Kirk Cousins has every reason to feel slighted. But if he’s harboring frustration, he’s far too savvy a political operator to let the emotions show.
For two years, the Redskins’ starting quarterback has proven himself on the field, setting consecutive franchise records for single-season passing yardage and leading Washington to its first back-to-back winning seasons in a quarter century. During the same two years, Cousins has been the main player in ongoing contract drama that has supplied fuel for Washington’s voracious media market.
But money is just one potential stressor for Cousins. He and his wife have their first child, a son, due this month. He’s still looking for a playoff win, still hoping to shake a reputation as a system quarterback who folds in the clutch, as he did with a season-ending interception against the New York Giants last year.
Is Cousins equipped to deal with these pressures? He has in the past, and teammates and one expert on the psyche of athletes say that he is.
All of the financial details between the Redskins and their quarterback have been reported ad nauseam. At this point, your mail carrier could probably explain the difference between the non-exclusive franchise tag and the transition tag. What remains unclear is how the organization’s reluctance to commit long-term to Cousins affects the quarterback who always says the right thing and who remains elusive on the subject of pressure.
“We have to prove ourselves every year anyway,” Cousins recently told The Washington Post, repeating a familiar theme for anyone who’s listened to him talk about the one-year franchise tag. “People say there’s a lot of pressure on me now, but wouldn’t there be pressure if I’d signed a contract for a crazy number and thrown an interception?”
So this season — Cousins’ last before he negotiates on the open market or triggers an unprecedented third franchise tag at a ludicrous price of $34 million — doesn’t just come with the pressure and potential to lock up a long-term deal for himself. It’s also an opportunity to carry the baton for all NFL players in their quest to secure more guaranteed money.
Outwardly, Cousins remains calm. He’s even said he doesn’t mind team president Bruce Allen calling him “Kurt” on-camera, including when the team aired out Cousins’ role in stalled negotiations on the day the deadline passed to agree to a new contract. By not presenting a counter-offer to Washington, as the team has publicized, Cousins also opened himself up to a new level of scrutiny from the fans.
Dealing with financial insecurity and doubters inside and outside of the organization doesn’t seem to bother Cousins, who turned 29 in August. He opened training camp saying he was “in a good place.” At this point in his career, he’s used to betting on himself to play well.
“It has worked in the past, and hopefully it can work moving forward,” Cousins said at the time.
Running back Chris Thompson said Cousins looks more comfortable than ever directing the huddle.
“He doesn’t seem like he’s stressing so much,” Thompson said, “and he’s really having fun with the game.”
While Cousins is the highest- profile player on the Redskins to be playing on the last year of his contract, he’s hardly alone. Eight others on the active roster, including wide receiver Terrelle Pryor Sr. and inside linebacker Zach Brown, are playing on one-year deals.
Thompson also understands the stress Cousins and the others are going through. Before signing a two-year extension this week, he was looking at a one-year deal under a $2.7 million tender he signed as a restricted free agent.
“Every year that I’ve been in the NFL, I’ve stressed myself out as far as like thinking about contracts, or what if this doesn’t work out, then what am I gonna do and all that,” Thompson said.
It wasn’t until he “spent a lot of time alone” in introspection this year that Thompson learned to stop fixating on contracts.
According to Thompson, half of the mental battle in the NFL is having supportive people in place around you, which he said Cousins has. In his own day-to-day battle to keep his mind from drifting into negative hypotheticals, Thompson still leans on a resource from college, his former “mental conditioning” coach — and someone who’s also familiar with Cousins’ mindset.
Trevor Moawad has worked with the Seminoles since Jimbo Fisher was promoted to head coach in 2009. Moawad, who has a master’s degree in education and avoids the term sports psychologist, has also worked for Nick Saban’s Alabama teams from 2007 to 2016, for the Miami Dolphins in 2006 and for the Jacksonville Jaguars for eight years starting in 2001.
Through 17 years of working with football players, he’s also seen how stress can become overwhelming in the pros.
“It might be new coaches. It might be a contract year. It might be competition at my position. It might be divorce. It might be injury,” Moawad said. “All of those things take psychological muscle.”
In 2012, Moawad was working with NFL draft prospects at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., and two young quarterbacks commanded his attention: Cousins and Russell Wilson.
“Both Russell and Kirk were like miniature CEOs of IBM,” Moawad said, referring to how the developing pros were so meticulous about their draft prep and asked all the right questions. Moawad remembers being particularly impressed that Cousins scripted the plays for his pro day.
Wilson, who still works with Moawad, has been vocal about positive thinking — he recently told The Post he wants to play in the NFL for 25 years. But Moawad said it’s paramount for NFL quarterbacks, and especially Cousins, to forge a neutral mindset.
“Neutral thinking” is recognizing that whether things are clicking or going south, both will eventually happen, so you better be prepared to plan for both and constantly remind yourself that the negative parts of the job — like grinding through a Wednesday practice — are all part of the larger goal.
When Moawad talks about neutral thinking as it relates to Cousins, he sounds like he’s repeating a transcript from one of the quarterback’s news conferences.
“Neutral thinking is, ‘This is my reality, I’m on a one-year deal, but throughout football most guys are on a one-year deal. What are the things that I can do to allow me to play really good football?’” Moawad said.
For Cousins, those things have included scheduling his life down to 15-minute increments, showing off on Instagram his very own “QB nook” — a tiny desk at Redskins Park for him to bury himself in film study — and following Wilson, Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers in removing a bevy of civilian staples from his diet.
So in 2017, with the near future still unsettled, Cousins will again try to exceed expectations.
And Moawad, the man tasked with constructing and maintaining athletes’ self-esteem, thinks Cousins has the mental makeup and the support system to do it.
“I think he’s wired exactly the right way to play out a one-year deal,” Moawad said.
There’s another final component to Cousins’ composure: his deep Christian faith.
Speaking to a crowd at Liberty University last week, Cousins said God “likes to use one-year contracts” to test his faith, and Cousins didn’t feel at peace accepting a new deal in part for that reason.
Mike McCartney, Cousins’ agent, said that the quarterback has established himself for two years, doesn’t worry about money and is truly comfortable playing on a one-year deal.
“It’s faith-based,” McCartney told Express over the phone. “He truly has belief and confidence that God’s got his future no matter what contract he’s under.”
2017 Redskins Season Preview
• In a pivotal season, failure to improve could shake the franchise’s foundation
• The ‘prove it’ crew: Cousins, Pryor and Brown play on one-year contracts
• Breeland and Compton tune out their critics
• Brewer: Continuity is a mirage with these Redskins
• Steinberg: Why Greg Manusky may be lurking in an Ashburn Porta Potty
• PFF: Starting lineup scouting report
• Schedule analysis: Breaking down every game for 2017