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March 1, 2018

A Chief is coming to Washington

by Nate Bodner, Sports Editor
The Redskins entered the 2018 offseason with a familiar feeling of disappointment. The 2017-2018 campaign saw Washington miss out on the playoffs for the second consecutive year, and go a subpar 7-9, including a dismal 1-5 in division games. Despite increased expectations, and arguably more talent on their roster, the Redskins have floundered, following up their 9-7 record that earned a playoff spot in 2015-2016 with an 8-7-1 record the next season. Now, after dropping in the standings each of the past two seasons, Washington is faced with a crucial offseason, where they must find the missing pieces to build a winning team, or spend another year mired in mediocrity.

The Past

All eyes were on Washington this offseason because of one player whose front office had struggled mightily in figuring out what to do about: Kirk Cousins. The Redskins drafted Cousins, 29, in the fourth round out of Michigan State back in 2012. Cousins was originally meant to be a backup to the then-starter Robert Griffin III, but took over the starting job in 2015 and has been stellar in each of his three seasons with Washington.

Since becoming Washington’s starting quarterback (QB), Cousins has completed 67.8 percent of his passes for 13,176 yards, 81 touchdowns, and just 36 interceptions, and had another dozen touchdowns on the ground. His passer rating of 99.7 is good enough for fourth in the league in that span, behind only future hall of famers in Tom Brady and Drew Brees, as well as the 2016 MVP Matt Ryan. But Cousins’ record as a starter sits at only 24-23-1.

Cousins never signed a long term deal in his tenure in D.C. He has been playing under the franchise tag for the past two seasons. Because of his statistical success, there has been much debate the past two seasons on whether or not Kirk Cousins is the guy to make a big offer too. And it's been no secret that the Redskins brass has held serious doubts about him, as they didn't come to terms with Cousins on a long-term deal in each of the past two seasons in favor of two straight franchise tags, which is a rarity in the league. It's been clear that skepticism remains about his decision making in late-game situations and in the red zone, as well as reservations about paying him like one of the top QBs in the league, which is what they would've had to fork over to keep him.

Washington could also have decided to put the franchise tag on Cousins for a third and final season, which not only has never been done in the NFL before, but would cost about $34 million in guaranteed money for one season. So, instead of signing the quarterback, or putting the tag on him, the Redskins decided to just go all out on another guy.

The Present

In a rare January trade, but a huge one nonetheless, the Washington Redskins agreed to a deal with the Kansas City Chiefs for their quarterback, Alex Smith, in exchange for a 2018 third round pick and cornerback Kendall Fuller.

While the two teams cannot technically make the deal a reality until the start of direct contract negotiations with unrestricted free agents on March 14, both teams have agreed to the terms, and the paperwork is all but complete. Despite what you may think about the Redskins front office, the Kirk Cousins situation or the obvious flaws in the agreement, it's hard to argue that the trade itself is 100 percent terrible.

Yes, it absolutely has to be acknowledged that giving up draft picks is always a risky decision, and that Kendall Fuller is a versatile young cornerback who had an outstanding season in 2017. Fuller was given a Pro Football Focus
(PFF) grade of 90.0, the second highest grade of any cornerback playing primarily out of the slot. It is also worth noting that former Redskins General Manager Scot McCloughan took to twitter after the trade was announced to say "I would have never traded [Fuller]. He can play inside & outside, he's high character, young & a football player."

But, the real problem with the trade is that Alex Smith is already 34 years old, and before he even has stepped on the field at a Redskins practice facility or put on his first team hat, Washington has agreed to give him a four year extension worth $23.5 million per year and $71 million in guaranteed money.

It's hard to tell what the franchise sees in Alex Smith that they didn't see enough of in Cousins to warrant that blockbuster of a deal to go with Smith instead. As of 2015, when Cousins became a starter, Smith has had very similar stats, posting a completion rate of 66.7 percent for 11,030 yards, 61 touchdowns, 20 interceptions, a 97.2 QB rating and 31-15 record. Included are Smith's numbers this past season, when he was the NFL's top-rated passer with a 104.7 rating, and set career records with 4,042 yards and 26 touchdown passes.

All those numbers are pretty impressive, but if you noticed, not all that different from Kirk Cousins' totals over the same span. So one might think, "Why did the Redskins trade for essentially the same QB, who is a whopping four years older?" But remember that Alex Smith has more of a history than those three years. Smith is a bonafide veteran, the first overall pick by the San Francisco 49ers in the 2005 NFL Draft. His career record of 88-62-1 represents a winning percentage of over nine wins a year, which is something the Redskins would kill for, as Washington has exceeded nine wins just once in the past dozen seasons. Obviously a quarterback isn't solely responsible for wins and losses, but the majority of the time, good QB's can put their teams in a position to win, and Smith seems to do that well.

It's hard to not see any of the appeal, right? Smith is an experienced quarterback who's just come off one of the best seasons of his career. In close games and high pressure situations, he may just prove to succeed where we've all seen Cousins fail, lest I remind you of the week 17 loss to the Giants in the 2016-2017 season that kept Washington out of the playoffs. But is Alex Smith our savior, a transformative figure that propels the organization forward for years to come? No. When his extension is up after the 2022 season he'll be 38, and who knows what the Redskins will look like.

But ultimately, whether you like the trade or hate it, the Redskins have had 15 starting quarterbacks since 1999, and none of them, not Kirk Cousins, RGIII, Jason Campbell, Rex Grossman, or any other of the forgotten stars have been able to help the organization do what matters most: win.

Hopefully, Smith will be able to bring a winning culture to Washington and help the team grow into a formidable challenger in the NFC, while the Redskins develop a young QB to take his place a couple years down the road.

As for Cousins, there are two things that may happen. The Redskins may try to place the transition tag on Cousins in order to try and trade him. More likely, however, as Washington would be unlikely to retain both QBs and thus would lose a lot of bargaining power, is that Cousins will finally have a chance to test the free agency, where it's expected that the Denver Broncos, New York Jets, and Jacksonville Jaguars will be among the top contenders to sign the All-Pro level QB to potentially one of the biggest deals in NFL history.



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