"I can only say from my perspective – only me – if I was in his shoes, which I couldn’t be in his shoes, it would be hard for me not to still be here." — Doug Williams, senior vice president of player personnel
OPINION: enjoying the end of the 'You like that' era
BY TOM FRIEND | MARCH 12, 2018
Odds are Kirk Cousins will take his talents to North Beach – ie. Minnesota – and let’s hope the revolving door doesn’t hit him on the way out. After a six-season soap opera, one playoff game and disingenuous contract talks, the verdict is officially in on the “You Like That’’ era: Sorry, didn’t much like it.
Where he ranks on the Redskins’ all-time quarterback totem-pole is up for debate and has nothing to do with three 4,000-yard seasons or Mike Shanahan’s Kirk-is-Dan Marino proclamations. Every two or three years, the Redskins swap out quarterbacks; the difference this time is that Cousins leaves with single-season records and a segment of the fan base in mourning. The rest of us, if they’re like me, see him for who he is: gives you a chance to win, and, in crunch time, tends to give you a chance to lose.
For $100 trillion, or whatever he’s asking for, that’s lunacy – even if the quarterback market bears it. His departure will surely be met with remorse this coming fall, particularly if the Cousins-to-Thielen combination begins to rival Montana-to-Clark. But, for most of his time in D.C., Kirk Cousins was a tense, insecure, robotic QB who had an unbending ally in Jay Gruden and rode it all the way to a humongous payday. The Vikings, naturally, should be impressed by the way he lit their defense up for 327 yards and 30 points this past November – a defense Nick Foles lit up, too — but they should also go back and watch the fourth quarter of the season opener vs. the Eagles. Classic Kirk: red-zone nerves and an unforgivable, game-changing interception straight to Philadelphia’s Jalen Mills.
Don’t get me wrong: much of what he did this past season won me over for the first time. With the help of Jay and even Gruden’s brother Jon – which we’ll get to later – Cousins evolved into a more impromptu playmaker, especially when the offensive line was crumbling around him, when his own defense was a sieve.
You had to admire the brutal hit he took on the 40-yard, third-down touchdown pass to Ryan Grant in New Orleans; the game-winner to Josh Doctson when he had a head cold in Seattle; the 25-of-30 for 365 and three-touchdown clinic he put on against the Raiders. But, when it came to evaluating his own worth, he wasn’t factoring in that Eagles interception in the season opener or the pitiable three-pick game against New York in the season-ender.
Of course, the team was going to low-ball him in contract negotiations these past three years. After six seasons, the Redskins knew him all too well. I know for a fact the front office couldn’t get past the season-ending Giants pick of 2016. They remembered the panicked (so-called) intentional grounding at the tail end of last season’s Saints game, plus the sacks he took for the good of his passer rating.
Asked the other day how he evaluated Cousins, Doug Williams, the Redskins’ senior vice president of player personnel who happens to know a little bit about quarterbacking (see Super Bowl XXII trophy at Redskins Park), told The Sports Capitol: “We watch opportunities that we didn’t take advantage of, not the yardage. How many opportunities did you pass up? How many opportunities did you give your players to make plays. Little stuff like that.’’
Translation: it was frustrating how stat-minded Kirk was, how he became a Check-Down Charley, infatuated with his completion percentage. How he had to be coerced into throwing the 50-50 ball, which he finally did more of this year.
Kirk and his agent Mike McCartney – the Redskins’ Scott Boras – should have been fair enough to factor all of that that in when it came time to make a deal. But they obviously never wanted to make a deal. Instead, there was the permanent chip on Kirk’s shoulder, the comment, “I just want to be where I’m wanted.’’ The truth is, 31 other teams passed him up for three-plus rounds during the 2012 draft, including the Vikings. That’s correct – the Vikings passed up Kirk Cousins three times in 2012. He’s not mad at them, as well?
So for that reason, and myriad others, the Redskins decided to move on. It seems cold-blooded what they did – trading for Alex Smith with Cousins still on the premises – but they took that proactive step because they wanted this to be a two-way street, wanted Kirk to realize he was a late bloomer, to give a little in negotiations, to find some honor in being a Washington Redskins quarterback, to make some concessions the way Tom Brady has in New England.
“I know it’s about money,’’ Williams told me. “That’s why you’ve got to take your hat off to the Bradys of the world. Tom Brady. It’s all about winning, it’s not all about dollars and cents. I know he married a woman who makes millions of dollars a year. But that has nothing to do with you and your team.’’
Asked if he’s disappointed Cousins is leaving, Williams said: “Yeah, you’re talking about a guy with talent, a guy that could get it done. Like I say, a couple more pieces, no telling what could have happened. To me, I would’ve been working with us and working with Jay, to try to find out the pieces of the puzzle that we need as a whole to make this thing work the way it should work.
“For me to say he handled right or wrong is not for me to say,’’ Williams added. “I can only say from my perspective – only me – if I was in his shoes, which I couldn’t be in his shoes, it would be hard for me not to still be here. Being in the nation’s capital, and having something to work with. When you talk about the offensive line, it’s a certain thing. And then there’s the comfortability part of it. No. 8 was here for six years. And had an opportunity to be here for the next five, I’m sure, if that’s what he chose.
“But that’s what free agency is all about. You give a man an opportunity to do what he wants to do. The No. 8 era is over. We got to put that on the side and start the No. 11 or whatever era. It’s over.’’
All of this will sink in as soon as the Vikings — or Cardinals or Broncos or Jets — trot Cousins up for a press conference, and he has a team-colored handkerchief in his sport-coat patch pocket. It’ll sink in when he’s talking about Super Bowl aspirations and weapons like Thielen and Diggs and Rudolph and running backs like Latavius Murray and Dalvin Cook and a defense he’ll probably compare to the ’85 Bears. Or, if it’s the Cardinals, and he’s begging Larry Fitzgerald out of retirement. Or if it’s the Broncos, and he’s talking about picking John Elway’s brain. Or if it’s the Jets, and he’s talking about being familiar with the MetLife Stadium wind pattern. You’ll miss him then. But I won’t, because he didn’t fool me like he fooled a lot of Redskins fans. You know who I’m talking about: the fans who felt they would never go to FedEx Field again if the team let Cousins walk.I am not sentimental. I’ve been through 22 Redskins quarterbacks the last 24 years. I’m numb to it. But I personally thought there was a lot of phoniness in Kirk, a lot of me-first moments and calculated moves for his own personal gain.
I did a profile of Peyton Manning back in my days at ESPN The Magazine, and Cousins reminds me of Manning in one profound way: he manipulated. I knew Manning for all of five minutes when he asked my name and then called me “Tom’’ the rest of the afternoon. I watched him do a group interview later in the day and heard him call every other writer by their first name, as well. Perhaps his intentions were pure — maybe I’m too cynical — but it struck me as a way to curry favor, to make you think I’m perfect-quarterback-man with perfect manners. I did some snooping around the locker room, and some of Peyton’s Colts teammates agreed with me, off the record, that Peyton’s a good actor (you seen his commercials?).
Kirk played the part of too-good-to-be-true quarterback the same way, keeping a list of writers’ names in his locker, presumably to keep relations cordial. I can tell you from covering the Redskins in the late 1980s for the Washington Post that Williams, Jay Schroeder and Mark Rypien got to know me before they actually called me Tom – or some other less-flattering terms.
Kirk was about Kirk more than he was about the Redskins – it was difficult not to feel that. My enduring memory of Cousins is not from any of his 99 touchdown passes or 16,206 yards. It’s the game his rookie year against, of all teams, the Vikings. Kirk didn’t play that day. It was Robert Griffin III’s team back then. The Redskins led 31-26 with 2:56 left in the game, facing a third-and-6 at their own 24. If the Vikings managed to get a stop, they’d get the ball back with chance to put a dagger in the Redskins’ season.
You know the magic that happened next. Griffin faded back, saw an opening and sprinted – Olympic speed – toward the end zone for a 76-yard touchdown. But go to YouTube and watch it again. As Griffin is heading to the end zone….with offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan raising his arms heavenward…with FedEx Field rivaling the Linc in terms of noise…with an entire Redskins Nation doing figurative backflips….Cousins is standing alone at about the 30-yard line with his hands behind his back. He doesn’t flinch, doesn’t cheer, doesn’t wave him in. He’s emotionless. That, to me, will always be the real Kirk. Yes, he was young and relatively new in town, but it struck me as odd, selfish – that 75,000 Redskins faithful were on Cloud 9…except one.
When it was reported, after his horrendous 2014 season, that Kirk would be working out with Jon Gruden –the head coach’s bro’ – that again struck me as odd and calculated. RG3 was coming off his own disastrous year, and maybe he should’ve thought to call Jon Gruden himself, but those workouts had to help Cousins usher his way back into Jay Gruden’s good graces. You don’t think Jay was talking to Jon throughout? Going into that offseason, Cousins was third on the depth chart behind Griffin and Colt McCoy — he was in the abyss — and, voila, he was starter in a matter of months.
A series of other peculiar events helped flip the script. First, Pierre Garcon dropped a go-pattern that would’ve had RG3’s 2015 preseason off to a roaring start. Then, Jay decided to start a virtual 10th stringer (Willie Smith) at left tackle against Detroit, resulting in a grotesque Griffin concussion. Next, a lucky ricochet touchdown in Baltimore helped Cousins take command. Next thing you knew, Gruden was naming his third-string quarterback the starter, and Cousins has taken 3,092 snaps since.
He owes all of that to Jay Gruden and Scot McCloughan (who presumably talked Dan Snyder into bailing on Griffin), and how did Cousins repay them? He made a scene on the field after his stellar Green Bay game in 2016, mussing up McCloughan’s hair and spewing, “How you like me now?’’ It was awkward, and I don’t care what McCloughan says, it had to tick the GM off. I know it irritated me.
As for Gruden, whom Cousins owes his whole career to, he simply bailed on the coach, refusing to negotiate in good faith and leaving Gruden, year-to-year, wondering who his quarterback was going to be. Yes, the Redskins need to take some blame. Snyder and Bruce Allen didn’t see into the future. They didn’t have to low-ball Cousins. They could have locked him up earlier with an overwhelming offer. They waffled on the guy; if they were going to pay Cousins $100 million, I’m told they wanted him to be someone who could “will’’ them to victories, the way Aaron Rodgers does in Green Bay. They didn’t buy-in for much of the past three years. Nevertheless, they finally came around on Kirk. According to Kirk, he and Snyder had constructive, positive conversations. They owned up to their mistake. Cousins, on the other hand, appeared to hold a grudge. Short of the franchise tag, there was apparently no contract offer he was willing to accept.
One of the last straws, I’m told, is when Cousins held that faux meet-and-greet with Redskins fans this past January and was asked if he wanted to be on the Redskins.
“Short answer is yes,’’ Cousins said with a straight face. “I just feel it’s been a very positive six years. It’s a privilege to play here. I’d be foolish to say I don’t want to be here.’’
At Redskins Park, the feeling was the meet-and-greet made them look like the bad guys, like Kirk was turning the fans against them, that the ball was completely in their court. So they treated it as such: they traded for Smith.
It’s actually quite simple in their eyes. They think, under Gruden’s tutelage, a lot of people can throw for 4,000 yards.
“We’ve got to put some people in place,’’ Williams told me. “But, offensively, Jay does a good job. Whoever comes in here can throw for 4,000 yards, I feel. We just got to be able to stop some people from running and play better defense — that’s the key.
“The most important thing is to have continuity. You know you’ll have this guy [Smith] for three years. See, that helps. Where you know what your future looks like. Tag to tag to tag doesn’t give you any stability.’’
So Cousins got his wish: an egocentric recruiting whirlwind…come-to-us tweets from Vikings, Cardinals and Broncos players…a reported 27-million dollar annual deal in North Beach. Maybe the Vikings are right, and the Redskins are wrong. Maybe possessions in the red zone won’t cause Kirk to break out in hives anymore.
The organization surely has been wrong before. They let Trent Green walk after the 1998 season, and he became elite in Kansas City. They let Brad Johnson walk after the 2000 season, and he won a Super Bowl with the other Gruden. They let Rich Gannon walk after the ’93 season, and he was the opposing quarterback in Brad Johnson’s Super Bowl.
But it is what it is. As I said, I’m numb to it. I witnessed a Redskins era – from 1964 to 1985 – where there were basically only three quarterbacks: Sonny Jurgensen, Billy Kilmer and Joe Theismann. From 1986 to 1992, it was just four more: Williams, Schroeder, Rypien and Stan Humphries. After that, it’s been a free-for-all.
So the Kirk Cousins era, to me, is a blip, like the rest of them. He may hold single-season franchise records for yards and completion percentage. He may be fourth all-time in yards and sixth all-time in touchdowns. But on the Redskins totem pole, he’s most certainly behind Jurgensen, Baugh, Theismann, Williams, Rypien and Kilmer — because they all won, and they all wanted to be here.
Kirk’s signature moment, on the other hand, was….You Like That. I swear that’s what we’ll remember him for. It was fun while he lasted; he was an interception, a touchdown, or a “How You Like Me Now’’ waiting to happen. It was must-see TV. But I’m done with all this talk of “franchise’’ quarterbacks, franchise tags, transition tags, tags, tags, tags. Time to move on.
Come April’s draft, I’ll settle for a franchise nose tackle.
Contributor Tom Friend is an award-winning writer, native Washingtonian who attended Wootton High School, and author of “The Chicken Runs at Midnight,” to be published by HarperCollins this coming fall. Friend spends his time in San Diego watching every Redskins and Wizards game on his DVR once the kids are situated. He went to every Bullets home playoff game from 1974 through 1979, drinking in the good times with Phil Chenier and Wes Unseld, before becoming a Redskins beat writer for the Washington Post later in life. His print work has been re-published in the 2001 and 2011 editions of “Best American Sportswriting” and was also cited by Harvard University’s Nieman Foundation for Journalism. Friend also co-authored the book, “Educating Dexter,” the autobiography of Dexter Manley.
Photos by Joe Glorioso for The Sports Capitol