On Monday, Julie Cousins placed an order on Amazon for a purple-and-yellow striped tie. Her husband, Kirk, would need it on Thursday for the first day of his new job.
“The two-day shipping came through for us,” Kirk Cousins said over the phone from the Vikings’ new headquarters in Eagan, Minn. “We had it down to a couple teams, so it wasn’t too much of a risk.”
Cousins was wearing that tie as he spoke, fresh off the podium from his introductory press conference as the Vikings’ new quarterback, in which he expertly deflected questions about Super Bowl expectations and referred to legendary Minneapolis sports columnist Sid Hartman by name. Cousins is the type of guy who is prepared for everything, although the past 72 hours had moved at a pace faster than even he had anticipated.
He was in a unique position, a 29-year-old quarterback with 57 games of starting experience hitting free agency, his years’ worth of betting on himself providing an uncommon degree of leverage. The three-year, $84 million contract Cousins signed Thursday afternoon made him not only the highest-paid quarterback in the NFL but also the first player to earn a fully guaranteed multiyear deal (and it wasn’t even the largest contract offer he received). It was the kind of deal Cousins’ previous team, Washington, wasn’t willing to commit to, and which has the potential to change the way top players handle their future negotiations.
“It’s no different than any other business in terms of using leverage and trying to find the right fit,” Cousins says. “There’s a lot of variables that come into play. But I think it says a lot about the ownership here, and their commitment to winning, and what they are trying to do to make sure we have all the resources needed to win a world championship.”
Specifically, it says a lot about their commitment to Cousins. The Vikings wanted him so much that they let all three of their free-agent quarterbacks—Sam Bradford, Case Keenum and Teddy Bridgewater—walk, after a season in which they reached the NFC Championship Game, in order to have the resources to land him. That felt good to Cousins, who had been franchise-tagged twice by Washington and then shown the door with the organization’s trade for Alex Smith in January. The MMQB’s Albert Breer reported that Cousins and his agent, Mike McCartney, first proposed a three-year, fully guaranteed contract in 2016 that would have cost Washington $58.5 million, a relative bargain compared to the current going rate for starting quarterbacks.
Since the Smith trade, Cousins had spent a lot of time on Google researching his potential future teams. (“You can learn a lot just by typing peoples’ names into your search engine and researching their backgrounds and the roster and the records,” he notes.) While in Minneapolis for six days during Super Bowl week, he also rented a car to explore the area and drive past the Vikings’ new headquarters.
Cousins’ list whittled down to four finalists entering the week: the Vikings, Jets, Cardinals and Broncos. On Monday, Julie Cousins actually ordered more than just a Vikings tie on Amazon—she bought a green one, too. “She had ordered the Jets,” Cousins says, “and was ready to order the Cardinals or Broncos, if they were going to make a move.”
Denver focused instead on signing Case Keenum, who quarterbacked the No. 2-seed Vikings on their deep playoff run. By Monday night, the first day of the free agency negotiating period, the Cardinals were out. Tuesday morning, Cousins’ camp called the Jets to inform them he would be taking his first visit to Minnesota. That was enough for the Jets to move on to their other quarterback plan: re-signing Josh McCown, who is also represented by McCartney, and signing Bridgewater.
“I had gathered a lot of facts and knew that Minnesota provided a lot to be excited about,” Cousins says. “It was going to come down to Mike McCartney, my agent, being to be able to negotiate with the team on Monday and Tuesday and see if, from a business standpoint, it could match up. By Tuesday morning it had, and it was time to move forward on a visit and then sign the contract.”
On Wednesday, Kirk and Julie flew to Minneapolis with their five-month-old son, Cooper (“He travels pretty well,” says Cousins, who was tasked with lugging the infant carrier across the tarmac). They dined with Vikings brass that night, and for the record, Cousins would like to clear up reports that his special diet caused the team to take him to a different restaurant. “I just ate what they served!” he says. “It was a steakhouse, and I loved it.” (He ate a steak).
Cousins was intent on taking visits before putting pen to paper on a contract—even if he only took one visit, to the Vikings, and it ended up being a formality, as the other interested teams had by then made commitments to other quarterbacks. This wasn't going to be 2016, when Brock Osweiler signed with the Texans for $72 million without meeting head coach Bill O'Brien, and was traded a year later. Cousins would get to choose where he wanted to play for the first time since 2007, when he committed to Michigan State, and he says his decision truly wasn’t only about the money.
“I just wanted to ensure it was the right fit,” Cousins says. “Didn’t want to have any bogeymen hiding around the corner. There were none to be found, and I assumed that would be the case. Just thought it was smart to be prudent, take our time and ensure that we were making the right decision. Because it was a big one.”
Such a big one, that Cousins and his family have been having a film crew follow them. A lot goes into a free-agent decision, including packing, relocating and moving on from a team where he had spent six seasons. “We wanted to show the human side of the process,” Cousins says. “Too many times the contract situation in pro sports comes down to a number that scrolls across the bottom line of your TV screen. And everyone thinks that it can just magically happen. This was slightly more complicated than that.”
Cousins could have taken more money to sign elsewhere, a fact his agent admitted to the St. Paul Pioneer-Press after Cousins’ press conference. But the Vikings’ offer cleared the previous high-water mark for quarterbacks—Jimmy Garoppolo’s $27.5 million per year all of five weeks ago—and other factors weighed heavily. The Vikings have an excellent defense and great skill position players and are coming off a deep playoff run. Cousins made a point of saying he wanted to end up in a place where he’d jump out of bed every day excited to go to work and be part of a team with a great culture. He didn’t say so, but after being strung along by Washington the past few years, it's easy to understand why that would be a priority of his.
Earlier in the week, ESPN reported that members of the Washington organization were talking down Cousins at the combine. The team’s former G.M., Scot McCloughan, also told a Denver radio station in January that he didn’t see Cousins as a “special” player. During Cousins’ three full seasons as Washington's starter, he threw for 4,000 yards each year, and the team made the playoffs once. In response, Cousins invoked a quote from John Wooden, the legendary UCLA basketball coach.
“You can’t let praise or criticism get to you. It’s a weakness to get caught up in either one,” he says. “That’s a quote that I have heard many times before. I just keep my blinders on and stay focused on the task ahead and believe that if you work hard and keep your mouth shut, good things will happen to you.”
An $84 million contract can do a lot of things: It makes clear the Vikings’ belief that Cousins can be that special player, and it also voids that underrated, overlooked persona that Cousins has embraced for most of his football career. The rest? That’s up to Cousins.
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