Cousins faces new ex­pec­ta­tions, same skep­ti­cism

Baltimore Sun - - RAVENS INSIDER - By Liz Clarke

WASHINGTON — It’s dif­fi­cult to con­vey in ev­ery­day terms the whop­ping raise that Kirk Cousins got in the off­sea­son, awarded a one-year con­tract worth $19.95 mil­lion.

That’s 30 times the $660,000 the Washington Red­skins quar­ter­back earned as a fourth-year NFL player in 2015. On a per-game ba­sis, it means Cousins will earn nearly as much in the first half of tonight’s sea­son opener against the Pitts­burgh Steel­ers as he did all last sea­son.

By ev­ery met­ric, Cousins had a bril­liant 2015 cam­paign, lead­ing the Red­skins to the NFC East cham­pi­onship, lead­ing all NFL quar­ter­backs in com­ple­tion per­cent­age and set­ting a sin­gle-sea­son fran­chise record for pass­ing yards (4,166). But he’ll en­ter the na­tion­ally tele­vised “Monday Night Foot­ball” clash with a back­drop of skep­ti­cism.

Sev­eral top foot­ball prog­nos­ti­ca­tors ranked Cousins in the bot­tom half of the NFL’s 32 quar­ter­backs head­ing into the 2016 sea­son, dis­miss­ing his suc­cess and that of the Red­skins as the good for­tune of com­pet­ing in a lousy di­vi­sion. Even the Red­skins’ own front of­fice essen­tially sig­naled it wasn’t en­tirely con­vinced of Cousins’ met­tle, us­ing the fran­chise tag to keep him on the ros­ter one more year rather than sign­ing him to a long-term con­tract.

Cousins, who built his im­prob­a­ble Michi­gan State and NFL ca­reers by ex­ceed­ing the ex­pec­ta­tions for a lightly re­cruited quar­ter­back of un­re­mark­able size, re­sponded the only way he knows how: by dou­bling down on his ef­fort and the be­lief that hard work wins out.

“I cer­tainly have no prob­lem with their think­ing,” Cousins said last week of the Red­skins’ de­ci­sion to use the fran­chise tag. “The ball is in my court to see what I can do and what we can do as a team on the field. Then we’ll let the chips fall.”

But as he sets out to prove that 2015 was no fluke, for ei­ther him­self or the Red­skins, Cousins faces twin dan­gers that re­late to his high-dol­lar deal: a dan­ger of do­ing too much or play­ing “be­yond him­self” to jus­tify his mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar salary, and a dan­ger of wilt­ing un­der the pres­sure.

For­mer NFL quar­ter­back Trent Dil­fer, who has known Cousins for years, is con­vinced the con­tract won’t rat­tle him,

“It might af­fect some­body that’s mo­ti­vat- ed by fame and fi­nan­cial suc­cess,” said Dil­fer, who led the Ravens to vic­tory over the New York Gi­ants in Su­per Bowl XXXV and is now an ESPN an­a­lyst. “But if you know Kirk, he’s one of those unique com­peti­tors who is a nice, hum­ble man that has a fierce com­pet­i­tive spirit that’s not driven by fame or money.”

Cousins still drives his grand­mother’s con­ver­sion van to Red­skins Park in Ash­burn, Va., most days. He­and his wife, Julie, still rent (from for­mer Red­skins left tackle Chris Sa­muels) rather than own a pala­tial home. And in an era in which su­per­star ath­letes ag­gres­sively build their “per­sonal brands,” Cousins’ 15 sec­onds of so­cial­me­dia fame were en­tirely ac­ci­den­tal, ig­nited last sea­son when a TV cam­era caught him blurt­ing out, “You like that!” af­ter en­gi­neer­ing the great­est come­back in Red­skins his­tory.

“Self-pro­mo­tion isn’t some­thing that I need to be about,” Cousins said of his pref­er­ence for op­er­at­ing un­der the radar. “If you play well and win, there is plenty you’ll be known for.”

Run­ning back Chris Thomp­son said Tonight, 7:10 TV: ESPN Ra­dio: 980 AM Line: Steel­ers by 21⁄ Quar­ter­back Kirk Cousins has to prove his break­through 2015 sea­son was no fluke, for ei­ther him­self or Washington. Cousins’ poise and grit in lead­ing the come­back from a 24-0 deficit against the Tampa Bay Buc­ca­neers was a crit­i­cal junc­ture.

“When we made that come­back, ev­ery­thing changed with Kirk and all the guys around him,” Thomp­son said. “A lot of guys gained a lot of re­spect for him once he was able to lead us back from that.”

NICK WASS/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

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