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Kirk Cousins Sets Out to Prove It Again

While long-term contract talks deteriorated this past offseason, Cousins was working on his golf game with D.C. power players (including, yes, President Trump). Now, an uncertain future hangs over his head . . . and that dynamic just might work for the quarterback and his team

RICHMOND, Va. — As his agent worked on his much publicized and scrutinized contract situation this summer, Kirk Cousins took up golf. Well, he had golfed casually plenty of times before, but this summer, he decided he wanted to improve his game and become a serious golfer. On most weekends, Cousins would visit a different course in the greater Washington, D.C. area—Congressional, Burning Tree, Independence. At each stop, he’d play with a new set of power brokers, people who donated to the same charities he did, people who did business with his employer. They’d spend four hours together, Cousins picking their brains in between shots, asking them about running a business, investment strategies, and parenting tips (he and his wife are expecting their first child in September).

In mid-June, President Trump even invited Cousins to play a round at his most prized course, Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, N.J. It was one of the perks of being the quarterback in Washington, Cousins says. But unlike those rounds with the other D.C. power brokers, Trump was the one asking questions. “He wanted to learn more about me, where I am in life, and my situation,” Cousins recalled on Sunday, during an interview with The MMQB at the team’s training camp site in Richmond, Va. “I updated him on everything.” Does that mean he discussed his contract situation with Trump? “I didn’t really bring it up with him,” Cousins says, shyly. “I know he’s a business man, so he probably would’ve had a thought.”

Surely, though, Trump had heard. Cousins’ contract situation dominated the NFL news cycle from February to July. Everybody had an opinion. A brief recap: In February, Washington placed the franchise tag on Cousins—for the second consecutive year—and that sparked another round of discussion about Cousins’ worth. The tag value is just under $24 million, guaranteed, for one season; top-flight quarterbacks typically receive that type of guaranteed money per-season, over several years. There was speculation that Washington might trade him, or work out a new long-term deal, which would help mitigate the cost. Neither of those things occurred. The team offered him a long-term contract in early May, and Cousins’ camp declined without even making a counter offer. He told management he preferred to take the one-year deal (with the large amount of guaranteed money), play out this season, and then evaluate his options. The move puts more pressure on him to perform this season but also gives him the chance to earn more money, now and in the long run. It’s the type of savvy business decision that would’ve made his presidential golf partner proud.

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Now that training camp is underway, the back and forth of contract negotiations is over. Cousins and the team have said they’re focusing solely on the season ahead, perhaps because that would be mutually beneficial for both parties. If Cousins plays well, the team will most likely win, and he’ll get his money. “What’s going to end up mattering is how these 16 games go,” Cousins says. “What I’ve learned is, there’s a lot of news that comes out in February, March, April, May, and it carries a lot of steam for a short amount of time. But come October, in the heat of the season, no one cares about all of that. All they care about is, How’s he playing? It’s not going to be long here before that’s all anyone’s talking about.”

Maybe so. It seems natural, though, due to the importance of his position and the nature of his contract, that fans and media will be speculating about his future beyond this season. On Sunday, during one drill, a fan shouted from the sidelines: “C’mon defense, get pressure on that $24 million man! Make him earn it!”

Last month, when the deadline to sign franchise players to long-term deals passed and no deal was reached, the front office tried to spin the situation in its favor. The team released a statement saying that it had made Cousins a contract offer, and that the offer included $53 million guaranteed at signing, and that it would have been “the highest fully guaranteed amount upon signing in NFL history.”

“Kirk knew I was going to release that information,” says team president Bruce Allen. “I said, ‘Well, we have to. We have people thinking we haven’t even made you an offer!’”

The statement neglected to note that, if Cousins were to simply stand pat and play under the franchise tag each of the next two seasons, he would earn around $58 million guaranteed. If that weren’t enough, when Allen read the statement aloud for the media, he referred to Cousins at “Kurt” six separate times. “I don’t know of anybody else in the organization who says it that way,” Cousins says. “Apparently that’s his accent.”

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On Sunday, moments after the fan called him the “$24 million man,” Cousins rolled right on what looked like a designed run and took off downfield. It appeared that he had maybe 15 or 20 yards of space in front of him, when a defender tapped him meekly and the play was whistled dead. Cousins held up his palms up in indignation, thinking he could’ve kept running.

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Cousins has a history of thriving in situations like this, on a one-year deal and playing for his next contract. In 2015, when he was in the final year of his rookie deal, he threw for 4,166 yards, then a franchise record, and 29 touchdowns. In 2016, when he played under the franchise tag for the first time, he threw for 4,917 yards, 15th-most in NFL history, and 25 TDs. It’s the fourth-round pick in him that seems to be motivated to prove himself. “I love the fact that he’s betting on Kirk Cousins,” says Doug Williams, the team’s new vice president of player personnel, “because I think that means we’re going to get the best Kirk Cousins.”

Williams points out that the offense, built around Cousins, should also give him every chance to succeed. The offensive line, anchored by tackles Trent Williams and Morgan Moses, should give him plenty of time to throw. And even with the departures of veteran receivers DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garçon he’ll have plenty of targets to choose from: tight ends Jordan Reed and Vernon Davis, slot man Jamison Crowder, 2015 first-round pick Josh Doctson (if he can stay healthy), and new No. 1 receiver Terrelle Pryor, who came over from the Browns in free agency on a similar “prove-it” deal (one year, $6 million). Cousins and Pryor have already bonded over that. “He said to me, ‘Look, it’s both of our contract years. Let’s go have a ball, let’s have a blast,’” says Pryor. “We know we need each other—we know that. I tell him every day, ‘I’m here for you.’”

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For his part, Cousins has been working on improving his own game. Since offensive coordinator Sean McVay took the Rams’ head-coaching job, head coach Jay Gruden has taken over play-calling duties. Off the field, Gruden says, Cousins has been more vocal in choosing plays and mapping out the game plan. On the field, they’ve been working specifically on his situational awareness: “How much time is left on the clock? How many time outs are there? How many points do we need? Do we have the lead? Do they have a timeout? What are they trying to do? Just factoring in the situation—that’s the next level,” Cousins says.

Gruden is also stressing that Cousins try to extend plays more instead of being quick to throw the ball away. That new mindset was on display Sunday during a seven-on-seven drill. On one play, Pryor started running a route, and both he and Cousins realized simultaneously that it wasn’t open. Cousins pointed to the corner of the end zone and Pryor took off. Cousins maneuvered his way through the pocket and dropped a pass in between two defenders. “That was us playing backyard football, really,” Pryor says.

If Cousins does play well this year and contract negotiations stall again, Allen can always slap the franchise tag on him in 2018, for an unprecedented third consecutive year. At that point, the tag would pay Cousins more than $34 million, guaranteed, for one year. The team’s preference seems to be to keep Cousins and avoid doing that. “Hopefully, in the future, we get him done to a long-term deal, some way, somehow,” Gruden says.

Cousins has decided he wants to let this season play out, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t thought about signing a long-term deal. Over the summer, while he was playing golf with those D.C. movers and shakers, he asked about their houses, their neighborhoods, and what it was like living in the area. For three years now, Cousins and his wife have been renting a townhouse near the team facility from Chris Samuels, the retired left tackle. Cousins was planning ahead, just in case he’d be in the market for something new. “If or when a long-term deal ever happened,” he says, “we would love to buy [a house] and make it home.”

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