Step into the office of the guy with the third-best completion percentage in NFL history. A guy who every single QB-needy team should be salivating over right now, as he marches toward free agency. O.K., it’s more of a cubicle—about what you’d expect for, say, a junior salesperson—but Kirk Cousins has a new workspace at 21300 Redskins Park Drive, and SI pulled up a swivel chair to talk about fatherhood and the franchise tag, Trump the Divider and Jesus the Gambler, nerdiness and—ahem—frugality.
Nice space here.
I like having a place where I can leave stuff, where I can work on my own. Our quarterbacks room is also the offensive staff room, so there would be times when I’d come in after a game, Monday morning, and the staff was watching film. I was homeless; I’d bounce around, wherever was available. And I could never leave stuff. I’d have all these notes and checklists [scattered about]. I said, “If I could have a space where I could leave everything and be organized, that would really help.” The team was kind enough to revamp this space. I told them I might need a door. They said they couldn’t do it. So I’m thinking about maybe putting saloon doors on, just for fun.
Give me the one-minute tour.
I’ve got a bin over here of every game plan I’ve ever had, going back years, from Michigan State even. I’ve got old folders from the Shanahans [former Redskins coaches Mike and Kyle]. Playbooks from 2012 and ’13. Notes from going down to see Jon Gruden in the offseason. Notes from our ’15 offseason mini-camp. If I ever coach, I’ll want to refer to this stuff. . . . Originally I just had a laptop in here. The video guys were kind enough to put a monitor up. I got a couple white boards and my wife ordered a bunch of stuff off the Internet as a joke. (Cousins shows off a miniature Newton’s cradle, like you’d see on an exec’s desk in the 1980s, and a calendar of daily Jeff Foxworthy jokes. Today’s entry: You might be a redneck if your rugs and the contents of your freezer are related.) I’ve got some supplies, pens. . . . I’ve got my inspirational quote over here. (Handwritten on a piece of pinned-up white paper: The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses, long before I dance under those lights. —Muhammad Ali.) And then I’ve got my poster. (He points to a torn-out magazine photo of a white sand beach.) The Cayman Islands—that’s a place [my wife] Julie and I have vacationed a couple times. I have no window here, so that’s my window.
You two just had your first kid a few weeks ago. Cooper Wesley Cousins.
I guess I like the alliteration of Cooper and Cousins.
What was that week like?
Eleven days passed from the due date to when the baby actually came, just waiting and waiting. Eventually on a Thursday afternoon I left practice—skipped post-practice meetings—to drive to the birthing center. They told me it could come any minute. It wasn’t until 30 hours later, so I missed an entire day of work.
When’s the last time that happened?
Oh, I haven’t missed a practice since I’ve been here. That was my first one. Going into a Monday Night Football game against the Chiefs that week, I didn’t really want to miss a day. But Colt [McCoy, my backup,] set up his phone in the quarterback meeting room and we got on FaceTime. I was basically there without being there. . . . Julie’s contractions were coming every four to five minutes, and they lasted about 30 seconds—but outside of that I was able to focus [on football] and Julie was very understanding. She could hear my coaches and [teammates] talking in the background but she said it was fine. When she needed to grab my hand to get through a contraction for 30 seconds, I was there—and I had my iPad next to me, looking at cut-ups, in between. I think our doula thought that was weird. She wanted me a little more present. But Julie understood.
Lucky timing: Your bye the next weekend kind of served as a paternity leave.
We played Monday night, got back at like 5 a.m. from Kansas City, and then had Wednesday through Sunday off. I was able to spend time with Julie and the baby, learn how to change a diaper, hold him, be helpful.
“On days when I struggle, I’ll come home and I’ll realize that it’s not the end of the world. There are more important things; [Cooper] doesn’t love me any less. That perspective will help me be a better football player.”
How did the baby change your perspective?
When I come home from work, if I just played a really good game and I’m on top of the world, I think changing a diaper will humble me pretty quickly. On days when I struggle, I’ll come home and I’ll realize that it’s not the end of the world. There are more important things; he doesn’t love me any less. That perspective will help me be a better football player.
How’s your sleep been so far?
It is what it is. It’s tough living on the East Coast, ‘cause I love watching sports and these games come on at 8:30, 9 p.m., and my wife and I try to get to bed around 9. That way, even if I’m getting up at 6:30, I can get a full nine hours of sleep. I need nine hours. Some guys need more or less, but if I get my nine hours I tend to play better.
You’ve been playing six years now, and there are some well-worn themes when people talk about Kirk Cousins. How accurate is that stuff?
I’ve never been one to just let everyone see what I’m about, so sometimes there is a misperception. The comments about Oh, he’s more of a dork or a nerd. . . I don’t know if that’s fully true. But I can see why people would say that when they just get a snapshot. If you’re around me enough you’d say, There’s more to that guy. But I’m O.K. with it. It’s funny. I’m totally cool being self-deprecating.
Maybe it masks how well you can play, your inner fire?
The “You like that?” moment [after a comeback win against the Buccaneers in October 2015] caught a lot of people off guard. They were like, Who’s that guy? I didn’t think I did anything weird. I was just being me—the me that maybe I don’t show you all very much but that has been there all along. My family said: That’s the Kirk we know; didn’t surprise us at all. I hope there are many more moments like that.
Do you remember walking down the hall, how it unfolded?
I remember it. I remember the satisfaction of that victory and feeling a bit of vindication. And that’s what came out. Afterward, I talked to the media, showered, changed and walked out to my car. My wife met me there and asked, “What did you say? It’s all over the Internet; everybody is talking about it.” It took a second for it to register—Oh, yeah—because I didn’t even know what she meant. And from there we just watched it blow up. We were entering our bye week so we were able to take the time to turn that into an opportunity, raising some money for International Justice Mission. We sold a bunch of T-shirts that said YOU LIKE THAT and raised about $40,000.
Two years later. . .
Talk about being associated with something long afterward. I’ll be in the airport and people will say it to me, or when we go to away stadiums. There are worse things to have tagged to your name, so I’ll take it.
Another talking point with you is always the franchise tag. Do you dislike talking about that?
Everything’s been said that could possibly be said. (The Redskins offered $53 million guaranteed this offseason; Cousins declined and is playing on a one-year, $24 million franchise tender.) It’s pretty straight forward, just common sense decision making through the whole process. I think patience has served me well in this league and I’m just going to continue to take it year by year. That way I have options when the season ends. . . . Each player has to consider his own leverage, his own financial situation, what’s best for him and his family. I feel a peace about the way I have [handled things].
Are you really a risk taker?
Talk about another misperception. I really am not. I’m not a guy who wants to skydive and open my parachute at the last minute. I want to open my parachute right away and know what’s coming. People say: Kirk’s betting on himself. That’s not who I am or what I’m doing. I’m making a decision based on conviction and what I feel and what makes sense. Logic, really. Sure there’s some risk involved. But any great businessman, any great person of impact, they all took risks. They all failed at times too. I’m O.K. if failure happens. Ultimately, so much of my contractual decision making is predicated on my faith and believing the Lord has a plan for me. I didn’t feel peace about signing a long-term deal.
“I’m O.K. if failure happens. Ultimately, so much of my contractual decision making is predicated on my faith and believing the Lord has a plan for me. I didn’t feel peace about signing a long-term deal.”
You’ve described Jesus as a gambler.
What I was trying to say was that when we have to live in a place of total dependence on God, that’s a healthy thing. It’s freeing. When we start to say God, I don’t need you, I’ve got this figured out, that’s pride. I think it’s healthy to wake up every morning and recognize my dependence on God. I’m not putting faith in myself. The bigger the sample size I have—I can look back now a decade, to high school and college—I just feel like, you know, shame on me if I can’t pick up the subtle hints by now that the Lord’s got me. He has a plan for my life and I’m gonna trust that. . . . I broke my ankle my junior year of high school and I remember telling my dad as I drove home from the hospital, tears in my eyes, “This means I won’t play college football.” And my dad said, “You’ve gotta trust that the Lord will lead and guide. Whether you play college football or not is in His hands, not yours.” When I was offered by Michigan State I realized, Wow, Lord, you really are bigger than a broken ankle.
Do you ever feel any vindication that, so far, this all seems to have paid off?
I’m always trying to prove myself. That will never change. It exists around the league more than people realize. People question a lot of quarterbacks who’ve had a lot of success, after just one bad game. We never feel safe. We’re never comfortable. We’re always trying to prove we belong. I go out every day feeling like I have to give a reason to validate my role on the team.
What’s it like to live like that?
Well, it’s not comfortable. But if I ever want to do anything of worth in my life, I have to get O.K. with being uncomfortable. I don’t think there’s anybody who’s doing great things that feels safe. That’s capitalism. That’s the society we live in. It’s something that, on the outside looking in, I never realized about this league.
You recently read C.S. Lewis’s “The Problem of Pain,” plus “Poor Charlie’s Almanack,” by Warren Buffett’s lawyer, and “Grit,” by Angela Duckworth—all kinds of self help books. You’ve got Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers” on your list and “Gunslinger,” about Brett Favre, in your reading pile. . . .
I can’t even go to Barnes and Noble and buy a book myself because so many people are sending them to me and recommending them. I want to [learn from] people who have done what I do, but at a much better level, for a much longer time. [Outside of reading,] I’ve reached out to Kurt Warner, Mark Brunell. . . . It’s not like I text them every week, but even one conversation has been helpful. Drew Brees and Alex Smith—I had a chance at the Pro Bowl to talk to them, ask questions. How do you do what you do? How do you play 13, 14, 15 years and stay healthy? I’ll even go find mentors in business, people who know what [success] looks like regardless of profession.
Your reading list, the conversations, this cubicle—it all suggests you’re an over-preparer. Where does that come from?
I like to have my ducks in a row, my bases covered when I go into a game. I hate feeling like something that took no talent beat me. If I lose because I can’t run fast enough or jump high enough, so be it. I can’t control that. But the minute it’s If you had just watched that clip, just memorized that play, the result would have been different—that just drives me crazy. I cannot accept failure as a result of something that took no ability.
What’s your game prep process like when you sit down at this desk?
This is my checklist here (pointing to his whiteboard). I start by going over the scouting reports and talking about the defensive personnel. Then I watch the opponent’s film on first and second down based on our three main offensive personnel groupings. And I watch their defense on first and second down. As the week goes on I watch their defense on third downs, in groupings of two to five yards to go, six to nine, and 10-plus. Later in the week I watch the red-zone defense from the 20 to the 10, then from the 10 to the goal line. I make sure I’ve memorized all the run-game criteria for my rules and checks, plus any new plays that have new reads. I go over any Cover Zero, all-out blitz [situations], any protection issues we have that week. (He holds up an index card covered in barely-legible chicken scratch.) This is my two-minute card. I carry this on my wrist so I’ve got some plays in case the headsets go out or I’ve gotta call it myself. (He cues up a play on his computer screen.) And then here we have the hot folder, which shows, all around the NFL: touchdowns, plays of 20 yards or more, third-and-long conversions, interceptions. . . . I like to watch the entire league, see why guys were throwing interceptions last Sunday. Was it tipped balls? Bad throws? Scrambling, trying to do too much?
Give me an example of something you see in that folder.
You see a stat like Ben Roethlisberger’s five interceptions (against the Jaguars in Week 5) and you go, Wow, what a tough day. Then you go back and watch. Well, this ball was tipped; and that ball the receiver could have helped him more. . . . You start to realize there’s a lot more that goes into an interception. That’s why you don’t just read the stats. Go back, watch the film and see what took place on every play.
O.K., one more well-worn Kirk Cousins theme: Frugal.
I like to drive older cars because I feel like I can get a deal. So I have the 2000 conversion van (the “Gray Ghost” that he told GQ about this offseason), which has been great. A couple years ago I bought an ’05 Mercedes sedan that was significantly cheaper than the sticker price when it came out. It had such low mileage! And this past week I bought a 2001 Mercedes G500—a G Wagon. It’s pretty archaic, but you’d be shocked how cheap it was! The body style is the exact same as it is today, so it doesn’t look any older! And only about 50,000 miles!
And you’re still living in your in-laws’ basement?
Here’s the deal: We go down to Atlanta in the offseason because we want to get out of the [D.C.-area] cold. Until we know where we’re going to be long term, yeah, we’ll be living with my in-laws in Atlanta. People think, You live with your in-laws? How do you do that? Well, they’re so laid-back that it’s just easy.
Basement it is. Look at the NFL right now. Are we at a unique moment?
When I first came into the league and people talked about how much the NFL has grown—how quickly, how the revenue is so strong—someone compared it to Rome. And eventually Rome fell. So there was an awareness: Let’s think ahead about what we can do to ensure that doesn’t happen here. Is it a unique time? I don’t know. I think there are issues in any time period. I don’t think this is any different. The key is to see how we can continue to grow. Because you’re either growing or you’re dying.
It just seems like there’s something on every front: the anthem, player safety, President Trump. . . .
Any time you’re doing good things, having an impact, any time you’re on the forefront of people’s minds, there’s gonna be controversy. You have to expect it and welcome it. It’s also an indication that this league has an incredible reach and platform and influence.
Problems that other leagues would envy.
Well said. Well said.
What’s your experience been with this anthem stuff?
I’m just continuing to learn. Being white, I’ve said to the team: “I can’t pretend to understand. I am ignorant on this issue. I don’t know what it’s like to drive down the road and be pulled over simply because of the color of my skin. So why would I start to act as if I do?” I’ve tried to listen and learn, and at the same time support my country that I love and am so grateful for. I have conversations with guys like [left tackle] Trent Williams, just walking off the field, asking for his perspective.
You were invited to a mini players summit in October, after Trump’s comments on Colin Kaepernick.
I didn’t have a lot to share there. I just took notes, listened to both sides. And I found that when owners communicated to players, and players communicated to owners, that was really healthy, something that should happen more often. I came away feeling better about our league, about our players, about the plan going forward. Now, I don’t think we left the meeting saying, Great, it’s buttoned up, tie a bow on it, we’re good to go. That wasn’t the point. The point of was to walk away saying we’d put a lot of things out on the table, and they heard us, and we heard them. There’s a lot of value in that.
“Being white, I’ve said to the team: ‘I can’t pretend to understand. I am ignorant on this issue. I don’t know what it’s like to drive down the road and be pulled over simply because of the color of my skin. So why would I start to act as if I do?’”
It feels like the whole debate has moved away from Kaepernick’s initial intention when he knelt.
I guess it’s different to each player. There’s no doubt that some players decided to kneel more in response to President Trump’s comments than to the issues of police brutality or excessive force. So, was that a different issue? You’d have to talk to the individual player.
You played golf with Trump in June.
I got an invite. I thought somebody was pranking me. . . . Look, if it had been any president—far left, far right, middle—I was gonna go. That’s the President of the United States. If any other former president would love to play golf, I’m open to it. Let me know. . . . He was—how do you say it?—just a normal guy. He was pretty easy to talk to. He was friendly and, frankly, he asked a lot of questions, about the Redskins and my situation. How long have you been there? How long are you under contract? . . . . I want to win football games first and foremost. But I also want to be enlightened and educated on issues and just keep an open mind, keep a listening ear. I constantly want to be learning, growing and better understanding things. And see where that takes us.