptions were up by one (in 63 more pass attempts), but yardage was way up and he took fewer sacks. So, at a minimum, you’d think that Cousins appeared to be progressing and no worse than he turned out to be last year: that is, a perfectly acceptable NFL starter.
But there’s a strong sentiment that these are just meaningless statistics piled up in non-crucial situations, and that, because he’s undeniably not a top-tier QB in the league, the team should let him walk rather than re-sign him to a long-term contract or give him the franchise tag again (for approximately $24 million next year).
The problem with this thinking is that it presupposes that Cousins is fungible—that his performance is a function of coaching schemes or his teammates and that any replacement player could produce a reasonable facsimile of these statistics. Which, in turn, fails to recognize just how much awful QB play there is around the league. And there’s a lot.
(It also fails to recognize that Cousins’ stats, from a certain perspective, pretty closely mirror the actual very best in the league. Like Cousins, Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers sat on the bench for much of the start of his career. Cousins just completed his fifth season, having played in 46 games. At the end of his fifth season in 2009, Rodgers had played in 39. In that span, Cousins threw 420 more passes for about 3,300 more yards, 13 more touchdowns, and a very comparable completion percentage—65.9 percent to Rodgers’ 63.9 percent. Cousins’ record was 19-21-1, Rodgers’ 17-15. Rodgers finds a clear edge in interceptions, having thrown just half of Cousins’ 42 picks, and also demonstrates a better trend, improving vastly from year four to year five while Cousins stagnated or regressed slightly.)
Anyway, the conventional wisdom is that this loss was the WORST, and Cousins needs to go because he’ll never be the BEST. The whole thing just seems unbelievably short-sighted and foolish. This is a team that was starting John Beck not all that long ago and losing games 23-0 in the process. There’s no doubt the team has work to do, improving both personnel and coaching.
But there’s also a real need to abstain from absolutist extremes to more accurately assess what’s here. Superlatives are almost never the answer. (Unless you’re talking about the 2016 presidential election, which was undeniably the worst, or this year’s Rose Bowl, which was the absolute best.)