The marriage of convenience is over, thankfully. Kirk Cousins has taken his good-not-great talents to the Minnesota Vikings, who are paying him to be great, not good. The Washington Redskins have moved on to Alex Smith, their latest Plan B quarterback. In hindsight, despite all the posturing on both sides to avoid being the villain in this breakup, the true victor is finality, the fact that this strange beneficial-yet-irreconcilable relationship no longer has to exist.
It has been a wild three years of, uh, um, well, stability. Yes, that’s the proper word, as crazy as it sounds right now. Over the past 48 regular season games and one playoff appearance, Cousins provided Washington with the type of permanent and productive starting quarterback it had sought for 25 years, and it reacted to finding this priceless treasure by leasing him year to year, at eye-popping sticker prices, when other teams would have persuaded him to sign long term. Over that same period, Washington provided Cousins with the opportunity to be more than a career backup, and he seized it, throwing for 13,176 yards and 81 touchdowns over the past three seasons, changing his life and making his bank accounts swell.
They were good for each other. They could have won more together, but the blame for why they didn’t is a multilayered problem. Still, Cousins redefined his career in Coach Jay Gruden’s system. And Washington accomplished an undervalued feat: It recovered from the disastrous end to Robert Griffin III’s career — a failure that normally sets a franchise back at least a half decade — and found a way to be competitive with Cousins serving as one epic contingency quarterback. Rarely does such a volatile succession go as smoothly as this one. It should have bonded the franchise and quarterback for life. Instead, they separated, and for as nice as Cousins tries to be, this will go down as a bitter divorce, with Washington talking openly about the quarterback’s on-field flaws and off-field unwillingness to negotiate and Cousins slyly finessing the narrative behind a big smile and all but skipping to negotiate his historic fully guaranteed three-year deal with Minnesota.
And so a perplexing question remains: What the heck did the past three seasons mean? Hear only the gist of the story, and you anticipate a happy ending. But delve into the details, and you see a franchise that kept waiting for Cousins to believe what it believed: that Washington created him and that Cousins should have been grateful and willing to play the contract game on terms favorable to the Redskins. And you see a quarterback, selected in the fourth round of the RGIII draft, who was desperate from the first day to break free of the perception that he was afterthought, who never felt appreciated enough — by the team or the fans — to adjust his thinking and who, as he developed a star quarterback’s ego and felt entitled to Griffin-level coddling and respect, became a monster of Washington’s own creation.
As I have written many times, the great failure of the Washington front office is that it wasn’t more aggressive two years ago — at the beginning of Cousins’s contract negotiations — in putting a deal on the table that quashed any of the quarterback’s bad feelings about how the franchise viewed him. The way the quarterback market has exploded since then, it’s conceivable that Washington could have taken what would have been viewed as a big financial risk then and actually come away with a steal. The franchise can claim now that Cousins never wanted to remain in Washington, but there are a lot of chip-on-their-shoulder under-drafted players who initially feel the same and then change their minds when given a lucrative incentive. In this case, that never happened at the beginning. Washington was too hesitant, and when it wanted to be more aggressive last year, Cousins resisted.
But Cousins isn’t a victim. No way. Look at the $84 million guaranteed he reportedly will receive to play for the Vikings, who finished one game from the Super Bowl last season. Cousins was calculated. He played the game with Washington perfectly because he was unafraid to play under the franchise tag for two straight seasons. He wanted options because he never trusted that Washington could eliminate the dysfunction and build a consistent winner (as of now, there’s no rebuttal for that). And if he’s being honest, he saw, as a backup, how much owner Daniel Snyder and the organization fawned over Griffin, and that became his standard for how a franchise quarterback is treated here. When management showed that it was unsure about him despite franchise record-setting numbers, Cousins grew miffed at times, then a little jealous and ultimately curious about a new destination.
Who’s wrong in this situation? Both sides, a little. Who’s right? Both, a little. They used each other. Washington bought three years to figure out what to do, and as Plan B’s go, Alex Smith is fine. It could be a wonderful succession plan if Smith has truly grown into the high-functioning Pro Bowl player that he was last season and if the franchise can put good weapons around him. Or it could be meh, which is the most likely scenario. But it’s hard to imagine it being a disaster.
Cousins gets a chance to compete for a championship now, and he also will face expectations even greater than what he experienced in Washington. Definitive answers about him are coming. Is he an empty stat collector? Or is he a good quarterback who will be appreciated even more now that he has a complete team — great defense, good receivers, strong running game — to support him? In free agency, he became an NFL unicorn: a highly productive starting quarterback who hit the open market while still in his prime. He is a market exception, and now he has a paycheck to reflect that status.
Depending on how Cousins performs and how much the Vikings win, he could become an eternal case of what could have been or “I told you so” in Washington. But however you feel about him and the franchise that let him leave, we should all share some relief that it’s officially over.
There will be no more polarity about Cousins’s 300-yard passing performances. There will be no more inane arguments about the quarterback’s 24-23-1 record over the past three seasons without considering all the factors involved in determining whether the QB or the entire roster’s construction is to blame for mediocrity. There will be no more game-by-game or play-by-play referendums on whether the quarterback deserves an extension, because Smith is already locked up for five years.
Cousins and Washington were good for each other, for a while, and now they’re better off apart. It’s a confusing dichotomy, especially in a league full of general managers who would rather lose a limb than a good quarterback. But at least the mayhem is over. Hope the stability doesn’t go with it.
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.