The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

This agent may help Kirk Cousins become the NFL’s highest-paid quarterback

Agent Mike McCartney, pictured at his home in Downers Grove, Ill.: ‘I think 95 percent of the guys I sign are team captains in college. So I’m very proud of that.’ (Joshua Lott/for The Washingon Post)
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Mike McCartney emerges from the elevator doors and slowly walks down the marble floor of the hotel lobby. It’s a little after 10 a.m. on a breezy, late January day in Mobile, Ala. — the first full day of practice for the two Senior Bowl squads. But before McCartney makes his way over to Ladd-Peebles Stadium, he has to tend to one pressing matter: breakfast.

His eyes are worn and a dull shade of pink, evidence of another long night without enough sleep. But the 20 pounds he has shed recently are proof that a healthier lifestyle can make all the difference for an NFL agent who spends much of the year on the road.

Over a small plate of eggs, sausage links and multiple cups of black coffee, McCartney, 53, reflects on a journey of nearly 30 years that took him from football sidelines to a front office job with the Philadelphia Eagles and, later, into the living rooms of college players bonded by a desire to be great.

Now he finds himself at the center of the most-talked-about quarterback situation of the 2018 offseason.

Kirk Cousins could soon become the highest-paid quarterback in the NFL, should the Washington Redskins allow him to hit free agency. Yet most NFL fans have never heard of McCartney.

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He has no use for the spotlight. In fact, he was reticent to talk about himself until his wife, Jenni, convinced him to let his guard down. He is earnest, a devout Christian who quotes Bible verses with the same ease and excitement he uses to break down film or prepare his young clients for the draft.

“I have my faith, my family and football. I don’t have any hobbies. I don’t golf,” said McCartney, an NFLPA-certified agent and the director of football operations for Chicago-based Priority Sports & Entertainment.

In an oversaturated industry of agents vying to sign top draft prospects, McCartney remains a rare find. The son of a college coach, this NAIA quarterback-turned-talent evaluator insists he isn’t motivated by the thrill of the chase. His clients aren’t commodities but rather players in whom he sees his reflection.

McCartney stresses the importance of selectivity. He wants high-character athletes, young men who are as adept at handling themselves on the football field as they are interacting with Jenni and their four children in their Downers Grove, Ill., home.

“We’ve done a really good job at our firm of targeting the right people. My phone’s never ringing after 9 o’clock at night,” McCartney said. “I think 95 percent of the guys I sign are team captains in college. So I’m very proud of that.”

That approach, however, has come at a price.

He represents 28 players on active rosters and a handful of out-of-work free agents — a modest total for someone involved with football on the collegiate and professional level for nearly three decades.

The negotiator

Redskins fans have heard McCartney’s name ad nauseam as contract negotiations between Cousins and the team dominated sports headlines.

“I have a sister-in-law that works [in Washington], and thankfully she doesn’t read the paper,” McCartney said, smiling. “My Twitter has been interesting. . . . I think I’ve seen every four-letter word in the book.”

But the final chapter of this saga, seemingly fueled by a lack of trust and deep-seated ambivalence, appears on the horizon. It’s all but assumed that Cousins’s next deal will eclipse the record five-year, $137.5 million contract given to San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo earlier this month. And in this moment, McCartney finds himself representing the type of client he rarely lands among the college ranks: the most sought-after, big-name acquisition available.

“Nothing has ever been handed to Kirk Cousins,” McCartney said, sipping his coffee. “It’s who he’s become. It’s part of his story now.”

With Washington and Cousins unable to come to an agreement on the value of a long-term deal, the Redskins retained him under the franchise tag, paying him $19.9 million in 2016 and $23.9 million in 2017. But Washington’s agreement to trade for Kansas City quarterback Alex Smith last month signaled the end of Cousins’s time with the Redskins.

In a sport in which violent collisions can end a player’s season, or even his career, in seconds, Cousins played with little financial security past 2017 — a leap of faith he and McCartney agreed to take. Together, they have navigated difficult conversations, drawn-out negotiations and times of uncertainty, relying on their faith.

“We’ll say, ‘Let’s pray.’ And we’ll pray about it,” said McCartney, whose father, Bill, the longtime University of Colorado coach, founded the Promise Keepers, a Christian men’s movement popular in the 1990s. “If you’re a man of faith and you believe that God has a great plan for you, why wouldn’t you pray about it? In some ways, if I never prayed with one of my players, am I a fraud then?”

He then smiled and said, “I’ll probably lose a lot of players saying that, but that’s just who I am.”

It was McCartney’s integrity that led New York Jets quarterback Josh McCown to sign on as his first client more than 15 years ago.

In the aggressive arena of agent acquisitions, “mudslinging” and “name-calling” are competitive sport, said McCown, who is also a Christian. But McCartney’s refusal to disparage the competition resonated most with him.

“I said, ‘That’s my answer right there,’ ” McCown, 38, said during Super Bowl week in Minneapolis. “From a character and integrity standpoint, that was what sold me on Mike.”

McCown and Cousins embody the type of players McCartney wants to represent: talented athletes who are also good people.

“I want to have men of integrity in my life,” said McCartney, who also represents Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Mohamed Sanu, Baltimore Ravens center Ryan Jensen, Denver Broncos quarterback Trevor Siemian and McCown’s younger brother Luke. “I don’t care where they get drafted. He may not have every trait that teams want. But if he has talent, he cares and he wants to be great, over time, he’s going to have his chance.”

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With the NFL turning its attention to the scouting combine in Indianapolis this week, McCartney is in a unique position: He has to tend to the needs of Richmond’s Kyle Lauletta, a young quarterback embarking on an NFL dream; McCown, a universally respected veteran looking to secure what could be his last contract; and Cousins, soon to be the richest quarterback in the league.

Addressing their individual situations and contract demands is a delicate juggling act, one that requires savvy, sensitivity and some blunt conversations. Especially now: While the Jets have expressed interest in retaining McCown, the organization’s priority is luring Cousins to New York.

“It’s difficult,” McCown admitted. “I fall back on our first meeting, the character and integrity that Mike has. I know he’s going to try his best to do what’s best for Kirk and myself.”

There’s an art to reading clients, to understanding their needs, their fears. It’s akin to gauging the ebb and flow of negotiations with team executives: True skill lies in accurately assessing risk and potential reward.

McCartney’s psychology degree from Colorado has aided him well during his 17 years as an agent, but perhaps more invaluable are the nine years he spent working in an NFL front office.

“I’ve been around the game all my life,” he said. “I played quarterback in college. I coached quarterbacks in college. I drafted quarterbacks in the NFL and I’ve represented quarterbacks. I don’t think there’s anybody else who can say that.”

Changing priorities

While his father was forging his coaching career at Michigan and later at Colorado (which he turned into a national power), McCartney was carving out his own path alongside his dad. He worked as a graduate assistant, a quarterbacks coach and assistant recruiting coordinator before joining the NFL ranks.

The Chicago Bears hired McCartney in the summer of 1992 and, after spending six seasons as a college and later a pro scout, he became the Eagles’ director of pro personnel. But, eventually, the lost time with his family ate away at him.

As much as he loved the grind, the pressure to help build a Super Bowl champion, and as strong as his desire was to become a general manager, it wasn’t enough to offset the 4:30 a.m. daily wake-ups, the hours spent holed up in a dark room at the facility watching film and the inevitable return home around 8:30 p.m.

“I’d spend five, 10 minutes with my kids, look at my wife and fall asleep,” McCartney said.

Even when he was with his family, his mind was focused on winning on the field. It’s how he grew up. “My mom had a saying every year, starting Aug. 1: ‘Football is here; goodbye, dear,’ ” McCartney recalled.

But he wanted more. He wanted balance.

The epiphany came while driving back to his southern New Jersey home after the New York Giants defeated his Eagles, 20-10, in an NFC divisional playoff game en route to the Giants reaching Super Bowl XXXV in 2001. At the time, his sons Nickolas, Justin and Brandon were 4, 2 and 1. (His daughter, Alexa, hadn’t yet been born.)

“It hit me like a ton of bricks on that drive home that I was going to wake up in 20 years and ask who raised my sons,” McCartney said.

But these days, he is winning in a different way.

Seeing all the angles

Everyone watches football through their own lens, McCartney likes to say.

A coach will watch through the lens of the scheme, the play-call. A college scout will watch through the lens of projection: Can this player adapt to the NFL? A pro scout will watch through the lens of, “How will this guy play on our team?” A fan, he jokes, only watches the ball.

It’s his ability to see all angles that makes McCartney unique. And if all goes according to plan, his expertise as a talent evaluator and negotiator (both on the team and player side) will help ensure Cousins makes the best decision for himself and his family.

The free agency tampering window — a 48-hour free-for-all when NFL teams and agents can legally negotiate for the first time — begins March 12, McCartney’s 24th wedding anniversary. Until then, teams are not permitted to talk to him about Cousins, McCown or any of his other pending free agents.

But while Cousins’s future is the most talked-about topic this offseason, much of McCartney’s time this week will be focused on his other clients, like Siemian (who is rumored to be on the trading block because of the Broncos’ interest in Cousins), his players who are out of work and his scouting combine invitees (like Lauletta, Florida State tight end Ryan Izzo, Auburn kicker Daniel Carlson and two Northwestern prospects he shares with another Priority Sports agent, safety Godwin Igwebuike and running back Justin Jackson).

The five days he will spend in Indianapolis will be a test of endurance, a marathon of meetings and a flurry of phone calls and text messages. “I will be utterly exhausted when I get home,” McCartney said in anticipation of his 26th trip to the combine.

Despite the fatigue, he wouldn’t change a thing. The role McCartney never envisioned for himself has become his most fulfilling profession to date.

“I made a decision to leave a great job, and everyone told me I was crazy,” he said. “Seventeen years later, here I am.”