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Kirk Cousins in Washington: A timeline from awkward start to lucrative departure

Kirk Cousins will leave Washington an extremely wealthy man, with a new employer and a new home. (Mark Lennihan/AP)
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Kirk Cousins will meet with the Minnesota Vikings this week, according to The Washington Post’s Mark Maske, and if the visit goes as planned, Cousins is expected to complete a three-year deal with them worth an estimated $84-86 million, according to multiple people familiar with the deliberations. The Redskins already secured his replacement, trading in January for Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith, who will inherit one of the most scrutinized jobs in Washington. Here’s a timeline of how we got to this point, from the day Washington drafted Cousins in 2012, to the shocking deal for Smith, to this week’s resolution — with all the calculated decisions, missteps, failed negotiations and hand-wringing in between. 

April 28, 2012: Draft day

Two days after selecting Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III with the No. 2 overall pick in the NFL draft, the Redskins made a surprising move by taking another quarterback, Cousins, in the fourth round.

“You can never have too much depth,” Redskins Coach Mike Shanahan said of the Redskins’ draft strategy.

One year later, in his book “Game Changer: Faith, Football & Finding Your Way,” Cousins described how disappointed he was to receive a call from Shanahan that day:

“My response was something like: ‘Really? Are you sure you want to do that?’ After four months of intensely working toward this moment, it was not the response I was expecting of myself. …
A minute later, my selection was announced on television, and I was indeed a Washington Redskin. And then I walked out of the room. … I was hoping for the chance to compete for a starting position soon, but I would not have that opportunity in Washington, and that was very disappointing. Needless to say, I was struggling to make sense of God’s plan.”

Entering Jay Gruden’s fifth season, Redskins have big decisions to make in free agency

May 31, 2012: Signing day

More than six weeks before Griffin signed a four-year, $21.1 million rookie contract with the Redskins, Cousins signed his own four-year, $2.57 million deal.

July 3, 2013: It’s not about the money … it’s about the snacks

Would the Redskins’ subsequent contract negotiations with Cousins have turned out differently had they sweetened the offer with a Potato Olés clause? Who’s to say Bruce Allen didn’t?

Feb. 12, 2014: ‘I’m open to a trade’

“You know, I think whether it’s talking to my agent, whether it’s talking to Bruce Allen with our team or anybody else for that matter, I think the message that I want to say to people is I’m open to a trade,” Cousins, who started the final three games of the 2013 season, told SiriusXM in response to an Adam Schefter report. “I love it in Washington. I really do love this city. I love this fan base, the tradition here, my teammates. I’m comfortable here in that sense. Now what I want, and what anybody should want who’s a competitor, is a chance to have greater influence. As a backup, you only have so much influence. I want to be able to influence and really lead an organization as a starting quarterback. Now, I’m willing to wait. I’m willing to be patient and hopefully earn that opportunity down the road. But if somebody wants to give me that opportunity sooner, I’d be open to that.”

The Redskins reportedly wanted a second-round pick in exchange for Cousins before the 2014 NFL draft, but no such offer came. Cousins began the 2014 season as the No. 2 quarterback on the depth chart but was thrust into action after Griffin injured his ankle in Week 2. He started the next five games before being benched for Colt McCoy at halftime in Week 7 and didn’t play another down that season.

August 2015: Cousins is named the starter

Move over, RGIII.

“It’s Kirk’s team,” Redskins Coach Jay Gruden said two days after Washington’s final preseason game.

“I’m going to do all I can to take this opportunity and run with it, and hopefully provide great quarterback play all season long,” Cousins said.

Oct. 25, 2015: ‘You like that!’

The Redskins entered their “Code Red” Week 7 game against the Buccaneers with a 2-4 record. They fell behind 24-7 in the second quarter before Cousins led the largest comeback in franchise history and shouted “You like that!” at a reporter en route to the locker room.

Nov. 18, 2015: Contract extension talk

After a loss at New England, Washington bounced back with a 47-14 rout of New Orleans at home. Cousins threw for 324 yards and four touchdowns, garnering NFC offensive player of the week honors for the second time in three games. A few days later, he was asked multiple times about a potential contract extension.

“I appreciate the question, but I feel like it’s best for me to just focus on week-to-week and understanding that in this league, things change and happen so fast,” Cousins said. “I’ve gotten myself in trouble when I start to think and look down the road and predict things, so I try to take it one week at a time, one day at a time. I’ve learned to handle it that way. When you look any further than that, you’re going to get all kinds of things that you may have never expected.”

December 2015: Mike McCartney advises Cousins to bet on himself 

With four games remaining in the regular season and Cousins’s rookie contract set to expire, former Redskins general manager Scot McCloughan met with Cousins’s agent, Mike McCartney, about a possible long-term deal. To that point, Cousins had thrown 17 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, but Washington was 5-7.

Cousins recalled the meeting during his end-of-season event with 106.7 the Fan in January.

“[Mike] called me and he said, ‘Kirk, you know, I think for them to see you in the light that I see you, you’re going to need to play four more games, and you’re going to need to do more. You’re going to need to play better. Because they just aren’t viewing you in that light, for various reasons,'” Cousins said. “And I didn’t like to hear that. And they were ready to do a deal. And Mike said, ‘No, I think you should finish out the season. You should put the risk on yourself, finish it out, and then we’ll go from there.’ Now, going into this game, I’m thinking, ‘I don’t know that I want to do that. You know, I kind of like the comfort and security of what the Redskins are offering.’ And Mike said, ‘You don’t want to do that. You want to play this out, and then go from there.’

Cousins further explained that McCloughan wanted to get a deal done.

“Yeah, I mean, Scot was ready to do a deal really from the jump,” Cousins said. “But he wanted to do it right. He wanted to do it when it felt like it was a bargain [for the team]. And then I think that month happened, and I think Scot’s going, ‘Nah, I don’t know about now.’ They came to Mike before that Bears game, and Mike just said, they need to see a little more. And we understood that. We said great. Let’s play well then down the stretch here. And we played about as well as we could.”

The Redskins won their next four games to win the NFC East title, with Cousins throwing 12 touchdowns and one interception. Washington lost to Green Bay in the wild-card round of the playoffs, but Cousins would no longer come at a bargain price.

“I want to be where I’m wanted,” Cousins said, as that season wound down. “And we’ll find out where I’m wanted in a few months. But we have a job to do before that, and that’s where my focus is, is on right here and right now. And if we get the job done, I’d like to think I’ll be wanted here.”

February 2016: Washington makes a lowball offer

Cousins’s camp was reportedly looking for $19 million per year and roughly $44 million in guaranteed money. The Redskins, unconvinced after one full season with Cousins as a starter that he was a franchise quarterback, countered by offering a deal in the neighborhood of $16 million per year with $24 million guaranteed. It was a particularly unimpressive offer given that Cousins stood to earn $19.95 million guaranteed by playing under the franchise tag. With the two sides unable to come to an agreement, Washington used the non-exclusive franchise tag on Cousins, retaining his services for another year.

May 2016: ‘We’re going to figure it out’

“It’s a big contract and a position that’s very important to us, and he wants to be in the organization,” McCloughan said with the deadline for signing a long-term contract before the season approaching. “We’re going to figure it out. If it’s not done by July 15, don’t worry. We’ll still get something figured out.”

July 2016: The deadline passes

Despite off and on negotiations during the summer, the two sides failed to agree on a long-term deal. The team wanted to see more out of Cousins before committing to him, and Cousins was content to prove himself again.

“Whether I was on a long-term deal or a one-year deal, if I didn’t play well this season, it wasn’t going to matter,” Cousins told 106.7 the Fan after the deadline. “I feel good about having this one season to go prove myself and see what I can do. I’ve always been at times a little underrated, a little overlooked, and that’s okay. That’s part of my story. I think I do relish the opportunity to prove to people that I’m capable of playing well and being here for a long time. Having that opportunity to prove yourself is really all you can ask for in this league.”

Nov. 20, 2016: ‘How do you like me now?!’

Cousins proved himself again. After a win over the Packers on “Sunday Night Football” in the midst of another 4,000-yard season, he rubbed McCloughan’s head and shouted, ‘How do you like me now?’

Feb. 28, 2017: Another franchise tag

Cousins repeated his individual statistical success in 2016, breaking several of his own single-season passing records, but a loss to the New York Giants in the regular season finale kept Washington out of the playoffs. After helping the Redskins to consecutive winning seasons for the first time since 1996 and 1997, Cousins’s price had gone up again.

Cousins became the first quarterback in NFL history to be franchise-tagged in consecutive years. Barring a long-term deal by the July deadline, he would earn $24 million guaranteed for the 2017 season.

March 2017: Front office turmoil

A few days after giving Gruden a two-year contract extension in a signal of continuity, the Redskins fired McCloughan, with an official, speaking on condition of anonymity, attributing the decision to the GM’s ongoing problems with alcohol.

Later that month, Allen insisted that getting a long-term deal with Cousins done “isn’t as complicated as everyone wants to make it.”

“We’ll get together with his agent, and I’m sure we’ll come to an agreement,” Allen said.

May 2017: Another offer

The Redskins offered Cousins $53 million in guaranteed money, but their proposal reportedly called for him to make an average salary in the low-$20 million range on the back end of the deal.

July 17, 2017: Another deadline passes

Allen flew to Michigan before the deadline to try to get a long-term deal done, but no agreement was reached. Allen issued a statement that seemed to place the blame for the failed negotiations on Cousins’s camp.

“On May 2nd, right after the draft, we made Kirk an offer that included the highest fully guaranteed amount upon signing for a quarterback in NFL history ($53 million) and guaranteed a total of $72 million for injury,” Allen said, without taking questions. “The deal would have made him at least the second-highest-paid player by average per year in NFL history. But despite our repeated attempts, we have not received any offer from Kirk’s agent this year.”

What Allen’s statement neglected to mention was that Cousins stood to make almost as much in guaranteed money by playing on the franchise tag in 2017 ($24 million) and the transition tag ($28 million) in 2018, and even more guaranteed money if the Redskins dared use the franchise tag on him at a cost of $34 million in 2018.

“There have been a lot of changes in our organization since the end of last season, and so I want to allow time to help make this decision,” Cousins told 106.7 the Fan of his decision to play on the franchise tag for a second consecutive year.

Jan. 2, 2018: Tepid praise from Gruden

Despite losing 1,000-yard receivers Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson to free agency, playing behind an offensive line ravaged by injuries and being without his favorite target, Jordan Reed, for more than half the season, Cousins eclipsed the 4,000-yard mark for the third straight year. Cousins threw three interceptions in a dreadful loss to the Giants in the season finale, and the Redskins missed the playoffs for a second straight year. A couple of days later, Gruden didn’t sound especially impressed with Cousins’s year.

“When you’re 7-9, it’s hard to say, ‘Wow, this guy was really outstanding,’” Gruden said after Cousins’s Week 17 performance. “Kirk had his flashes where he was really good. … He’s a very, very good quarterback, without a doubt.”

Jan. 5, 2018: Cousins addresses his fans

“I’d be foolish to say I don’t want to be here,” Cousins said at his end-of-season event, where he conceded that, while he would be okay playing on another one-year deal, there was a part of him that would like to be settled.

“I want to be associated with excellence and, as I’ve said, if I feel like winning and excellence is here, I just don’t have a lot of reason to look elsewhere,” he said. “I’m a big part of that. The ball’s in my hands, so if we’re not winning and we’re not excellent, I’ve got to look at myself first and foremost. But that’s certainly what I want to be a part of and helped build, so if I feel like that’s here, there’s no reason to look around.”

Jan. 31, 2018: The trade

Hours after Cousins answered questions about his uncertain future on Radio Row in Minneapolis ahead of Super Bowl LII, repeatedly mentioning that he and his agent would wait to see what the Redskins decided to do by the March franchise tag deadline, Washington traded for 33-year-old Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith. It was finally clear that Cousins’s future would come elsewhere.

March 12, 2018: Cousins says farewell

As the start of free agency neared, Cousins said his goodbyes to Redskins fans, writing on his website that “it’s hard to look back at all that’s taken place and not become emotional” and that “no words will express the depth of my gratitude, but ‘thank you’ will have to do for now.”

“When [son] Cooper someday asks: “Hey Dad, what was it like playing for the Redskins?” I’ll proudly tell him it was a dream come true,” Cousins wrote. “Thanks for having me, Washington, and thanks for making me into the player I am today!”

March 13, 2018: The future comes into focus

Multiple reports throughout the day indicated that the Vikings were overwhelming favorites to land Cousins, with a three-year deal that could impact the future of NFL contracts, at least for highly prized quarterbacks. The Redskins do not play the Vikings in 2018.

Read more on the Redskins:

Jordan Reed’s health could provide a key offseason addition for Redskins

Can the Redskins help Alex Smith replicate success from career year with Chiefs?

New quarterback Alex Smith says he’s ‘jacked’ to be joining the Redskins

‘Their contributions are part of Redskins history’: 1987 replacement players will receive Super Bowl rings

With higher NFL salary cap, Redskins have room to spend but won’t necessarily splurge

The Alex Smith trade could sentence the Redskins to long-term mediocrity

Alex Smith trade gives the Redskins a quarterback an awful lot like Kirk Cousins