Cousins faces new expectations, same skepticism
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.”