LANDOVER, MD -- The quarterback remains the hub of the American sports universe. If not the most demanding, it ranks as the most scrutinized and difficult position. A team without a capable quarterback becomes irrelevant, a bug on the windshield of contenders racing toward the playoffs.
The Broncos do not have a real quarterback. Sunday brought the latest, painful reminder in an mind-numbingly, boring 27-11 loss at Fed Ex Field. Brock Osweiler represented the fifth change at the position, instability that eloquently explains the team's first losing season since 2010. Over the next four months, the Broncos will look to find a QB1, keeping all options open, as they try to rebound from back-to-back playoff absences.
Kirk Cousins remains squarely on the radar.
"A lot of teams would literally kill to have a quarterback like that," said Broncos All-Pro Von Miller. "The list is long, but we will cross that bridge when we get to it."
The Washington Redskins quarterback figures to become a free agent after playing consecutive seasons on the franchise tag. He has put himself in position to swim in cash, landing the spot as the NFL's highest-paid player. A compelling argument exists that he is not a top 5 quarterback. However, he sits in the Top 10, and would represent a significant upgrade for the Broncos.
"Who knows?" Cousins said of his future after completing 19 of 37 passes for 299 yards and three touchdowns. "It crosses the mind (that this was his last home game with Washington). Certainly the mind does like to wander, but as a professional athlete you have to be present to have success. There will be plenty of time to discern those questions in the offseason."
Cousins demonstrated many of the traits that make him an attractive alternative. He keeps his eyes downfield, he throws with accuracy and can make plays with his legs. Is that enough to open the vault for $70 million guaranteed and $30 million annually?
"I guess that's why everybody talks about him. He doesn't just sit there and let things tank," said safety Will Parks, who intercepted Cousins. "Eventually a guy like that with those good feet, he's going to make plays. And it was mainly on us. We didn't communicate well on some calls that really hurt us."
It is not certain the Broncos would land Cousins given the needs of suitors like Arizona, Buffalo, Jacksonville and the New York Jets, among others. That's why the Broncos scouted Wyoming's Josh Allen this week, and will watch Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield in person next month in the college football playoff. Or maybe the Broncos try to land Kansas City's Alex Smith or a Minnesota quarterback -- between Case Keenum, Teddy Bridgewater and Sam Bradford, one figures to be available -- to keep the seat warm for a kid. Denver will cast a wide net in searching for a solution.
The problem, as Sunday revealed, is that the Broncos' issues demand a bigger boat.
Osweiler, making potentially his last start for the Broncos with Paxton Lynch likely to start in the season finale, turned the ball over twice, leading to Washington's 10-point third quarter lead. Osweiler finished 22 of 38 for 193 yards with two turnovers, but padded his stats in garbage time. Osweiler was admittedly working with a compromised offense. Receivers Emmanuel Sanders (ankle) and Cody Latimer (thigh) did not make the trip, leaving Osweiler relying on Demaryius Thomas and checkdowns to running backs. Let's just say the collaboration didn't Jingle Bell Brock (Sorry I couldn't help myself). At one point, Osweiler tried to inspire his teammates on the sideline with an angry show of passion that failed to ignite a spark.
"There's no finger pointing. The words I used were not directed at anyone specifically. I felt like we were leaving too much out there. We had five possessions on their side of the field and had three points to show for it," Osweiler said. "That's not high-level football. It's embarrassing and unacceptable."
Rookie Isaiah McKenzie, as he is wont do, became the poster child for fundamental breakdowns and ineffectiveness. With Denver possessing no timeouts, McKenzie caught a pass in field goal range, and rather than go out of bounds he raced into the middle of the field as the clock expired. Even coach Vance Joseph's patience with him wore thin as he aired out the former Georgia star as the team jogged to the locker room trailing 10-3.
"He was told there there were no timeouts. He should be aware. We work on that stuff all the time," Joseph said. "It was unacceptable."
What multiple players said about McKenzie in the tunnel was not suited for a Hallmark or Christmas card.
"I was just trying to make something happen. Sometimes it costs me," McKenzie said. "Just like that did and too many drops. It costs the team."
Meanwhile, the offensive line continues to scream that a HGTV makeover is required. Tackles Garett Bolles and Donald Stephenson would love to burn this game film. They were repeatedly burned, and Bolles suffered a pancake plowing by Washington's Ryan Kerrigan that resulted in the rookie's feet flying into the air.
"I just got off the ball well," Kerrigan said politely.
The lone highlight was C.J. Anderson's ground work (16 carries, 88 yards, one fourth-quarter touchdown and a two-point conversion). He sits 54 yards shy of his first 1,000-yard rushing season.
"It sucks. You want it to happen in a win," said Anderson, who paced the Broncos with seven catches for 45 yards. "I just have to keep my head down and keep grinding."
Following the template of the eight-game losing streak, the Broncos' defensive elasticity snapped under the weight of endless plays. Washington led only 13-3 after four red zone trips. Parks gave the Broncos a flicker of light in the darkness, intercepting Cousins in the end zone on an awful, forced pass. The Broncos responded with zero potency.
"No it wasn't about poise. We lost a fumble, an interception and had issue with McKenzie that cost us three points. That is not about poise, it's about playing good football," said Joseph, who finished 1-7 on the road in his first season, the third worst mark in franchise history. "We were in control of the game with 4:33 left in the half. What we had done the last two weeks was working. Then the turnovers appeared and that kills you."
Cousins put the Broncos out of their lingering misery with one of the easiest touchdowns of his career. On a blown coverage between cornerbacks Aqib Taib and Chris Harris Jr., Josh Doctson zoomed down the field wide open, hauling in a 48-yard pass. It shoved Washington ahead 20-3 with 12:07 remaining. All that was left was for Santa to eat the cookies, drink the milk and escape up the chimney. For good measure, Cousins connected with former Broncos tight end Vernon Davis on a 31-yard score with 4 minutes remaining, punishing Denver for foolishly stopping the clock repeatedly with no chance at a victory.
Briefly, the game was competitive. Consider it a tease.
Cousins looked like a Broncos quarterback. Too much like one in fact. He misfired on his first five attempts, including a drop by former Colorado State running back Kapri Bibbs. Cousins finished the first quarter as Washington's leading passer (six yards) and rusher (seven yards) as the unit had no rhythm. He appeared indecisive, inaccurate and uncomfortable.
Then he didn't, completing 18 of his final 30 passes with three scores.
With no rushing attack and a depleted offensive line, Cousins finally gained traction in the second quarter. He marched Washington 83 yards on 11 plays, only a hustling deflection by promising rookie cornerback Marcus Rios preventing a touchdown. Dustin Hopkins knotted the score at 3-all with a 26-yard field goal with 6:15 remaining in the second quarter.
The Broncos avoided the indignity of a second shutout this season -- the Chargers blanked them for the first time since 1992 -- with a Brandon McManus 31-yard field goal to open the scoring. It came with 2:06 left in the first quarter. As gifts go, this was akin to getting a head of lettuce instead of a Cabbage Patch doll.
The Broncos finish their season next week at home against Kansas City. Then the real work begins. Finding a starting quarterback.
"We never stopped competing, but Kirk Cousins played a hell of a game," safety Darian Stewart. "He put the ball in his playmakers' hands and showed what he can do."
The pregame sideline brought a pleasant surprise with former Broncos great defensive lineman Trevor Pyrce attending the game with his family. They go to one game per season, and he chose this over the Colts at Ravens. He lives in the area, and keeps an eye on football when he's not writing. He became an author after he retired, penning "An Army of Frogs." ... Talked with Washington running back and former CSU star Kapri Bibbs before the game. He was motivated to face Denver. Bibbs has been missed on special teams this season. ... Guard Max Garcia was a gameday captain. ... Cornerback Brendan Langley was inactive again, falling behind Rios on the depth chart. ... If healthy and confident in his left ankle, Lynch is expected to start vs. Kansas City.