It’s difficult to convey in everyday terms the whopping raise that Kirk Cousins got in the offseason, awarded a one-year contract worth $19.95 million.
That’s 30 times the $660,000 the Washington Redskins quarterback earned as a fourth-year NFL player in 2015. On a per-game basis, it means Cousins will earn nearly as much in the first half of Monday’s season opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers as he did all last season.
By every metric, Cousins had a brilliant 2015 campaign, leading the Redskins to the NFC East championship, leading all NFL quarterbacks in completion percentage and setting a single-season franchise record for passing yards (4,166). But he will take FedEx Field for the nationally televised “Monday Night Football” clash with a backdrop of skepticism.
Several top football prognosticators ranked Cousins in the bottom half of the NFL’s 32 quarterbacks heading into the 2016 season, dismissing his success and that of the Redskins to the good fortune of competing in a lousy division. Even the Redskins’ own front office signaled it wasn’t entirely convinced of Cousins’s mettle, in effect, by using the NFL franchise tag to keep him on the Redskins’ roster one more year rather signing him to a long-term contract.
Cousins, who built his improbable Michigan State and NFL careers on exceeding expectations as a lightly recruited quarterback of unremarkable size, responded the only way he knows how: doubling down on his effort and the belief that hard work wins out.
“I certainly have no problem with their thinking,” Cousins said this week, asked about the Redskins’ decision to use the one-year franchise tag. “The ball is in my court to see what I can do and what we can do as a team on the field. Then we’ll let the chips fall.”
As for his pay raise, Cousins calls the contract “a blessing” and a “great opportunity.”
But as he sets out to prove that 2015 was no fluke, either for himself or the Redskins, Cousins faces twin dangers that relate to his high-dollar deal: a danger of doing too much or playing “beyond himself” to justify his multimillion-dollar salary and a danger of wilting under the pressure.
Former NFL quarterback Trent Dilfer, who has known Cousins for years, is convinced the contract won’t rattle him,
“It might affect somebody that’s motivated by fame and financial success,” said Dilfer, now an ESPN analyst. “But if you know Kirk, he’s one of those unique competitors who is a nice, humble man that has a fierce competitive spirit that’s not driven by fame or money.”
Two decades ago, NFL quarterback Trent Green followed a progression similar to Cousins. As the Redskins’ No. 3 quarterback for five seasons, Green, now a CBS Sports NFL analyst, had a front-row seat for cautionary tales of two different sorts and tried to learn from each.
On one hand, Green watched first-round pick Heath Shuler struggle under the weight of expectations as a rookie, wanting so badly to succeed and trying too hard to make it happen. On the other hand, he watched Gus Frerotte come in as a seventh-round pick, playing loose and relaxed with little to no expectations. But after Frerotte was rewarded with a big contract, the pressure affected him.
Even though Green, an eighth-round pick in the 1993 NFL draft, wishes he hadn’t spent so many years on the bench, he’s convinced that it gave him invaluable time to study not only the position but also the pressure of expectations.
Still, it didn’t prevent Green from getting yips of his own — first when he signed a multimillion-dollar deal with St. Louis after a finally getting to show his skills after taking over for Frerotte three games into the 1998 season and later when Kansas City traded a first-round pick for his services.
“I did feel pressure in St. Louis because I was ‘the hometown guy coming to save the franchise,’ and you wanted to justify all those things people were saying,” Green recalled.
And even though he was an established NFL starter by the time of the Kansas City trade, he felt a new sort of pressure given the high stakes of the deal.
In retrospect, Green believes he was able to handle the pressure of both situations precisely because he had been forced to work his way up the NFL pecking order.
“I had time to mature,” Green recalled. “I had a plan in place for when it happened. And when I watch Kirk, I see the same thing. When I’ve had a chance to talk with him, he comes across as a guy who has a plan and an approach for how he’s going to handle things, whether he’s making a dollar or 20 million dollars.”
So far, the evidence backs Green up.
Cousins still drives his grandmother’s conversion van to Redskins Park most days. He and his wife, Julie, still rent (former Redskins left tackle Chris Samuels is the landlord of their Loudoun County townhouse, in fact) rather than own a palatial home. And in an era in which superstar athletes aggressively build their “personal brands,’ Cousins’s 15 seconds of social-media fame were entirely accidental — ignited when a TV camera caught him blurting out “You Like That!” after engineering the greatest comeback in Redskins history.
“Self-promotion isn’t something that I need to be about,” Cousins said when asked about his preference for operating under the radar. “If you play well and win, there is plenty you’ll be known for.”
Heading into his second year as the Redskins’ starting quarterback, Cousins is at once proud of what the team accomplished last season and convinced he can be better. To that end, he has structured his work days in 15-minute increments, so he maximizes every waking hour.
He takes copious notes on aspects of his game that need improvement. If a book on leadership can help him, he will read it. If a retired quarterback might have insight on how to juggle time demands, he will seek him out. If a coach or trainer can help polish a skill, he asks for help.
That seriousness of purpose — in conjunction with his performance on the field — has won him the respect of a Redskins locker room that spent much of the last three years in turmoil.
Running back Chris Thompson said Cousins’s poise and grit leading the comeback from a 24-0 deficit to Tampa Bay last season was a critical juncture.
“When we made that comeback, everything changed with Kirk and all the guys around him,” Thompson said. “A lot of guys gained a lot of respect for him once he was able to lead us back from that.”
Said left tackle Trent Williams, whom teammates voted an offensive co-captain, along with Cousins: “He has got where he has gotten for a reason. Nothing was handed to him. He wasn’t the number one overall pick coming in here; he worked his way up.”
And in subtle but significant ways, Cousins is asserting himself as a leader.
He keeps a running list of big-picture ideas that he jots in notes-mode on his cell phone—suggestions of ways to make film study more effective, meetings more efficient, practice more productive — and shares them with offensive coordinator Sean McVay for his consideration.
On occasion, he will lead the offensive team meetings, addressing the room instead of McVay if it’s a topic he feels passionate about, such as tweaking the cadence.
“You’re seeing a guy mature,” says McVay, not much older than Cousins himself. “It’s clearly his team. Guys follow his lead when he speaks up. Guys listen.”
Said Cousins: “I’m never going to play perfect, but I trust that we’re going to chase perfection. And if we end up at excellence by the end of the year, we’ll be in a good place.”