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Washington just can’t stop shooting itself in the foot

Between the Scot McCloughan firing and the bungled Kirk Cousins negotiations, it’s been yet another offseason of turmoil in D.C.

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NFL: Washington Redskins at Arizona Cardinals Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Sometimes it feels like the Washington NFL franchise is allergic to organizational stability. In 2015, they won the NFC East title, found their franchise quarterback of the future, and had a highly regarded general manager, Scot McCloughan, building a rock-solid roster. Head coach Jay Gruden helped develop Kirk Cousins into a good quarterback, a fortunate turn of luck for a franchise still reeling from the Robert Griffin III flameout.

Although Washington missed the playoffs last season, things were looking up, or so it seemed.

But the good feelings couldn’t last, because Dan Snyder’s operation is driven to drama and dysfunction like flies to trash. McCloughan got fired amid an ugly power struggle, leading to Bruce Allen taking the reins. Cousins is almost certainly on the way out after the team failed to sign him to a long-term deal — he’s stuck playing under the franchise tag for the second straight year. Several key pieces are left in free agency, and offensive coordinator Sean McVay took the head coaching job with the Los Angeles Rams.

This is not to say that all hope is lost — there’s still a lot of talent on this team, Gruden is a quality coach, and if Cousins keeps exceeding expectations they should be on the fringes of playoff contention. However, the front-office turmoil and lack of long-term vision remains a persistent problem with this franchise; one that won’t be going away any time soon.

What happened to McCloughan?

A respected talent evaluator going back to his days with the Seattle Seahawks, Green Bay Packers, and San Francisco 49ers, McCloughan got his big break in 2015 when Washington hired him as general manager. Under his watch, the team went 9-7 in 2015 and 8-7-1 last season, barely missing the playoffs after a Week 17 loss to the New York Giants.

Things started getting weird when the season ended. McCloughan didn’t attend the NFL Combine in February, which is pretty much unheard of for an NFL GM. A few weeks later, he was unceremoniously fired and The Washington Post published a report that McCloughan relapsed into alcoholism, which both he and several players later denied.

Whatever the exact details were, it seems pretty obvious that McCloughan was locked in a power struggle with Allen, a battle he ultimately lost. Allen served as the GM from 2010-14 before being given the title of team president. He reportedly clashed with McCloughan multiple times, and things came to a head this offseason. Now McCloughan is gone and it appears that Allen is calling the shots again, presumably getting what he wanted all along.

If this all seems bizarre and petty, well, that’s business as usual in D.C.

The team has decided to go into the season without a true GM, although former quarterback and Super Bowl 22 MVP, Doug Williams, got promoted to senior vice president of player personnel.

Now what’s the deal with Cousins?

Cousins might actually be a pretty good quarterback, after all. Largely considered an afterthought in the 2012 NFL draft, Cousins went in the fourth round and was expected to just back up Griffin. But when injuries and coaching dysfunction derailed RGIII’s career, Cousins stepped up to the starting role and acquitted himself fairly well.

Turnovers are still a big concern for Cousins — he has 42 interceptions in 46 games and lost 24 fumbles. However, he’s otherwise been an efficient passer with occasional flashes of greatness. In 2016, Cousins set a new career high with 4,917 passing yards, while averaging 8.1 yards per attempt, completing 67 percent of his passes, and putting up a 97.2 QB Rating.

His season did end on a sour note, throwing a back-breaking late interception to cost Washington a playoff spot, but for the most part Cousins is worth committing to as a starting quarterback. There are plenty of teams who would to have someone at his level, and pay him like a franchise guy.

Now here’s the catch: Washington hasn’t committed to Cousins for the long term. They gave him the franchise tag last offseason, which made sense at the time — hedge your bets in case Cousins turns back into a pumpkin. But after another solid season, Washington still couldn’t lock up Cousins to a multiyear deal. He got the tag for a second time, and the July 17 deadline came and went with no new contract.

One of the biggest sticking points, at least on Cousins’ end, was the guaranteed money. Although the offer Washington made public contained $53 million in guarantees, it’s barely more than what Cousins would’ve already earned with the franchise tag money. He made $19.953 million last year and will take home $23.943 million this season. He’s now set to be a free agent next offseason, and if Washington tags him a third time, his salary will balloon to well over $30 million. Cousins owns the leverage now, and Washington only has itself to blame.

Though Cousins said that he’s open to returning to Washington, let’s be realistic — he’s probably gone. The 49ers are the most obvious candidate for Cousins’ services next year, especially since Kyle Shanahan took the head coaching job. The two have a history together with Shanahan being Cousins’ offensive coordinator from 2012-13, so it’s a natural fit. Other QB-needy teams like the New York Jets and Cleveland Browns will have plenty of salary cap space to afford Cousins’ contract. If Washington doesn’t tag him again, he’ll be the most coveted quarterback on the open market next spring.

In essence, Washington handed Cousins around $43 million in two years, threw him under the bus for doing so, and likely won’t have anything to show for it. That’s not good, especially with no in-house options to replace Cousins. The only other quarterbacks on the roster are Colt McCoy and Nate Sudfeld. Unless we’re still trying to make McCoy happen in 2018, what’s the plan here? What is Washington trying to accomplish by alienating Cousins, who is still the 2017 starter?

There’s a slight chance Washington could get one of the top QBs in next year’s draft — like Sam Darnold, Josh Allen, or Josh Rosen — but it’s a long shot at best. Unless things fall apart, this roster isn’t bad enough to secure a top-10 pick, and if they can’t swing a trade like they did grab RG3 five years ago, they don’t have a lot of options left.

It didn’t have to be this way, but thanks to the team’s hardline stance with Cousins’ contract, their situation under center is completely up in the air. But for the moment, Cousins is still here, so let’s take a look at his supporting cast.

Lots of turnover at wide receiver

Last year’s leading receivers for Washington were DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon. Neither is on the team anymore, with both men bolting in free agency. That’s kind of a problem.

In fairness, WR isn’t a total black hole like you might expect. Washington signed Terrelle Pryor, who impressed in his first full season as a receiver with the Cleveland Browns. Pryor only signed a one-year deal, so he’ll have to prove that 2016 wasn’t a fluke. (For what it’s worth, Pryor and Cousins have already developed good chemistry.)

The rest of the pass-catching unit has promise but is largely unproven and injury-prone. Playing next to Pryor will be Jamison Crowder, who had a quiet breakout season with seven touchdowns and figures to play a larger role in the offense. Josh Doctson’s rookie season was mostly wiped out by a lingering Achilles injury, but the 2016 first-round pick stayed healthy through OTAs and still has a lot of upside.

Jordan Reed remains one of the league’s premier tight ends, but he simply can’t escape the injury bug — a concussion and shoulder ailment limited him to 12 games last year. Washington needs him to stay on the field because he is Cousins’ most reliable red zone weapon, with 17 touchdowns over the last two years.

The running game is something of a muddled picture right now. Rob Kelley usurped Matt Jones as the starter last year, but he’ll be pushed by fourth-round rookie Samaje Perine, while Chris Thompson returns as the pass-catching back. Despite playing second fiddle to Joe Mixon at the University of Oklahoma, Perine was impressive in his own right and could have a clear path to the starting job if he outplays Kelley in training camp and preseason.

Defense was a clear weakness, but there’s room for growth

Washington’s defense could be best described as “it exists.” Despite boasting some star power, this unit was mediocre at best in 2016. Washington ranked 28th in yards allowed, 19th in points allowed, and 25th in DVOA, with Pro Football Focus ranking the secondary at No. 21 heading into this season.

There were some bright spots, to be sure. Washington won the Josh Norman sweepstakes after the Carolina Panthers rescinded his franchise tag. He wasn’t quite as good as his 2015 All-Pro campaign, but Norman is still one of the better cornerbacks in football. Linebacker Ryan Kerrigan earned his second Pro Bowl trip with 11 sacks, and Trent Murphy had nine of his own. Bashaud Breeland recovered from early-season struggles to be a capable No. 2 cornerback.

Washington went out of its way to upgrade defense in the offseason. Defensive tackle was a particular point of emphasis, with the team signing Stacy McGee and Terrell McClain in free agency, and drafting Jonathan Allen in the first round. They also addressed their secondary with free agent safety D.J. Swearinger, third-round cornerback Fabian Moreau, and fourth-round safety Montae Nicholson.

The team also ousted defensive coordinator Joe Barry, promoting linebackers coach Greg Manusky to replace him.

There are a lot of new faces, but with better injury luck and growth from the young players, this defense should be much better than the unit that got burned way too many times last season.

Where does the team go from here?

It’s been yet another chaotic offseason, but at the end of the day, Washington still has football games to play. As far as 2017 goes, it wouldn’t be surprising if this team makes a playoff push — they’re only two years removed from a division title and have some quality playmakers.

But in a division that keeps getting better and more competitive, Washington cannot afford any backslides. The Dallas Cowboys found their own franchise QB in Dak Prescott, the New York Giants made a quick turnaround, and the Philadelphia Eagles could be back in the mix if Carson Wentz is the real deal. Washington doesn’t have the easy path it did in 2015, when 9-7 was enough to win the NFC East. The stakes are much higher this time.

Of course, the real questions start piling up after 2017. What does this team do after Cousins is gone? They have several other key players (Pryor, DeAngelo Hall, Zach Brown, Murphy) hitting free agency next year, with no guarantee that all of them will stay. How many of them follow Jackson and Garcon out the door to avoid the constant drama?

It wasn’t that long ago that Washington had a franchise QB and tantalizing potential, only to see the whole thing implode over in-fighting and power struggles. They got lucky with Cousins waiting in the wings after RGIII’s demise, but with Cousins almost certainly leaving, they once again have more questions than answers. This franchise seems destined to repeat the same mistakes over and over again.