— USA Today Sports Image

Washington’s 7-9 season left everyone, including head coach Jay Gruden, ambivalent about where the team is at heading into a crucial offseason. The flashpoint decision as the team figures out how to improve clearly starts with one player: quarterback Kirk Cousins.

But it was hard not to take notice of Gruden’s comments immediately following the completion of the season when asked about Cousins — a free agent-to-be who once more could be franchise tagged, even at a great cost — and his future there.

“When you’re 7-9, you know it’s hard to say, ‘Wow, this guy really was outstanding,’” Gruden said. “Kirk had his flashes where he was really good. From a consistent standpoint, over the course of 16 games, you know, we’re 7-9.”

Gruden added that Cousins “did some great things” and is “a very, very good quarterback without a doubt,” but the coach clearly left some real doubt and wiggle room about Washington’s need to shackle Cousins for next season.

Keeping Cousins with either the franchise tag, at a one-year cost of $34.5 million, or the transition tag, at one year for $28.8 million, is unquestionably unwieldy. For perspective, Cousins’ salary-cap hit for 2017 ($23.9 million) was the third-highest in the NFL, behind Carson Palmer and Joe Flacco, both of whom were a shade over $24 million. The cap is expected to go up in the $10 million-to-$12 million range for 2018.

Since his initial comments, Gruden has said he wants Cousins back but added that he’d prefer not to go through another one-year deal and keep kicking the can down the road. Cousins has said he’d be fine with the tag but also added that the two sides can only do this for so long.

Our gut feeling right now, after talking to some folks around the league, is that Washington might be open to letting Cousins play elsewhere next season. It feels hard to imagine that the decision has been made, and the team’s trio of power — Daniel Snyder, Bruce Allen and Eric Schaffer — have kept things very mum and close to the vest.

But we think it’s a real possibility that the team could pair Colt McCoy, Cousins’ backup, and a rookie quarterback next season. Going that route might cost one-third of what it would be to keep Cousins on a one-year tender.

Washington’s first-round pick (13th overall, behind several QB-needy teams) doesn’t put them in an ideal place to land their preferred choice in the draft, we wouldn’t think, and they might not have enough assets to move up too much farther. That’s also assuming the team has its eyes on one or two specific prospects in this year’s class — that we don’t yet know.

Additionally, the team wouldn’t be maximizing Cousins’ value by simply letting him walk as an unrestricted free agent. Could they franchise him and ship him for picks? If so, would teams be willing to give them much in that scenario?

The details are unclear on how it will all shake out, and as far as we know there has been no definitive path mapped out on how the team will handle this. But we think there’s a slightly higher chance for Cousins to play elsewhere next season than there is in Washington.