With the Redskins traveling to Minnesota for a primetime matchup on Thursday night with the Vikings, it feels only right to look back at the bizarre roller coaster ride that was the Kirk Cousins-era in Washington.
His six seasons with the team were what could be considered the epicenter of the Dan Snyder circus that began in 1999, and though Cousins’ on-field performance was generally pretty strong once he took the starting job in 2015, it was the storylines off the field that took over the Washington media until he bolted for Minnesota in the 2018 offseason.
So, without further ado, let’s take a look at some of the biggest storylines from Cousins’ time in Washington.
The 2012 NFL Draft
When Washington moved up from the No. 6 pick to the No. 2 pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, it was obvious the bold strategy was interpreted as the team’s attempt to aggressively go for either Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck or Heisman Trophy-winner Robert Griffin III as their franchise quarterback. Once the Colts made it clear they were going with the more consistent and safe prospect in Luck, the Redskins had the easy decision to roll with the dynamic Griffin, who exploded onto the scene his junior year at Baylor with flashy play and an explosive arm.
And on draft day, the Redskins made the decision everyone expected them to make in the first round, which meant the rest of the draft would be geared towards building around him.
This is where the Redskins did not make the obvious choice.
In the fourth round of the draft, exactly 100 picks after they selected Griffin, the team selected Cousins in a move reminiscent of the Heath Shuler-Gus Frerotte insurance strategy the team used in the 1994 NFL Draft. The selection baffled analysts, with some criticizing the move for the implications of Griffin not being trusted to stay healthy (he had already missed one season in college after an ACL tear in 2009) and run the team.
It was especially mind-boggling because of the type of prospect Cousins was. A three-year starter at Michigan State, Cousins was considered a low Day 2-high Day 3 prospect with a skillset moldable enough to eventually start in the league.
While a QB controversy wouldn’t technically start until a couple seasons later, the seeds of dysfunction were beginning to sprout as the two quarterbacks never quite gelled together as teammates with Griffin looking over his shoulder to see a fellow young quarterback gunning for the same job.
“You like that”
In his fourth season in the league, Cousins was able to gain the favor of head coach Jay Gruden and usurp Griffin for the starting job. The move did not initially pay off, despite a few strong performances like his comeback win over the Eagles in Week 4.
Going into a Week 7 matchup against the Buccaneers, coach Gruden labeled the game “a code red” with the team in a 2–4 hole to start the season. The threat of a lost season led to what we now know as the “You like that” game.
Down 24–0 with 8:19 left in the second quarter, Cousins led the greatest comeback in franchise history by leading the offseason to 21 unanswered points and an eventual game-winning slant to Jordan Reed with 24 seconds left in the game. The Redskins would end up winning 31–30.
It was an incredible performance for Cousins, arguably the best in his career, as he threw for 317 yards and three touchdowns while also scoring one on the ground.
Despite great play on the field, it was what was captured on camera after the game that created a rallying cry for Cousins fans long after the 2015 season.
In a move that was equal parts ballsy and spontaneously commendable, Cousins showed a tenacity through a simple catchphrase that was not often seen by the fanbase or media when Cousins was out on the field. It showed he had a chip on his shoulder, and after the game he led Washington on a miraculous 6–3 finish to the season that was enough to win the division and send the team to their first playoff appearance since 2012.
Cousins would later have similar things to say after a dominating performance on Sunday Night Football against the Packers in 2016.
The Franchise Tags
The fanbase may always be split on just how valuable a quarterback Cousins was in his time in Washington, but there’s no doubt in anyone’s mind what he’ll be most remembered for, and that is the years-long saga of the franchise tag.
With a chance to lock Cousins up long-term with a contract somewhere in the range of $16 million per year after the 2015 season, the team instead decided to give Cousins a non-exclusive franchise tag that kept Cousins around on a one-year, $20 million contract for the next season as a way to see if Cousins was worth a long-term deal.
While his performance was for the most part the same as 2015 statistically (more on the end of that season in the section below), the team still didn’t trust him enough with a long-term contract after the season.
The team decided to give him the tag again, making him the first player in NFL history to receive the tag in consecutive years. The tag gave Cousins another one-year rental, this time worth $24 million that gave him $44 million in two years.
Cousins of course played much of the same brand of football, and the team once again fell short of the playoffs with a 7–9 record thanks to a lackluster defense and a bevy of injured starters.
Cousins banked on himself with the franchise tag, and come out as one of the biggest winners in NFL history. At least, financially. Once he officially became a free agent, he signed a contract for three years worth $84 million (all guaranteed) with the Vikings. In the end, the inability to commit to a quarterback without a major playoff record was what has led to the Redskins team we now see today. A team that is, once again, dealing with major issues at the position Cousins once held.
The Giants fiasco (2016 edition)
A year after getting his first franchise tag, Cousins had a major opportunity to give the Redskins no choice but to consider giving him the big contract he wanted. What ended up happening was one of the most disappointing big-moment performances in franchise history that would lead to another year of the same questions about Cousins’ ability to win big games.
With a Week 17 game against the 10–5 Giants, who had already clinched a playoff berth the week before, the Redskins had a “win-and-in” situation at home against a team that had virtually nothing to play for but to play spoiler to a division rival’s playoff hopes.
Cousins turned in one of his worst performances of his career in the game, throwing two back-breaking interceptions and leading just two scoring drives. The 19–10 loss was an embarrassing display, and something that gave Cousins the label as one of the least clutch signal-callers in the game.
Ironically enough, Cousins faced a similar situation just two years later while as a member of the Vikings. In another “win-and-in” Week 17 matchup against a division rival, this time the 12–4 Chicago Bears, Cousins recorded just 132 yards in the air and one touchdown as the team lost 24–10.
It’s easy to think now that had Cousins won this game, he could have perhaps been sporting burgundy and gold colors to this day.