WHEN KIRK COUSINS got word this week that Washington had agreed to acquire quarterback Alex Smith from the Kansas City Chiefs, I like to imagine him cycling through a litany of emotions in a matter of minutes: shock, disappointment, confusion, perhaps even a hint of betrayal. Cousins loathes uncertainty. He craves an established routine and is obsessive about chasing it. That his future was suddenly in flux had to feel disarming.
I suspect, though, that what ultimately emerged was some sense of relief.
It has been clear for several seasons that Washington and Cousins had a marriage that needed to dissolve. Both sides said the right things in public, but beneath the surface, a petty tug-of-war fueled by doubts and slights had been raging for years.
In a league in which competent quarterback play is essential to long-term success, the Redskins face a critical decision: Should they risk overpaying Cousins because they believe the alternative might be significantly worse?
Rob Gronkowski is, quite possibly, the rarest commodity in football: the balletic big man, sturdy and swift, large yet liquid in his movements. But over time, it’s become clear that his greatest strength might also be his biggest liability.
As hard as the organization might have tried, Washington could never quite let go of its first impression of Cousins after he landed in their lap as a fourth-round pick in 2012. Owner Dan Snyder and general manager Bruce Allen eventually decided, with some trepidation, that Cousins was worth a long-term investment, offering him a contract that would’ve made him one of the NFL’s highest-paid players. But Cousins, an avid reader who loves researching how successful people run their businesses, could never quite get over one simple reality: The team could have had him for cheap, back in 2015, and it wasn’t interested.
That might seem counterintuitive on the surface. Really? He wishes Washington had signed him for less money when it had the chance, instead of paying him more once he’d proven to the team he was a good, if not yet great, NFL quarterback?
In short, yes. That’s an accurate summary of how Cousins’ brain works. Mike Shanahan, Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay all thought, at various points, that Cousins might be the next Drew Brees, and they worked hard to persuade him of as much. “I remember Kyle saying, ‘Just keep playing. I think you’ve got a chance to be a Drew Brees-type player someday,’ ” Cousins told me in November. “I kept saying, ‘Wow. I appreciate the belief and confidence. I want to go prove you right.’ Kyle said, ‘You don’t have to prove me right. I know I’m right.’ “
Washington’s front office could never quite see it, though, and that created a tension between the two sides that could never truly be resolved. For Cousins, more important than getting paid is feeling as if he plays for an organization that knows what it’s doing. If Washington couldn’t grasp his potential once it was clear he, and not Robert Griffin III, was going to be the starter, how could he ever trust them to find the right pieces to put around him? If you can’t recognize the value of an asset until it has matured, all you end up doing is overpaying for everything. Anyone can buy Apple stock when it’s $ 165 a share. It’s the financial wizard who recognizes its value at $ 8 a share who wins in the end.
Washington has spent the past 20 years chasing stocks that have already matured, whether it was Jeff George, Donovan McNabb, Albert Haynesworth or Deion Sanders. While the team might ultimately be right about hesitating to make Cousins the highest-paid player in NFL history, the Redskins’ ongoing pursuit of players who have already peaked might be the best summary of their woes that can fit into a single sentence. In an alternate universe, if Washington had drafted Tom Brady and he’d filled in admirably as a game manager for half a season, it’s easy to imagine them handing the job right back to Drew Bledsoe.
It was clear Snyder and Allen sensed Cousins’ reluctance to stick around, and while they could have called his bluff and continued to use the franchise tag or transition tag on him, they must have realized that was about to become financially untenable. Transitioning to Smith will offer stability at a reasonable price, and perhaps that’s enough as Washington maps out yet another rebuilding project.
FOR COUSINS — WHETHER he’s tagged again and traded or Washington simply allows him to become an unrestricted free agent — he’s no longer stuck in a relationship where he has to pretend everyone is happy. And the freedom to start fresh without the specter of Griffin always lingering in the ether will be invigorating.
But the bar of expectations is going to be raised to a level he probably doesn’t yet realize. Where Cousins ends up will be a fascinating offseason subplot in a league that is starved for good quarterback play. There will certainly be a bidding war if he hits the open market that — whether or not you feel he deserves the distinction — is going to make Cousins the highest-paid player in NFL history (at least until Aaron Rodgers signs his next extension).
In certain cities, however, some of Cousins’ limitations will be under the microscope like never before. For all the favorable comparisons to Brees that the Shanahans have made, Brees is an outlier in his generation, a man with a Hall of Fame brain, spooky-good pocket presence and a street-brawling bravado that has helped him overcome limitations in arm strength. Cousins knows his own limitations, which Jay Gruden always seemed to view as both a strength and a weakness.
How will his risk-averse style play in the New York tabloids if he’s making $ 31 million a year to quarterback the Jets? What will John Elway think if he ends up watching a player who, while tying up a third of the Broncos’ salary cap, throws a lot of check-downs and screen passes? Cousins might be the missing piece for a team itching to clear the final hurdle (Jacksonville?). He also might be a lightning rod for more criticism if he takes big money from the Browns or the Bills and performs in a way similar to how he played in Washington: good but never quite transcendent, with an unfortunate habit of making deflating mistakes in big moments.
For the past several years, Cousins has been one of the most interesting athletes in the NFL because he’s the rare quarterback who never seems to believe success is part of his destiny. There is something relatable about that. When he came to Michigan State out of high school, he kept looking around, wondering if he really belonged. “I just saw myself as a kid who wasn’t good enough,” Cousins told me. “If anything, I deserved to be treated like a backup. Only time has shown me maybe I should have been given a little more credit. Going to Michigan State, I saw myself as a guy who … was lucky to get a scholarship and was probably just going to be a clipboard-holder his whole career.”
That mentality has driven Cousins to obsess over his craft, and it helped him thrive in areas where so many superior athletes have failed. But his lack of swagger has also shaped the way people have continued to view him.
The moment now offers him a clean slate. It will be lucrative, certainly, but more than anything, it will be liberating.