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The best news for the Washington football team is that Kirk Cousins is terrible at football.
He played a Kirk Cousins-esque game on Sunday: flashes of genuine adequacy mixed with bafflingly inaccurate throws and multiple, spirit-crushing (and game-killing) interceptions.
This is what Cousins does. It’s what he’s done ever since he got into the NFL and it appears to be what he’s going to continue doing, regardless of what former Washington head coach Mike Shanahan—who has developed a habit of randomly wandering onto radio shows to praise Cousins—would like to claim.
But his terrible performance is actually a good thing. It’s what the team needed to find out this season: what Cousins—given the time, attention, practice reps, and general coddling accorded to starting NFL QBs—could do.
Welp. They sure did find out. What he can do is be a much handsomer version of Rex Grossman, a brighter-eyed and bushier-tailed iteration of Jay Cutler. (It may be worth noting that Shanahan seeded his own departure from Denver by overestimating Jay Cutler in his rookie season and naming him starter on a team that had a 7–4 record. They lost three of their last five.)
Now that they know, the problem comes from how the coaching staff reacts to it. What they’ve done so far is make excuses for Cousins, put a brave face on his errors, and stick by him as he’s lost game after game. It’s been a pretty embarrassing spectacle for head coach Jay Gruden, all told.
But Gruden’s a guy who’s stuck with Cousins through no fault of his own, so it doesn’t seem like his motivations in defending the QB are overtly sinister. The next quarterback on the depth chart is Colt McCoy, who is largely interchangeable with Cousins, even though they’re exact opposites. (One is a strong-armed gunslinger who makes bad decisions and hasn’t shown himself able to win consistently in the NFL; the other is a cautious player without much arm strength who also hasn’t shown himself able to win consistently in the NFL.)
And then there’s Robert Griffin III. His salary for next season is guaranteed if he’s injured; that means that playing him puts the team at risk for a $16-million cap hit if he goes down, and, given Griffin’s history, it’s not unreasonable to view his injury risk as “astronomically high” as soon as he walks onto a football field. If you see Griffin play again while any of the other QBs are healthy, you’ll know that the team is done with Gruden.
Given that these are Gruden’s choices, there is a very good reason that he’s standing by Cousins: He understands the futility of making a switch. Which, despite the scandalized “He lied to us!” response from sportswriters every time a coach reverses course on something he said in a presser, is a perfectly understandable approach. (Taking the podium to say “He’s awful and we’re doomed,” while probably accurate, isn’t exactly “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose” from an inspiration standpoint.)
But ESPN’s Bomani Jones went on the record last week with a firm belief that there’s a racial component that underlies the differences in how Cousins’ interceptions are treated from how Griffin’s mistakes were treated.
“You’d either have to be dumb or in denial to ignore the possibility race is a part of things,” Jones told the Washington Post, “and I’d argue only someone with an agenda would pretend the white guy, in this case, isn’t treated in a much nicer way when than the black one was at times when both were mediocre.”
It’s impossible to say that Jones is wrong. And Gruden’s clumsy, obvious defenses of Cousins only make it worse. But racial overtones aside, Gruden’s doing the only sensible thing.
It may seem counter-intuitive, but Cousins being awful is much better than if he were just mediocre, especially since it’s the quickest way to the end of this tedious four-year QB soap opera.
Follow Matt Terl on Twitter @Matt_Terl.
Photo by Keith Allison on Flickr