With sweeping, windmill-like motions, Kirk Cousins loosens up his throwing arm. Then he picks up a ball and drops into the crouch of a stalking tiger as he creeps toward his target. Suddenly he hurls it full force, reveling in his ruthlessness. He makes “Come and get me!” gestures with his fingertips, goading his opponents.
They are seventh-graders. And the game is dodgeball, played with brightly colored foam balls.
Competition, Cousins told these youngsters earlier this July morning, brings out the best in everyone. And it’s clear from his annual football camp for middle-schoolers in his western Michigan home town of Holland that the Washington Redskins quarterback has no internal regulator when it comes to competition — even against 12- and 13-year-old boys.
But there’s another side to Cousins, one that enables him to easily disappear in a crowd. Humble and deeply religious, he opens his youth football camp each year by sharing a Bible verse, 1 Peter 5:7 — “Give all your worries and cares to God, for He cares about you” — that, he explains, has guided his path in life. He asks the children to recite it with him and memorize it, in the hope it will help them, too. Though Cousins, as an NFL quarterback, holds what is widely regarded as the most difficult job in sports, he’s so averse to drawing attention to himself during the season that his most electric moment in uniform — his outburst of “You like that!” — wasn’t intended for public consumption. He had howled it in primal fashion at a lone reporter in the basement of FedEx Field after leading the largest comeback in Redskins history, against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and it went viral only after being recorded by chance.
“There is a lot of passion there,” Cousins says about his striking duality. “When I’m being dynamic or whatever you want to call it — sometimes just being myself — it can come across as, ‘Look at me!’ I’m careful about that to a fault. I want to shy away and not make it about me. In doing that sometimes, people don’t see who you really are.”
If Cousins is an enigma off the field, his on-field efforts reveal contradictions, too. He led the Redskins to back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in nearly 20 years, set single-season franchise records for passing yards two years running and finished 2016 ranked among the league’s top five in quarterback rating, total passing yards and net yards per pass attempt. But he’s also a quarterback with a 19-21-1 record as a starter who, while limiting the turnovers that plagued his early career and emerging as an able game manager, has yet to show the improvisational magic in critical moments that defines greatness at his position. Cousins threw his costliest interception last season on the last play of the regular-season finale, sealing a defeat that prevented the Redskins from earning a playoff spot. Today, there’s no shortage of NFL analysts who regard Cousins, 29, as a middle-of-the-pack quarterback — a beneficiary of Coach Jay Gruden’s pass-happy offense and a cadre of gifted receivers, but nothing special.
His coaches and teammates, however, insist he’s far better than given credit for. They know how hard he works, and they see improvement from one year to the next. If Cousins were a stock, those who have coached him and played alongside him would have invested long ago.
Says Trent Williams, the Redskins’ five-time Pro Bowl left tackle who’s most responsible for protecting Cousins from onrushing defenders: “It’s only his third year of having the team, and he pretty much knows everything from the linemen’s responsibility to the backs’, to the wideouts’ — the whole thing. He can actually run a practice like a coach right now. He’s everything you want in a quarterback.”
But how much does Redskins owner Daniel Snyder want Kirk Cousins? After waffling on his value, the team has twice tried and failed to sign him to a long-term contract. The only option to prevent him from signing elsewhere was employing the NFL’s franchise tag — a costly temporary solution that essentially means the Redskins have “rented” their quarterback at a premium for two consecutive years. So with the team lacking a long-term solution at its most important position, the future of Kirk Cousins is the most pressing story line of the upcoming season in Washington: Is Cousins merely the Redskins’ best option for now? Or is he capable of greatness?
The town of Holland, a half-hour drive from Grand Rapids, and his experience at Holland Christian High School were instrumental to the athlete Cousins has become. It’s an idyllic locale of 34,000 founded by industrious Dutch immigrants seeking religious freedom, and the town they built upon forested land cleared in the 1840s opens like pages in a storybook today.
Church steeples dot the sky, seemingly one for every thousand residents. Yards are tidy and sidewalks spotless. The decades-old Windmill restaurant opens for breakfast each weekday at 5 a.m., when the working people get going. Sculptures and statuary that proclaim local values adorn nearly every downtown street corner: a bronze grouping of children reciting the Pledge of Allegiance; a life-size Benjamin Franklin reading the Declaration of Independence; an older couple on a bench exchanging valentines. And nothing is quite so grand as Tulip Time in May, the nine-day celebration of Holland’s heritage.
“It’s a very family-oriented community with hard-working people. What you see is what you get,” says Cousins’s father, Don, explaining why he and his wife, MaryAnn, moved their three children to Holland from suburban Chicago when their eldest, Kyle, was about to start high school.
For Kirk, two years younger, sports offered a fast way to make friends. Football became his passion during fourth-grade flag football. In sixth grade, his first year of tackle football, he rose early to watch the inspirational football movie “Rudy” each Saturday morning before his game. He even asked for the soundtrack that Christmas.
“Nothing is like football,” Cousins told me. “There’s nothing that tests you and pulls something out of you, forces you to depend on your teammates, that really will check you and see if you really have it. Are you really that tough? Are you really that strong? Football takes you to a whole different level.”
Though the alpha on all three of his varsity teams at Holland Christian — baseball pitcher, basketball point guard and quarterback — Cousins was highly “inclusive,” says school chaplain Dave Mosterd, who remembers him forging friendships with students of all interests and abilities. Adam Winstrom, a classmate with Down syndrome, and Chris Doornbos, who was born with cognitive and physical impairments, became two of his closest friends.
“With Kirk they were the Three Amigos,” recalls Holland Christian athletic director Dave Engbers. An A student who planned on becoming a doctor, like his grandfather, Cousins also sang in Holland’s competitive choir, Living Hope, whose repertoire drew from such works as the musical “Wicked” and Handel’s “Messiah.”
He excelled in English, studied poetry and, by all accounts, never did anything worse than leave campus against school rules one day as a senior to have lunch with friends at Taco Bell.
What jumped out about Cousins, his teachers recall, was his seriousness of purpose in the classroom, as a school leader and athlete. But his dream of playing Division I football appeared over when he broke his ankle the first game of his junior year. Tears streamed down his face when he discussed the diagnosis with his father, a pastor, who told him he could either sulk or trust the Lord’s plan.
As soon as his doctor approved, Cousins was back in the school’s weight room. He returned for the last few games of the season, and his offensive line doubled down on being a fortress for their 175-pound quarterback. “We took our job seriously as his protectors because we thought, ‘Someday, he’s going to end up being a big deal,’ ” recalls Dan Kapenga, former center for the Maroons. “ ‘We’ve got to make sure we can get him there!’ ”
Holland Christian had started its football team the year before Cousins arrived, so it was hardly a pipeline for big-time college recruiters. But Cousins took charge, compiling 40 packets of DVDs of his game highlights and sending them to head coaches around the country. He skipped powerhouses like Florida and Southern California, where he knew he had no shot, but was determined to land a Division I offer. Only a handful of mid-major schools showed interest; most never replied. It wasn’t until his senior year, after football season ended, that he heard from Michigan State. Its recruiters liked what the footage showed of Cousins’s accuracy with the ball, but he looked skinny and a bit wooden, so they sent a recruiter to Holland to evaluate him during the Maroons’ basketball practice, since football season had ended.
“I didn’t show much movement on tape. To this day, I still don’t move around a lot,” Cousins says with a self-deprecating laugh. “They wanted to see if I had enough athleticism to be a Big Ten athlete.”
The Spartans thought he did and offered a scholarship, redshirting Cousins his freshman year to give him time to physically mature. As the fifth-string quarterback he ran the scout team and immersed himself in learning the playbook while pursuing a pre-med major. With future NFL quarterback Nick Foles’s decision to transfer to Arizona, Coach Mark Dantonio named Cousins his starter as a sophomore, but Cousins struggled to get the A’s he wanted in his science classes and the victories the Spartans expected on the field. Eventually he set aside his plan for medical school, switched to a kinesiology major and went on to become a three-year starter, graduating as Michigan State’s all-time leader in six major passing categories and posting a 27-12 record, including a 22-5 mark his last two seasons. He also became the first Michigan State starting quarterback to beat Michigan three consecutive years. Cousins’s final game for the Spartans encapsulated his ethic: ugly in spots, with two interceptions, but gritty enough to lead a 33-30, triple-overtime upset of Georgia in the Outback Bowl.
When the third and final day of the 2012 NFL draft arrived, there was stunned silence in the Cousins home after Coach Mike Shanahan phoned to tell Kirk that the Redskins planned to pick him 102nd overall. It seemed a devastating dead end: drafted by a team that had opened that year’s draft with a blockbuster trade for its quarterback of the future, Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III. From the outset, Cousins was cast as an insurance policy, nothing more.
“To say this wasn’t frustrating wouldn’t be honest,” Don Cousins recalls. “It was frustrating because you get to that level, it has become a job. But at the highest level, when livelihoods and winning and losing are at stake, for the first time in his life as an athlete Kirk couldn’t compete. The fact that he was drafted in the fourth round and not the first round automatically, without throwing a pass, means you’re a backup and you have no chance.”
Griffin’s Olympic-caliber speed and high-voltage charisma signaled a can’t-miss prospect, but the dynamic playmaking he displayed in college and his rookie season in Washington wasn’t sustainable in the NFL. With rare exception, running quarterbacks of Griffin’s size (6-foot-2, with a powerful torso perched atop a sprinter’s spindly legs) have short careers. Griffin’s proved shorter still after he suffered severe knee and ankle injuries. Efforts to convert him to a traditional drop-back pocket-passer were painful to watch. He held the ball too long as he searched for open receivers, only to get sacked or, worse, take off running and get clobbered by onrushing defenders. Moreover, Griffin’s theatrics off the field and penchant for assigning blame alienated teammates and angered Gruden — who on the eve of the 2015 season teamed with then-general manager Scot McCloughan to convince Snyder and Redskins President Bruce Allen that Cousins gave the team a better chance of winning.
It wasn’t an easy sell, based on Cousins’s spot duty to that point. The Redskins were still Griffin’s team when Cousins got his first extended work at quarterback, filling in after Griffin dislocated his left ankle early in the 2014 season. Cousins played as if he had been given the keys to a Maserati — fearless in stretches, panicked in others. His inexperience showed in a 45-14 loss to the New York Giants, where he was intercepted four times in a calamitous second half by defensive backs who boasted that Cousins had made their job easy by telegraphing his targets with his eyes. Three weeks later, he was benched at halftime after twice turning the ball over against Tennessee. He trudged to the FedEx Field locker room, head hung low and shoulders drooping, under a torrent of boos. Cousins didn’t throw another pass the rest of the season, quietly slipping back to the invisible status of a backup quarterback that no NFL team wants to rely on.
But young NFL quarterbacks need time to develop. It was true of Peyton Manning, the No. 1 pick of the 1998 NFL draft, every bit as much as it was true of undrafted Kurt Warner, who stocked shelves in an Iowa grocery store before going on to a Hall of Fame career. “We’re in a business that I think gives up on everybody too quickly,” Warner told me. “I don’t think we have near the patience to allow quarterbacks to become what they’re going to become — to really figure out who they are — and make sure we have players around them who can pull their skill set out.”
In Cousins’s case, he worked harder after being written off. He ramped up the biofeedback-based mental exercises he had started with a company called Neurocore, convinced he’d get better results on the field if he could quicken his decision-making and control his anxiety under extreme stress. And he pushed himself physically, working with a private trainer to sharpen his agility, balance and footwork.
The results showed in training camp the following summer, while Griffin, ostensibly healed from his injuries, had a calamitous preseason. Sacked three times in quick succession against Detroit, he suffered a concussion (the third of his career) and left the game after completing just two of five throws. They were his last throws in a Redskins uniform.
Two weeks before the 2015 season opener, Gruden named Cousins the starter and divided a bewildered fan base in the process. At 6-3 and barely 200 pounds, Cousins boasts no obvious physical quality that suggests the making of the NFL’s next great quarterback. He lacks the imposing size of Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger or Carolina’s Cam Newton, just as he lacks the speed and elusiveness of Michael Vick or Russell Wilson. And he’s humble to a fault, which has always made him a hard sell for Snyder, whose famous blank checkbook tends to be reserved for the league’s biggest names and flashiest commodities — the athletic equivalent of a corporate titan’s Bombardier jet or superyacht.
Nonetheless, Cousins set a single-season franchise record for passing yards in leading the Redskins to the NFC East Championship and a spot in the playoffs as a first-year starter. Last season, he eclipsed the record for Redskins passing yards (4,917) and posted the NFL’s third-highest completion percentage (67.0). He proved sturdy and tough in the pocket, not missing a start in 32 games — thanks largely to his quick release of the football and an offensive line that allowed just 50 sacks over two years. In his first two seasons as a starter, he threw more touchdowns (54) and fewer interceptions (23) than did future Hall of Famers Manning and Tom Brady, 2016 NFL MVP Matt Ryan or Indianapolis’s Andrew Luck, whose last contract set an NFL record for guaranteed money.
And yet, in many minds, Cousins’s 19-21-1 record defines him — as does his last interception in the season-ending loss to the Giants eight months ago. “All I can do is learn from it and try to make sure I get better in those moments,” Cousins says of the throw that still haunts him. “It was a mistake that as a professional quarterback you can’t make.”
Warner counts himself among the skeptical admirers of Cousins at this stage in his career. “He’s a guy that’s better than a lot of guys that can make a lot of throws,” the former quarterback says. “But I’m still waiting to see if he can be that guy who carries a team with his right arm at critical moments. Can you win those games that are in the balance against other good teams? Can he be that guy? That’s what I haven’t seen yet.”
What intensifies the debate over Cousins is the team — and the city — he plays for. For decades, the Washington Redskins’ starting quarterback has held particularly exalted status — in some ways, looming larger over the nation’s capital than the president himself during glorious championship eras, and also serving, in times of strife, as a sorely needed rallying point for a city riven by racial and socioeconomic divides.
Sonny Jurgensen, now 83, was a gorgeous passer with a delivery as effortless as his name. Sonny was forever young with a football in his hand. He was forever bold, too, or so it seemed, until Billy Kilmer came along. Kilmer had a fraction of Jurgensen’s talent but was dutiful to a fault, ideal for Coach George Allen’s conservative ball-control offense. Who cared about Kilmer’s wobbly throws when he commanded the loyalty of Allen’s aging locker room? Amid the quarterback controversy that ensued, Redskins fans plastered their cars with bumper stickers proclaiming their allegiance: “I LIKE SONNY!” or “I LIKE BILLY!”
Joe Theismann, however, was an acquired taste, a brash self-promoter who declared upon arriving in Washington via a 1974 trade that he intended to start ahead of Jurgensen and Kilmer both — only to be relegated to returning punts his first two seasons. That didn’t stop Theismann from launching a personal-branding campaign that irked every veteran in the locker room nearly as much as his decision to cross the picket line during a players’ strike for the chance to play while Jurgensen and Kilmer sat.
“I was arrogant. I was egotistical,” Theismann recalls, chuckling at his gall. “This was their town, and I came in with guns blazing like, ‘Hey, I didn’t come here to sit! I came here to play!’ Then I started doing a segment of the news on Channel 7 critiquing the game, although I still wasn’t playing. Then I wrote a book on quarterbacking, having never played quarterback in the National Football League! They had every right to be mad at me.”
But a decade later, Theismann helped lead the Redskins to the first of three Super Bowl championships in a nine-year span. Sunday afternoons in Washington were a joyful thing. Mondays were memorable, too, as the city came together over water coolers and in barbershops and bars to relive it all.
The Redskins have cycled through 30 starting quarterbacks since Theismann’s right leg snapped under the force of a career-ending sack by New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor in a 1985 Monday Night Football game at RFK Stadium. Doug Williams and Mark Rypien were the highlights among them, earning MVP honors for leading the team to Super Bowl championships to cap the 1987 and 1991 seasons.
Since then, Redskins fans have been starved for leadership and consistent play at quarterback. The job has simply turned over too often for them to latch on to someone and develop that deep attachment to their quarterback that Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady and Eli Manning, who have played their entire careers for one NFL team, command. Redskins fans have come to expect change — and losing seasons. “That’s the thing,” Theismann says. “I think the fans basically realize that the ’80s are gone.”
Which brings us to 2017, with Kirk Cousins locked in an arm’s-length, outwardly amicable standoff with management over his worth. Meantime, a half-dozen or more other teams would gladly pay the NFL’s market rate for Cousins, thus adding him to the list of promising Redskins starters who stayed in Washington a minute — quarterbacks like Gus Frerotte, Trent Green and Brad Johnson — and went on to thrive elsewhere.
The lone certainty is that Cousins will play this season under a second consecutive franchise tag. That’s the same costly stopgap measure the Redskins used to block his departure after he proved himself a viable starter in 2015. With Cousins due to hit the NFL’s free-agent market the following spring, the Redskins made an unpersuasive stab at signing him to a long-term contract worth roughly $16 million per year — far less than the $20 million he was guaranteed for one year’s work under the tag, albeit with no assurance of employment or income after that.
“To make what I was going to make in one year as a franchise player [$19.95 million], I didn’t see that as stressful, compared to in high school and college I played for free,” Cousins says. “And the previous year I played for $600,000. I just didn’t feel a lot of fear in not taking a deal that didn’t seem to make sense for [me].”
After Cousins’s last season proved his 2015 season was no fluke, the Redskins tagged him a second time, knowing it would cost them 20 percent more to keep him in 2017 — roughly $24 million per year — but confident they could persuade him to void the tag by signing a long-term deal worth less annually but guaranteeing greater job security. Allen’s opening offer fell well shy of the NFL’s market rate for franchise quarterbacks (which is dictated by the fact that the demand for capable starting quarterbacks far outstrips the supply). To Allen’s surprise, Cousins showed little reciprocal interest, opting to play under the NFL’s franchise tag for a second season rather than make a counteroffer. Cousins explained that he simply needed more time to evaluate the stability of the Redskins, though there is no lens through which the turnover since Snyder bought the team in 1999 — eight head coaches and 16 starting quarterbacks — can be viewed as stable.
Allen publicly blamed Cousins for the failed negotiations in a bizarre attempt to turn the fan base against him, repeatedly calling him “Kurt” in the process. But if there is blame to be assigned, it falls on Allen for misreading his quarterback by underestimating his confidence and overlooking his faith. Cousins has made plain to family, friends and advisers that he isn’t looking to his next contract for financial security. Any question about taking care of his family has been addressed by the $44 million he’ll earn this year and last under the franchise tags. So the security he wants before committing what should be his most productive years to the Redskins or any other team lies in a team’s stability, a conviction that his bosses believe in his ability, and the chance to contend for Super Bowl championships.
For all the talk about Cousins and the value of his next contract, the quarterback is actually quite frugal, roundly mocked by teammates for occasionally driving a 15-year-old conversion van that he bought from his grandfather. Wed in June 2014, he and his wife, Julie, who are expecting their first child, a boy, this month, have yet to buy a home. They rent a Loudoun County townhouse near Redskins Park that they share with their rescue dog, Bentley, and spend winter breaks at her family’s Atlanta-area home and five weeks each summer at Cousins’s home in Holland.
But Cousins invests in anything that will help him become a better quarterback, including, in addition to hiring a personal trainer, buying a portable hyperbaric chamber (a $10,000 contraption that helps stimulate the body’s natural recovery process via heightened air pressure) and furnishing both his Michigan and Virginia residences with a large metal stretching cage that looks like a spaceship, constructed of bars that enable an athlete to work every possible muscle.
In January, Cousins underwent blood testing to identify foods that his body struggles to process and radically retooled his diet based on the findings, eliminating eggs, all dairy and gluten. He relentlessly husbands his time, parceling each day’s schedule into 15-minute increments for maximum productivity during the season.
With the baby due at the start of the season, he and Julie have set up an extra bed in the nursery. She’ll sleep there through the NFL season so he can get his proper rest, and he’ll do six-month baby duty starting in January.
Despite all the variables in play, Cousins comes into the season more focused and driven than he has ever been, which means he has quit dabbling in anything not connected to faith, family and football — including golf, a popular social currency among NFL players. He did, however, accept an invitation to play with President Trump in June. Shortly before they teed off in a foursome at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, N.J., the president sized up his hand-picked playing partner. “Kirk, what’s your handicap?” Trump asked.
The quarterback paused, searching for a number that put the best possible face on his golf game while staying within the bounds of honesty. “Probably in the teens,” he offered. “Oh,” Trump replied. “I thought you were great at golf.” So it was the president — not the professional athlete — who carried the team that day.
Cousins was telling that story during lunch with the fathers and mentors of the 300 middle-schoolers attending his football camp — not to boast about the cachet of being the Redskins’ starting quarterback but to make a point about priorities. Afterward, there was time for questions, and one father asked if Cousins would want his son to play football. “I want whatever he does to be done with all his heart, and I want him to chase excellence,” Cousins replied. “I’m tired of people who want to just be mediocre — just want to get by, to be good enough. Good enough isn’t good enough.”
Liz Clarke is a Washington Post staff writer covering the Redskins.
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