Football never stops, and so week 18 of the Redskins season was staged Friday afternoon at a sold-0ut Vienna concert venue. Unlike the past few contests, this one had real buzz: Standing-room tickets started at $40, making it quite a bit pricier than recent home games. The beer selection was better, too. And yes, fans started drinking before noon.
That’s when Kirk Cousins followed up one of his worst showings of the season with one of his best, a performance so successful that he spiked the football at the end by bringing his cute infant son Cooper onto stage with him. Cooper earned a cheer, and it was hardly the only one of the day. Just walking out on the stage earned Cousins a lengthy standing ovation from the 170 or so fans who ponied up to listen to the Redskins (?) quarterback spend nearly two hours talking about his season, his career, his employer and his future.
Bear in mind that this was a split decision: Some fans are no longer swayed by the quarterback’s carefully worded explanations about how every NFL contract is essentially a one-year deal, and about how he values winning and inner peace over dollars. They will seize on one admission during Friday’s 106.7 The Fan event — that Cousins declined a chance to negotiate with the team late in the 2015 season — as proof that he contributed to this never-ending contract debate every bit as much as the Redskins. They just want the whole thing to end.
But for the Cousins supporters, Friday’s season-ending fan forum with Grant Paulsen and Danny Rouhier seemed to offer another binary decision: either you side with the team’s long-scorned front office, or with that handsome guy juggling the baby on his knee while singing the praises of Redskins fans. The opening point spread in that matchup probably won’t favor the team.
“Another example of the professionalism, the integrity he carries himself with,” Brent Quinn said, moments after Cousins’s closing homage to Washington. “Such a bittersweet moment. Hopefully more sweet than bitter, because if he goes, it will be very hard for Redskins fans to continue to support this dysfunctional organization.”
Look, the whole event felt weird enough that I drove to Jammin’ Java feeling more than a little skeptical. Why does a guy who makes $24 million a year need fans to help him raise $10,000 for the D.C. Dream Center? What would the wags say if John Wall or Alex Ovechkin (or Robert Griffin III) used their final two in-season news conferences to promote an off-site pay-to-enter event, at which their true feelings would be discussed? What were the odds that Cousins would offer any real insight into what he wants to do next season, the animating question of this offseason? And would we all finish up in time to make way for The Tone Rangers, whose evening a cappella show promised to cover 900 years of Western music, “from Gregorian chant to classic rock to TV theme songs.” Might they work Attende Domine into “Hail to the Redskins,” maybe?
But my skepticism mostly washed away inside that packed venue, and no, it wasn’t because of the beer. (Sadly.) (And I was standing right at the bar, too.) To my ears, Cousins has managed a rather remarkable feat. He earns an enormous salary. His future is perpetually uncertain. He and his agent have been working over the Redskins throughout this ordeal. And yet droves of fans continue to side with the quarterback over their favorite team. That’s not normal.
“Thank you for bringing a sense of competency, honesty and integrity to the Redskins organization,” one said, when the floor was opened to questions.
Another thanked him “for just being a good dude … [while] working for such a dysfunctional organization.”
“You represent our organization so well,” said a third.
“Just as charismatic off the field as you are on the field,” said a fourth.
“As a teacher and educator, I want to thank you,” said a fifth.
Granted, this was a self-selected crowd; six of the first 13 people in line to ask questions were wearing Cousins jerseys. Those who spoke certainly didn’t reflect the Cousins criticism that gushes through social media, including Friday. I’m not blind to those who saw this event as self-serving and self-indulgent, who think Cousins is stringing the Redskins along, who wish he would either sign a long-term deal with the team or make it explicit that he never will.
But if you want to know why so many feel so fondly about the guy, think about Bruce Allen’s statement last summer, the one in which Washington’s top football man called his franchise quarterback by the wrong first name in an accusatory statement and then declined to answer questions. (Some fans booed when Bruce Allen’s name was first mentioned Friday.) Think about Jay Gruden’s response earlier this week, when he called Cousins “a very, very good quarterback” but repeatedly cited the team’s 7-9 record as some sort of rebuke to his most important player. Think about Washington’s reluctance to go all-in on Cousins before the 2016 season, when a long-term deal would have wound up as a clever bargain. And then think about how Cousins praised Gruden and Allen and owner Dan Snyder on Friday — “Mr. Snyder’s been phenomenal,” he said — and how he even tried to take the team off the hook for its past doubt.
“I do believe the Redskins are ready to [offer a long-term deal], and I want to go back to the fact that there was a narrative that they weren’t,” Cousins said. “I think it was a long time ago when that switched, and maybe that hasn’t caught up publicly. But I do believe they’re all-in. They’re two feet in; they’re good to go; and I’ve felt that for a long time.”
He’s in control, in other words, and he knows it, and yet he’s still winning the perception battle. His words — saying that “I want to be associated with excellence,” that “I’d be foolish to say I don’t want to be here,” that if he can find everything he wants in D.C. “then there’s no reason to look around”– were vague enough that they’ll never be proven false. But in person, in that sympathetic crowd, the presentation worked. This team drafted Cousins, kept him around through years of strangeness, and then almost accidentally offered him an opportunity quarterbacks rarely get: to play his way into freedom. He took advantage of it. And along the way, he won over thousands and thousands of fans, who saw their team betting against their quarterback, and sided with the quarterback.
Cousins made it clear he’s in no hurry, that he plans to carry this process through until March’s deadline for the team to act. “I don’t know how it’s going to end,” he said.
Neither do I, but I know this: Cousins somehow has won freedom, financial prosperity and a good number of the fans. That’s a pretty good week 18.