Coming into the 2016 season, expectations were high for the Redskins offense, highest for Kirk Cousins.
The quarterback steam rolled through the second half of 2015, breaking numerous Redskins passing records and guiding the franchise to an NFC East title.
Nine games into this year, Cousins is again producing at a high rate. In fact, he could break some of the records set just last year.
Playing the season on the franchise tag, it's getting harder to see any other decision the Redskins could make but to sign Cousins to a long-term, big-money deal, ensuring he remains the franchise QB for a long time.
So without taking anything away from Cousins, who is completing 67 percent of his passes and has thrown 14 touchdowns to seven interceptions and more than 2,700 yards, the quarterback has not been Washington's most important player so far this year.
That distinction belongs to Jamison Crowder.
The second-year slot receiver leads the 'Skins in catches (44), yards (535) and touchdowns (5). That's right - for all the hype surrounding DeSean Jackson, Pierre Garçon and Jordan Reed coming into the season, Crowder has become Cousins most trusted target.
"He can be an easier target than he may look at his size. He’s a friendly target," Cousins said last week of the 5-foot-8 Crowder. "I feel like sometimes he makes me a more accurate quarterback with the way that he chases down the football and brings it in. He’s a great player for us."
During the Redskins four-game win streak earlier this season that propelled the team back into playoff contention, Crowder logged more than 180 receiving yards and two touchdowns. He's also developed into a dangerous threat on punt returns, averaging 16.9 yards-per-return, good for the No. 1 spot in the NFL.
In Sunday's win against the Vikings, Crowder caught the first touchdown of the game. Cousins threw the ball low where only Crowder could grab it, and it took a great catch to score. Both Cousins and Gruden say that Crowder plays much bigger than his size, and it showed on the TD grab.
"He’s shown that he plays a lot bigger than he is. He runs great routes," Gruden said. "He’s very quarterback friendly. He understands concepts – how to get there, when to get there, how to set up the defender."
That's what Crowder has delivered all year, and perhaps most importantly, he's done it consistently. Reed is arguably the most talented skill position player the 'Skins have, but he missed two games with a concussion earlier this season. Few players have speed and the ball tracking ability of Jackson, but he's lost time to a shoulder injury.
Trent Williams - Washington's most decorated Pro Bowler - is in the midst of a four-game suspension. Defensively, Ryan Kerrigan is delivering at an All Pro level as an outside linebacker, but the defense does not depend on Kerrigan like the offense has begun to lean on Crowder.
Gruden and Sean McVay run a highly efficient, crisp proxy of the West Coast Offense, a scheme designed for quick passes. Crowder fits it perfectly, a strong route runner with good hands that knows how to find soft spots in coverage.
It's hard to argue any Washington player being more valuable than Cousins. And other players could get on a run in the back half of the season to rival Crowder - a healthy Reed back on the field, or if Kerrigan continues to pad his sack total, or if Josh Norman can hang on to a few more possible interceptions. Still, it would be hard to match what Crowder has meant to the Redskins, at least through nine games.
Redskins GM Scot McCloughan has a simple way to describe what he looks for on the field: football players. Guys that just get the job done. Crowder fits that bill.
"You can’t really coach all the nuances of the coverages, but he just naturally sees it, feels it and reacts," Gruden said of Crowder.
"Really not a lot of negative things if there’s anything to say about him as a wideout or as a player or as a person."
Sure sounds like an MVP.