The best thing about the Washington Redskins the past three seasons has been Kirk Cousins. Not just his emergence as one of the top dozen quarterbacks in the NFL, but his dignity while playing for a franchise that has stripped the dignity of almost every visible employee of the Dan Snyder era.
On Saturday night, leaving a movie, a friend who’s a longtime fan of the team remarked how much he has enjoyed Cousins play, his leadership and his personality.
“Then enjoy his last five games in Washington,” I said.
“You think he’s going to leave?” my friend asked.
“He’s long gone,” I replied.
That’s read-the-tea-leaves movie-chitchat talk, the kind of speculation that followers of this team have constantly. But sometimes what you really believe, and in your sportswriter bones just know is true, bubbles up and unexpectedly comes out of your mouth. I’d be shocked (but pleased) if Cousins is back in 2018 and flabbergasted if he signs a long-term deal that prevents him leaving after 2018.
In the past week, Cousins has made three public comments that tip off his true state of mind. Last year his famous “How do you like me now?” scream (as he rubbed the general manager’s head) foreshadowed the true state of non-negotiations between the proud Cousins and his he’s-not-all-that-good bosses. We’re there again. Cousins’s recent comments have “Goodbye” under every word.
Except for his post-victory yells (“You like that!?”), Cousins has been a brilliant noncommittal NFL diplomat at his own personal PR. It’s like subliminal advertising. Cousins says all the right things about wanting to play and win in D.C. for eternity, and you see a beautiful painting of a sunset. But if you shine infrared light on it, you see there is a message written under the paint in blood: “I’ve Been Kidnapped in the Dan Snyder Clown Car. Get Me Out of Here!”
Last Friday, Cousins ripped the condition of FedEx Field. He added caveats. But here’s the crux of it.
“It probably doesn’t look like a professional NFL field should,” Cousins said. “I watched last year’s game at the end of the season, and had forgotten how many times running backs, receivers . . . slipped . . . If you think the field is rough now on Thanksgiving, we’ve got two more home games in mid-to-late December, and that’s probably going to be a bigger challenge.”
“So, it is what it is,” he added. “I don’t know why it is that way or what causes it. I’ve kind of learned to just accept it and understand it as a part of the deal . . . even going back to the playoff game my rookie year [in 2012] . . . There’s too many times [when] it can be the difference in a win or a loss.”
Would playing half your games on that field make you want to sign a long-term contract?
In the same interview on 106.7 FM, Cousins responded to a national NFL story that said, according to sources, the Redskins had decided not to use the $28.8 million transition tag on him in 2018. Instead, the team would “evaluate his play” over this season’s final six games to see if Cousins “was worth” a third (and final) franchise tag for $34.5 million and, if so, would use that as a starting point in hopes of working out a long-term deal.
Cousins could’ve shrugged off the story as speculation because it had no comment from the team. Instead, he answered as if the premise was correct: “If you still need five more games, or five-plus, to make a decision, so be it,” he said. “But I’d like to think that I’ve played a lot of football here.”
You mean like 43 straight starts over three seasons with a 99.7 quarterback rating, 73 touchdown passes to 29 interceptions, plus a dozen rushing touchdowns? In those three years, here are the quarterbacks who are almost exactly like him, statistically, but usually not quite as good: Matthew Stafford, Russell Wilson, Drew Brees, Matt Ryan, Alex Smith and Andy Dalton.
Who’s clearly much better in that time? Tom Brady.
Then, in a Post story Monday, Cousins talked about his desire to end his career someday, many years from now, “on my terms.” He gave a fine analysis of the difficulty, but profound satisfaction, in “going out on top,” even if “only one percent of one percent” of pro athletes ever actually leave their sport that way. Then he practically took out an ad for a long-term deal (somewhere) by explaining why so many current quarterbacks were still playing so well deep into their 30s.
Over and over, he said “on my terms.” Since the day he was drafted by the Redskins, nothing has ever been on Cousins’s “terms.” He always has been the one who was kept on the bench or doubted by the team or low-balled or kept in D.C. with back-to-back “tags,” instead of a long-term deal — a first in NFL history for a quarterback.
Now Cousins has them over a barrel. He loves it. As the first NFL player to trust his own ability enough to play on back-to-back tags in a violent sport, he’s just weeks away from having maximum leverage on judgment day. Of course, the team hates this. It’s utterly against the NFL’s players-are-cattle ethos.
Cousins undoubtedly loves his teammates and respects his offensive-guru head coach. But how much? Is there any price — even full market value, which probably would make him the highest-paid player in NFL history (until the next big quarterback deal comes along) — at which Cousins would stay in Snyder World?
It’s probably too late to repair this relationship. But the Redskins darn well better try. It’s all on them, no matter how much they try to make it seem like it’s all on Cousins.
Why? This all goes back to the Snyder-Mike Shanahan feud. It has never disappeared. That venom returns, perhaps subconsciously, every time a Cousins contract comes up. This season, Shanahan twisted the knife again on a national NFL show. Snyder wanted to bet the farm on Robert Griffin III in the 2012 draft, while Shanahan had his doubts and, being a genius (and don’t you forget it), grabbed Cousins in the fourth round as an insurance policy.
Snyder loathes being wrong, and even more, he despises being called out. History says he usually prefers to stay wrong. Bruce Allen enables him with “Yeses.”
The NFL is a blood-oath world of deep allegiances. In the league, Cousins will always be seen as a Shanny guy who owes him big-time for the prescient confidence he showed. Cousins also owes Shanahan’s son Kyle, then-offensive coordinator in Washington, for teaching him the NFL game and pouring all that time into the diligent Cousins as if he were a future star, not a backup.
The Redskins see Cousins and think of Shanahan smirking with vindication on both Kirk and RGIII. That’s bigger than any foam finger. Cousins sees the team’s top two bosses and remembers how they treated people in the RGIII days, all the backstabbing while showing no faith in him.
Cousins may have been gone, long gone, years ago. Now, after he has proved himself, proved himself again and finally proved himself a third time this season with a decimated offense around him, it’s finally playing out.
Say it ain’t so. But it sure looks like it is.
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.