RICHMOND — Kirk Cousins is almost stately to a fault. He is so professional, so dignified — so safe — that the Washington Redskins take their quasi-franchise quarterback for granted. No matter how much they botch long-term contract negotiations with him, no matter how much they raise the level of acrimony, Cousins isn’t a threat to turn into the Hulk on them.
It’s a luxury, employing a star whose perspective dwarfs his ego. But it also enables the franchise to be at its noncommittal, shortsighted and petty worst. As long as Cousins is on the roster, he will smooth over any issues publicly, make the franchise look as good as he can and resist being a defiant employee.
But what’s that really solving? The Cousins predicament is unprecedented. No quarterback has played two seasons on a franchise tag, but here he is, ready to make the wrong kind of history. It’s lucrative history, too: $23.9 million this season and about $44 million over the past two years. Nevertheless, Washington is no closer to solidifying Cousins’s future and, by extension, the future of the formidable offense that Coach Jay Gruden has built. So the problem merely has been delayed, and extra time is just making a multiyear contract more costly and less likely to finalize.
But, hey, at least Cousins is kind enough to help the team make the most of this season.
“We’re all in a good place right now,” Cousins said Thursday during his first news conference since the franchise tag deadline passed without the two sides agreeing to a new deal.
It’s amazing that Cousins, the player seeking money that could create generational wealth for his family, can exhibit more grace and objectivity — not to mention better diction — than Bruce Allen, the team president. Mostly, though, it’s sad. If the 28-year-old quarterback is the more impressive adult, if he is the one to temper frustration and ignore urges to cry to the media, then there’s a problem that goes beyond money and job security.
Cousins allows Washington to function without worries that he will act disgruntled, threaten to hold out or make headlines with ill-thought statements. He allows everyone to focus on the 2017 season. But behind the calm facade, there’s an unnecessary tension and pressure that another year of speculation and scrutiny will create, and it’s unhealthy for a team that should be close to completing a major rebuilding effort.
For as polished and presidential as Cousins appears to be while declaring that all will be fine, this season is certain to present new and difficult challenges. The offense remains talented, but Cousins won’t have the comfort of throwing to accomplished receivers Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson anymore. The running game may improve, and the defense has better talent, but this is still a team that will rely heavily on its quarterback to direct an elite-level passing offense. And if Cousins faced constant second-guessing about his worth during a 4,917-yard performance last season, he is guaranteed to encounter more skepticism after Allen revealed that he turned down $53 million guaranteed. It will be too easy for Joe Fan to scoff at his every mistake and utter with his disdain, “This guy turned down record quarterback money?”
Furthermore, if Washington believes it can’t re-sign Cousins, there’s a new wrinkle: What happens if the team starts slowly or falls out of contention early this season? Would Cousins and the team endure questions about whether it’s best for the franchise’s future to let Colt McCoy or Nate Sudfeld play? Gruden was asked Thursday — the first day of training camp — whether he needed to give the backups more reps this camp because Cousins’s future is uncertain. He rejected the thought.
Washington has created a mess, and Cousins is so good at making you ignore the mess. But that doesn’t make the situation any cleaner.
“I think it was a good season last year,” Cousins said when asked about how he handles playing on a one-year contract. “I don’t think it played any factor into how I played or how we played. The fact of the matter is so many of my teammates, critical teammates to the success of this team, are also on one-year deals. So we’re kind of all in that boat together, so I think that helps. Hopefully, we can all have great years and give the Redskins a lot of options come the offseason.”
Washington doesn’t deserve Cousins’s balanced outlook. It deserves a player who constantly gives it headaches, negotiates in public and tries to sway fan emotion. But Cousins is a terrific teammate because he’s suppressing drama and giving his squad a chance to win this season. He did the same a year ago.
Of course, the franchise will reward his composure by falling deeper into its ways and making his contract situation more complicated. In the end, he will keep the team together, but when it’s time to negotiate again, the sides will be further apart.
Enjoy Cousins’s knack for creating serenity while you can. He creates a perfect picture, but it figures to be a fleeting fantasy.
“The lesson I learned [last year] was the same lesson I learned as a senior in high school when I played with zero scholarship offers and the same thing I learned my senior year of college when I played with wondering if I could go to the NFL,” Cousins said. “If you win football games, everything else takes care of itself, and that’s a beautiful thing. So, all we have to do, all I have to do, all anybody with a one-year deal has to do is focus on winning football games. And if you do that, there are going to be plenty of opportunities down the road.”
No doubt, the opportunities will be there for Cousins. He could regress and still command significant guaranteed money. He could get injured and still get paid. Washington could lock him into another one-year deal under the franchise or transition tag, and Cousins would make ridiculous money.
But what are the chances that he gets a long-term deal from Washington that reflects his crazy leverage and robust market value? Cousins is good at managing complication, but he and the franchise aren’t in a good place right now. Since the NFL introduced the franchise tag 24 years ago, every other quarterback situation in the league has avoided reaching this point. Think about that. For now, Cousins is just being a good employee and making the system work for him.
So the high-priced quarterback rental plan should work for another year. But a concerning question still lingers: What happens when Cousins tells us — likely through definitive actions, not words — how he really feels about Washington?
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer