On the eve of the Washington Redskins' game at the Chicago Bears on Dec. 13, 2015, the team's general manager, Scot McCloughan, approached Kirk Cousins's agent with a long-term contract offer.
Cousins, 27 at the time, saw the appeal of a signing the deal, having labored as a backup to Robert Griffin III for three seasons. But his agent, Mike McCartney, advised against it — telling Cousins he would be better served by raising his level of play, finishing the season strong (the Redskins were then 5-7) and elevating his value in the process.
Cousins did just that. He led the Redskins to four consecutive victories, throwing 12 touchdowns and one interception in that span, to clinch the NFC East title with a 9-7 finish. Since that pivotal moment — when McCloughan tried to lock up the Redskins' rising quarterback on terms favorable to the team but McCartney demurred — the two sides haven't come close to reaching a long-term agreement.
That was among the nuggets Cousins disclosed in a two-hour forum with Redskins fans Friday to benefit charity, discuss his tenure in Washington and field questions about his uncertain future. Asked at the outset by hosts Grant Paulsen and Danny Rouhier of 106.7 the Fan whether he wanted to be a Redskin going forward, Cousins was met with applause for replying, "The short answer is yes."
But he was quick to add: "It's not that simple or that easy."
The conversation that followed between Cousins, perched on a chair atop a small stage at one end of Vienna's Jammin Java and roughly 170 Redskins fans, delved into the issues that complicate the quarterback's next step.
At every juncture, Cousins, who is due to become a free agent for a third consecutive offseason, took the high road. What about the team's dysfunction? Its roster turnover? Cousins used each question to discuss the privilege of representing the Redskins, his admiration for his teammates and the strides he felt he had made under Coach Jay Gruden. He acknowledged his poor performances (throwing three interceptions in Sunday's loss at the New York Giants) and memorable ones (weathering the hostile crowd and depleted starting lineup to upset the Seahawks in Seattle).
As for where he will play in 2018, Cousins offered no answers and few clues other than to say he expected the process to continue for several months as he gathers information.
Money, he insisted, won't be the deciding factor.
Money "is just not what I built my life on," Cousins said. "Shame on me if I feel that a contract is going to solve all my problems; that's going to lead to a dysfunctional life."
Asked whether he was worried that his top-dollar contract might handicap a team's ability to sign other key players, Cousins pointed to the Pittsburgh Steelers as an NFL team that has seemingly figured out how to pay its quarterback, running back, wide receivers and linemen and field a top-five defense.
"They're still effective," Cousins said. "It can be done."
What Cousins seeks is a chance to play for a winning organization.
"If I feel like winning and excellence are here, I don't have any reason to look elsewhere," Cousins said.
That's the rub for fans who prefaced their questions with a hope that Cousins would return. The Redskins have had just six winning seasons in the 19 years that Daniel Snyder has owned the team.
The Redskins can prevent Cousins from leaving by using a third consecutive NFL franchise tag, but the $34.5 million cost is imprudent. For $28.8 million, they can ensure the right to match a competing offer via the NFL's transition tag. Ideally, they would broker a long-term contract.
But there's little evidence the Redskins are convinced that Cousins is worth a tag at either price, and there's little evidence Cousins is interested in a signing a long-term deal.
Asked why he didn't make a counter-offer to the Redskins' contract proposal last summer, Cousins said he wanted time to evaluate his options — including the options that might be available once he becomes a free agent. He has waited six years for the right to have a choice in his NFL employer. Waiting one more season for that right, via free agency, seemed worth it.
The waiting has proved lucrative. Cousins earned roughly $44 million from the back-to-back franchise tags while becoming a better player. He threw for more than 4,000 yards in each season as a starter while rushing for 13 touchdowns, and his passer rating over the three years was 97.6.
If viewed as replaceable by the Redskins, Cousins is eyed as a rare commodity by NFL teams in need of a proven quarterback. Healthy, established quarterbacks in the prime of their careers rarely reach free agency, which makes establishing Cousins's market value difficult.
The Redskins, meanwhile, appeared to send signals via Gruden's end-of-season news conference that they're not convinced Cousins is a franchise (i.e. top-dollar) quarterback.
Asked Friday about the lukewarm endorsement, Cousins acknowledged he was a bit surprised to hear Gruden suggest that a 7-9 record and quarterback performance were "causally related."
"It's slightly more complicated than that," Cousins said, acknowledging his poor play in the loss at New York. "His job is to evaluate. That's a big part of his role. He has a right to say what he wants to say."
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