Kirk Cousins left FedEx Field on Sunday night wearing a blazing green, two-piece Christmas suit and matching tie, all of it decorated with gingerbread men, red tree ornaments and gold lights. The Washington quarterback looked like Santa's only 6-foot-3 elf. But don't let looks fool you. On an NFL field, he is a choirboy killer. And off it, when figuring out how to be the ruler of his own future, he is stone cold, too. If this was his last home game in D.C., and even his own coach seems to sense it was, he left a clear message — you'll miss Captain Kirk when he's gone.
Cousins led his injury-shattered team Sunday against the Denver Broncos, who boasted the top-ranked defense in the NFL in yardage allowed and the No. 2 defense against the pass. Cousins was without his best tight end, his best third-down back, his first-string running back, his most-touted wide receiver and three starting offensive linemen, including Pro Bowl left tackle Trent Williams.
Yet without seven of his top mates, Cousins passed for 299 yards, threw three scoring passes, never got sacked, had a 94.3 quarterback rating and led Washington to a 27-11 win. For the second straight week, Washington had the quality quarterback who made the difference, while the other guys had the kind of dismal signal caller — Blaine Gabbert for Arizona last week and Brock Osweiler for Denver — that Washington must hope it will not be saddled with in the near future.
If this was a Cousins audition for Denver — and in a sense every game for two years has been a Cousins audition for his next team when he finally gets his freedom — then he left the Broncos, and perhaps another half-dozen teams, drooling.
"We couldn't get any pressure on him — quick passes. He was connecting. He was on fire. . . . Kirk is a great quarterback. I'll say that every day of the week," said Denver linebacker Von Miller, one of the greatest pass rushers who ever lived but a force who was almost erased from this game by Cousins's quick release, play-calling, audibles, mobility and awareness of where and when pressure might arrive.
"I'm with everybody else [on Cousins]. . . . A lot of teams would kill to have a quarterback like that," Miller added. Will Cousins end up in Denver, where Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway is team president? "Like I said, literally kill to have a quarterback like that. The list [of Cousins's suitors] is long," Miller said. "We'll cross that bridge if we ever get to it."
If Cousins wants to put together a free agent book of testimonials and stats, he can start with the Broncos' defense that saw Cousins, with as little help as any passer will ever have, lead Washington to 386 yards of offense. Only the mighty New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles have gotten more off Denver this season — barely.
"He definitely can make some plays [improvising] and he can make all the throws. He's a" baller, Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said after seeing Cousins scramble for a first down, go off schedule for a tiptoe-at-the-line-of-scrimmage 32-yard completion and hit Vernon Davis for a 31-yard scoring strike while rolling to his left. Not wanting to risk NFL "tampering" rules, Harris added, "But I can't say anything about next year."
Everybody in the NFL knows what Cousins is — except the owner and team president of his own team. And a faction of this city's fans, too. Familiarity really does breed contempt for quarterbacks. Their worst or unluckiest plays are scrutinized, but their statistics — even a staggering 47-straight-game résumé in Cousins's case — can be twisted, misinterpreted or ignored.
This is who Cousins is. And this is the quarterback Washington is probably about to lose. In the last three years, out of all quarterbacks with 250 pass attempts, Cousins ranks third in the NFL in yards and fourth in quarterback rating.
In that time, Cousins is also fourth in adjusted net yards per attempt, an excellent all-around statistic that includes ratio of touchdown-to-interceptions, as well as frequency of being sacked. Ahead of him are only Tom Brady, 2016 MVP Matt Ryan and future Hall of Famer Drew Brees.
When you consider that Cousins is only 29, while several of the NFL's best quarterbacks, such as Ben Roethlisberger, Carson Palmer, Brees, Eli Manning and Brady, are near the end of their careers, his future in the league looks ever better.
"We set a standard here with the veteran guys we're going to have next year . . . no matter what the circumstances," Washington Coach Jay Gruden said. "As for Kirk, we're going to coach him one more game here, and when the season is over we'll deal with all that stuff." Most NFL coaches lie either by nature or nurture. Gruden's different. For Jay, "Coach him one more game here" is just sad.
This 3,935-yard season, with so many injuries around him, has only burnished Cousins's reputation, driven up his price and forced him, from necessity, to expand his skills. Each year as a starter, he has grown, especially in reading coverages and feeling in control of a game. "In '15 I kept waiting for it to click. When was it going to come together?" said Cousins, who shook Brady's hand after a game and asked, "When did it start clicking for you?"
"It's still clicking," Brady answered. That's what Cousins says he has discovered. In effect, Washington may have groomed him through a 24-22-1 record over three seasons so that he could finally become his best somewhere else.
"The accumulation of knowledge is a powerful thing, as [Hall of Fame coach] Bill Walsh said. Now I have a lot of games [of knowledge] in my bank account," Cousins said.
Preach it. They're listening in Denver, Jacksonville, New York, all over.
As Cousins was leaving for the night, he signed autographs for a half-dozen children, exchanging chitchat with kids who didn't come up to his chest. The last in line, however, looked him in the eye and asked about his only interception: "Why did you throw that second-down pass in the end zone into double coverage?"
"You ought to join The Washington Post with a tough question like that," Cousins said, missing only a beat. "I didn't think about the back-side safety [rotating over]. I took too long. Good, hard question, young man."
Cousins, who loves "Lord of the Rings," likes straight shooters who look you in the eye and slightly corny rules for life where respect can trump money and where loyalty, the kind that shows up when the times get tough, can mean most of all.
In other words, Cousins tends to approve of things that don't resemble the culture of casual disrespect and abrupt dismissal that has been the rule over the past couple of decades in Ashburn.
Some teams would kill to get a quarterback such as Cousins. Will Washington be one of them? Will it want him enough to keep him on a one-year franchise tag for more than $34 million, even though he would be totally free after 2018? Will it transition-tag him at more than $28 million, then be willing to match what might be an astronomical offer, far over $100 million, from another team?
How much is a quarterback worth who wears a Christmas suit with pictures of gingerbread men on it? In Cousins's case, maybe more, in ways that have nothing to do with money, than Washington knows how to offer.