When pressed over the past two years about what he sought in an NFL employer, Kirk Cousins consistently cited three factors: a team that believed in him, had a history of stability and routinely contended in the postseason.
In coming to terms with the Minnesota Vikings on a three-year deal that’s expected to be consummated soon after he was to make an official visit Wednesday evening, Cousins appears to have found all that.
In signing, Cousins also brings a merciful end to the halfhearted dance he had been doing with the Washington Redskins over a long-term contract that was never truly in play — at least not since December 2015, when then-general manager Scot McCloughan advocated locking up the first-year starter with a multiyear deal and Cousins’s agent counseled against signing, urging his client to finish the season strong and, in so doing, increase his market value.
Yet the dance was reprised for months after Cousins did just that, leading the Redskins to the 2015 NFC East title, and again following the 2016 season and for a final time over the weeks that followed last season’s 7-9 disappointment.
Throughout, as Redskins fans’ expectations rose and fell and the team’s coaches and scouts could do no more than chart a short-term plan for the offense, the Redskins’ front office made no serious effort to keep Cousins. Cousins, in turn, sent no signal — in word, tone or deed — that he was enthused about staying, apart from carefully worded statements about the value of continuity and stability to any NFL team’s success.
For all the questions posed, all the meticulously crafted replies and all the words written about whether Cousins had a long-term future in Washington, the mutual wariness between the Redskins’ brass and the quarterback was evident.
In Cousins’s case, the truth was in the subtext of the rhetorical tightrope he walked each time he was asked directly whether he wanted to stay in Washington.
“If I feel like winning and excellence is here, I just don’t have a lot of reason to look elsewhere,” Cousins said in a Jan. 5 forum with fans hosted by 106.7 the Fan. The key word was “if.” And the key statistic was six: six winning seasons in the 19 years since Daniel Snyder bought the team in May 1999.
As Cousins focused on improving as a quarterback while competing under back-to-back franchise tags — the Redskins’ lone recourse for barring his departure — he notably never bought a house in the greater Washington area. Even after getting married in June 2014 and welcoming the birth of his first child in September 2017, Cousins and his wife continued renting a townhouse when many other young families with means would have put down roots.
The subtext was clear: Cousins wasn’t interested in tying his long-term future to that of the Redskins. Perhaps his front-row seat to the way Mike Shanahan was treated by the front office after falling from grace was among the reasons — or perhaps his frustration over not getting a chance to compete for the starting job that belonged to first-round draft pick Robert Griffin III his first three seasons or perhaps witnessing McCloughan’s ignominious ouster in March 2017. Or perhaps it was his own treatment by Redskins President Bruce Allen, who in July publicly faulted Cousins for the team’s failure to broker a long-term contract, one Allen had insisted would be easy, calling him “Kurt” six times in a two-minute span.
Equally clear was the subtext of the Redskins’ actions (and inaction) regarding Cousins — the skepticism that followed his team-record passing performance in 2015, as well as the below-market offer that followed his 2016 Pro Bowl season.
“I don’t know what more they wanted from Kirk here,” said former Redskins wide receiver Santana Moss, who played with both Griffin and Cousins after they were chosen in the first and fourth rounds, respectively, in the 2012 NFL draft.
Moss has followed Cousins’s progress since and continues to be impressed — last season included.
“If you look at it, Kirk doesn’t go out there and make tackles,” Moss noted. “There were two games alone he put up 30-plus points, and we lost those games [38-30 to Minnesota and 34-31 in overtime to New Orleans]. People blamed Kirk, but he did his part. . . . It was one of those things you could tell: [The Redskins] really weren’t sold on Kirk; they always wanted more.”
The dance of mutual distrust was finally halted by the Redskins’ Jan. 31 trade for Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith, which signaled a white flag of surrender by the team and a victory for Cousins.
If money was the object of the standoff, Cousins won, banking about $44 million for his two “tagged” seasons. Guided by agent Mike McCartney, Cousins will become the NFL’s highest-paid quarterback in signing a three-year deal that will pay him $28 million annually. The distinction, no doubt, will be fleeting, given the league’s soaring prices for quarterbacks. The greater significance is the fact that Cousins’s contract is fully guaranteed.
Cousins also “won” by becoming a better quarterback under the tutelage of Redskins coaches Mike and Kyle Shanahan, Sean McVay and Gruden.
“All of them have proven they’re excellent coaches as far as the passing game and quarterback development,” noted former Redskins general manager Charley Casserly, an NFL Network analyst. “Cousins was privileged to have great coaching. And to his credit, he worked hard. He studied. He did his job.”
The Redskins also benefited from Cousins’s tenure, even though his 24-23-1 record after being named the full-time starter suggests to many an average or slightly better-than-average quarterback. After a 5-6 start, Cousins led the Redskins to their second division title in 16 seasons in 2015. The next season, he led the team to its first back-to-back winning seasons since 1996 and 1997. He didn’t miss a start in three seasons (48 regular season games, one postseason game). And he represented the franchise admirably in his three controversy-free seasons as the starter.
That’s why the Vikings are paying him handsomely.
In terms of Cousins’s stated criteria, it appears an ideal fit and backs up what he told a young Redskins fan who asked at the January fan forum where he wanted to play. “Wherever I go,” Cousins replied, “I’m not going to increase my portfolio. I’m going there to win.”
The Vikings, reigning NFC North champions, are coming off a 13-3 season. They have been built with a long-term view by Rick Spielman, who is entering his seventh season as Vikings general manager and his 13th in the team’s personnel department. Coach Mike Zimmer boasts a 39-25 record, with two playoff appearances, in his first four seasons. Even without Cousins, their top-ranked defense (in both points and yards allowed) suggests they will be a playoff contender again in 2018.
To be sure, Cousins faces additional pressure because of his massive salary. At the same time, he will face considerably less pressure as the offensive leader of a team whose defense allowed just 15.8 points per game last season (as opposed to the 24.3 points per game allowed by the Redskins’ defense).
As for the Redskins, the Alex Smith era begins, and there is reason for optimism. The 13-year NFL veteran is coming off a better season than Cousins. In his fifth season under Chiefs Coach Andy Reid, Smith posted career highs in passing yards (4,042), passing touchdowns (26) and quarterback rating (104.7). Moreover, he showed the intangibles that Gruden wanted from Cousins but never got to his full satisfaction — a willingness to throw the deep ball and a knack for improvisation out of the picket.
Doug Williams, the Redskins’ senior vice president for player personnel who knows a good bit about quarterback play, having earned MVP honors for leading the Redskins to the second of their three Super Bowl championships following the 1987 season, is loath to compare the skill sets of Cousins and Smith.
Like a great quarterback, Williams has his eyes fixed downfield, looking at a future with Smith under contact for the next three years.
“It’s a good feeling to know that your quarterback is going to be here for the next three years,” Williams said in a telephone interview. “Being in this situation is so much better than being in a tag game — especially for the players in the locker room. They don’t have to wonder, ‘Is my leader going to be here tomorrow?’ ”