The roots of Kirk Cousins' uneasy marriage with the Redskins

Is Kirk Cousins a Super Bowl-caliber QB? (1:28)

ESPN analysts Max Kellerman and Stephen A. Smith discuss Kirk Cousins' ability to win in big games. (1:28)

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Nov. 3 QBs at a Crossroads Issue. Subscribe today!

KIRK COUSINS WAS glowing. He'd spent months praying and patiently waiting for a moment like this, and now it had improbably arrived on Dec. 16, 2012. With their playoff hopes on the ropes, the Redskins had turned to the rookie backup in desperation after starter Robert Griffin III injured his knee. Cousins responded in his first career start by throwing for 329 yards and a pair of touchdowns in a comeback win against the Browns.

The visitors locker room in Cleveland was buzzing. Cousins was standing by his locker, receiving celebratory handshakes and backslaps from teammates, when Redskins owner Dan Snyder and team president Bruce Allen entered the room-and essentially breezed right past him. Snyder, according to a witness, patted Cousins on the shoulder and kept walking.

Snyder and Allen were on their way to see Griffin, the dynamic multi-threat quarterback who was seen as maybe the future of the NFL. Griffin seemed annoyed that the team had given the start to Cousins, and would later confess as much to reporters. He felt his knee was healthy enough for him to play; the team's medical staff felt otherwise. Snyder and Allen were aware of the tension and sought to reassure Griffin that no matter what Cousins did, RG3 was still the Chosen One. Cousins is polite and charming but also a fiery competitor who has been dismissed his entire football career as "just a guy." On that day, he soaked up the scene and tried not to let the snub bug him. His teammates, however, were furious. When head coach Mike Shanahan heard what happened, he paid a visit to Snyder's office. "Kirk is a strong guy, and he can handle it, but his teammates are pissed at you," Shanahan says he told Snyder. "That's not the way you handle things. If you do that, you run the risk of losing the football team in the future."

"Kirk dealt with a lot that we don't know about. It was sad. We all heard the whispers." Former Redskins receiver Santana Moss

Snyder brushed off the concerns. Griffin was selling jerseys, appearing on magazine covers and making Washington relevant for the first time in a decade. The Redskins were on their way to their first division title in 13 years, with a budding superstar in Griffin. Anything he wanted, Snyder was happy to provide. No one realized that the franchise was coddling the wrong guy. "Kirk dealt with a lot that we don't know about," says Santana Moss, the former Redskins wide receiver. "It was sad. We all heard the whispers."

Five years later, that locker room snub might seem like a petty thing to hold on to, an affront that has no relevance now. After all, Griffin is out of the league, while Cousins has been Washington's starter for three seasons. The team, whose front office declined comment for this story, has paid him $44.3 million over the past two years under the franchise tag, and he might eventually become the NFL's highest-paid player.

But to understand why the marriage between Washington and Cousins has always been an uneasy one, you need to understand the importance of that moment. It was a slight that planted a seed that sprouted into a belief. That belief, over time, hardened.

When are they ever going see me, Cousins wondered, as something other than a scrappy fourth-round pick?

IT'S RARE TO watch Cousins size up a defense and think you're about to see greatness unfold in front of you. He has found success by playing at a level best described as frequently promising yet occasionally maddening. He throws great screen passes, slants and outs. He gets the ball out quickly and reads defenses well. He just doesn't scare defensive coordinators. He projects competence, not brilliance.

Still, in 2015 and 2016, he led Washington to back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in 20 years. He finished third in the NFL in passing yards in 2016 with 4,917 (a franchise record) and was sixth in ESPN's Total QBR at 66.5. His career completion percentage (66.1 through Week 7) is second in NFL history, bettering (among others) Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady.

Sitting in the cafeteria of the Redskins' practice facility in Ashburn, Virginia, after a recent workout, Cousins admits it has taken him years to believe in his own potential. "A large number of quarterbacks have a confidence that is borderline out of touch with reality," he says. "They have that naturally. For me, it took playing and having experience to build that confidence."

His reputation is certainly complicated by his habit of making mistakes in important moments, especially considering that he has played behind one of the NFL's best offensive lines, according to Football Outsiders. In the red zone last year, Cousins was one of the least efficient starting quarterbacks, completing just 45.8 percent of his passes. Inside the 10-yard line, he was even worse, connecting on 31.6 percent of his throws, dead last in the NFL. And although he has cut down on the interceptions that plagued him early in his career, he threw arguably his worst pick in the regular-season finale against the Giants last season. Trailing 13-10 with 1:27 remaining, Cousins had a first down at the Giants' 43, but he tried to force a throw under pressure to Pierre Garcon while running to his left and without setting his feet. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie easily stepped in front of the pass. A win would have put Washington in the playoffs. Instead, the pick fueled an entire offseason of criticism.

"Great guy, will never embarrass you off the field, and if you were ranking guys, he's probably above average. But he's not special. And that's not going to change." Longtime NFL front office decision-maker, when asked to assess Cousins' prospects

"He'll never be special," says one longtime NFL front office decision-maker when asked to assess Cousins' prospects. "Great guy, will never embarrass you off the field, and if you were ranking guys, he's probably above average. But he's not special. And that's not going to change. What you see is what you get."

That makes what happens between Cousins and the Redskins over the next six months one of the most interesting questions in the NFL. Cousins is the Joe Flacco conundrum all over again. In a league in which competent quarterback play is essential to long-term success, Cousins is a guy you can win with but who needs plenty of help. Do you risk overpaying him because you believe the alternative might be significantly worse?

In a league in which Jay Cutler and Case Keenum are starters, though, the answer is yes-some team is going to pay Cousins $25 million (or more) in 2018. If he signs a long-term deal, Washington (or someone else) will likely have to guarantee him $90-100 million, based on what the Lions gave Matthew Stafford, and Cousins might end up as the highest-paid player in NFL history. The market will demand it.

Does Cousins even want to be in D.C. for the next 10 years? Former Redskins general manager Scot McCloughan, who declined comment for this story, reportedly tried to sign Cousins to a long-term deal before 2016. But the initial offer, according to people briefed on it, was $12 million a year, and Cousins was insulted. He would have signed if the team had offered a three-year deal at $19 million per, according to a source familiar with his thinking. Allen wouldn't go higher than $16 million. The team felt as if it hadn't seen enough, that he'd played only nine good games. Instead, it ended up paying Cousins significantly more when it had to franchise him.

The mixed signals and the team's lack of candor bugged him more than any locker room handshake ever could. When he led Washington to a November win over the Packers in 2016, he couldn't resist playfully screaming "How do you like me now?" at McCloughan and tousling his hair as he jogged off the field. Cousins, according to people close to him, spent years watching the team fawn over Griffin, treating him like royalty, and when it became his team, Washington didn't show him similar respect. If Griffin had put up the same stats Cousins had, wouldn't he already have a substantial contract offer?

When Allen went to visit Cousins in Michigan this offseason to persuade him to sign a deal, Cousins looked him right in the eye and told him it wasn't about the money. He was going to play under the franchise tag again. "I prayed about it and said, 'Lord, what do you want to do?'" Cousins said this offseason at Liberty University's convocation. "I just didn't feel a peace about signing a long-term contract. I think the Lord communicates to us in many ways, and one of those ways is through his peace. I just didn't feel a peace. I do believe that the Lord, at least in my life, he likes to use one-year contracts, not long-term contracts, if you will."

Publicly, Cousins has never shown signs he holds a grudge. He's said all the right things, gushed about the city and the fans on social media. But privately, he has told several people he is open to reuniting with Kyle Shanahan, the former Washington offensive coordinator who is the 49ers' head coach. Or maybe Sean McVay, another former offensive coordinator, who is now running the Rams.

IN SOME RESPECTS, it's improbable Cousins' athletic career happened at all. He refers to it as a miracle, and with good reason. When he was 19 months old, Cousins was playing in the kitchen when he pulled a pot of boiling spaghetti off the stove. The scalding-hot water left third-degree burns on his chest, shoulders and underarms. He spent two weeks in the hospital, and a year later a doctor told his parents that Cousins might have limited range of motion in his arms for the rest of his life. He might never be able to throw a ball properly, the doctor emphasized. A few scars remain, but nothing else in the original prognosis came to pass. The incident did, however, establish what Cousins would come to see as a theme in his life. He would be tested, sometimes plagued, by doubt, but his faith would eventually reward him. "I see it as the compass that points north," Cousins says. "We all have a lot of storms in our life, and without the compass it can be pretty easily swayed to the right or left."

In high school, it seemed coaches never believed in him until he starred for their teams. "I don't think he's ever walked into a situation where someone has said 'You're our guy,'" says his father, Don Cousins, a small-town Michigan pastor. "It was always 'Well, we'll give him a try.'"

But one of the biggest tests came his junior year of high school, when Cousins injured his ankle in the first game. He was hit while throwing a pass and hobbled through the rest of the game, throwing three touchdowns in a win. The next morning, his ankle was so swollen he couldn't walk. A visit to the doctor revealed his worst fears: His ankle was broken, there was ligament damage, and his season was over. In the car on the way home, he had tears running down his cheeks. He'd worked so hard to get here, he told his father, and now his dream of playing college football was circling the drain. "You don't know that," Don Cousins told his son. "But you do have a decision to make: Are you going to try and control your future, or are you ready to surrender your future to the Lord and let him do as he pleases?"

Cousins traded in his cast for a walking boot. He prayed a lot, finding particular solace in Proverbs 3:5-6. "Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding." Improbably, he ended up returning for the final three games of the season and finished the year with 12 touchdowns. That gave him some tape he could send around to college recruiters. Michigan State offered him a scholarship, but only on the condition that several recruits the Spartans were more interested in didn't sign first. Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio soon realized how much he'd underestimated Cousins. "The guy is clutch," Dantonio says. "He's not intimidated by any situation. And he made people around him better." He would eventually leave East Lansing as the school's career leader in touchdowns, passing yards and quarterback rating.

The theme of his athletic life, though, continued when the draft came around. The NFL's interest was lukewarm. When the Redskins selected him with the 102nd pick in 2012-exactly 100 picks after Griffin-he couldn't hide his disappointment. His parents' living room felt more like a funeral parlor. "Dad, I'm at a complete dead end," he said. He knew he wouldn't even be allowed to compete for the job. "I remember telling him, there is a reason you were picked," Dantonio says. "People don't usually do this. They must feel pretty good about you."

In the years that followed, he gradually changed perceptions. He kept his mouth shut in quarterback meetings while Griffin slowly began to lose allies. "Robert was a diva to everyone, not just Kirk," Mike Shanahan says. "His teammates all knew. Kirk handled that situation like a pro, and all his teammates could see it."

"The one thing I like about film, it doesn't lie. The guys in practice know. The guys in games know. They see you busting your butt. With Robert, stuff just wasn't adding up." Former Redskins receiver Santana Moss on Robert Griffin III

Players didn't initially dislike Griffin, Moss says. He was making dynamic plays and selling tickets. But over time, it was infuriating that he couldn't make even the most basic reads. Receivers eventually resorted to telling Griffin in the huddle who was going to come open on certain playcalls. Griffin would still freeze after the snap and miss guys running wide open. "The one thing I like about film, it doesn't lie," Moss says. "The guys in practice know. The guys in games know. They see you busting your butt. With Robert, stuff just wasn't adding up. Then Kirk gets in later in the year, and it's crazy. Suddenly the guys who are open are getting the ball."

Griffin, not surprisingly, remembers things differently on many fronts. "I know what the truth is," he tells ESPN in a recent phone interview. He says if teammates had criticism at the time, they didn't voice it to him. "And I know that has gotten a little bit blurry over the years."

Mike Shanahan says much of the tension stemmed from Griffin's insistence that the Redskins let him morph into a dropback passer. The team was open to the idea, especially after Griffin reinjured his knee in the 2012 playoffs against the Seahawks, after which Shanahan came under heavy criticism for letting Griffin play with a sprain. The coach remembers that Griffin wanted to play, and Griffin backs that up: "Any player in the heat of the moment, whether they've got one leg or no legs, they're going to want to play."

But later, when the Redskins tried to change to a more pro-style offense, Shanahan was frustrated that Griffin wouldn't put in the work. He thought Griffin believed he'd already arrived as a player. "It takes time to master that," the coach says. "But he wanted to be known as a dropback passer because of his brand. He had people telling him things that weren't in his best interest, and he didn't want to be known as a running quarterback."

Again, Griffin has a different take: "It's surprising and shocking to me he would say those things in reference to a brand," he says. "What I wanted to be ... is what every quarterback wants. To master things from the pocket. We weren't able to get there because our time was cut short. I think I could have gotten better at the things he's talking about if we'd continued." Shanahan was fired at the end of the 2013 season, a move several people in the organization believe happened because he wanted to let Cousins compete for the job. Shanahan concedes that he felt Cousins had the potential to be the next Drew Brees.

Jay Gruden was more skeptical. He took over and saw Cousins as a quiet backup who was afraid to step on toes. "He was still a little fragile," Gruden says. "It took him a while to establish himself." Gruden tried to find a way to make things work, but as tensions in the locker room rose, the situation became untenable. At the start of 2015, with Griffin still struggling to get healthy, a group of players went to Gruden and implored him to make a change. Gruden and McCloughan persuaded Snyder and Allen it was time to give Cousins a shot. Griffin was relegated to third on the depth chart and spent the entire season inactive before he was released in March 2016. He remains without an NFL job, although he had a tryout with the Chargers this offseason.

Cousins, meanwhile, grew obsessed with unlocking his potential. "I crave discipline," he says. He studied tape and read books on leadership, finance and spirituality. He prepared spreadsheets that divided his days into 15-minute increments, each activity color-coded. At one point, Cousins taped an old high school math quiz, wrinkled and ripped down the middle, above his desk at home. He'd gotten a C-plus after failing to study and kept it to remember what happens when he doesn't work hard enough.

"If he does have a weakness, it's that he's too much of a perfectionist," Gruden says. "He wants everything to be perfect. Unfortunately, I can't get guys 30 f---ing yards open all the time. There are going to be some tight-window throws he's going to have to throw some days. I'll call some of these in practice, and if it doesn't look exactly the way I drew it up, he'll [say], 'I don't know if I like that. I can't call it in a game.' I'm like, 'Bud, c'mon.'"

Cousins chuckled when told of Gruden's comments. "If I played the way Jay is suggesting," he says, "I'd throw 20 interceptions a year, and I wouldn't last. I know my limitations."

WHAT'S MADDENING ABOUT Cousins is, there are times when he can turn even the most hardened football cynic into a believer. There are series, even entire games, when his passes seem to whistle through the air, when Cousins can freeze safeties with his eyes and zip passes through chaotic tangles of arms, the ball nestling softly into a receiver's hands. And whatever his faults, Cousins is the rare player who has improved every season he's played football, dating back to high school.

Cousins couldn't make deep throws to the outside of the field when he came into the league, and when he tried to put some extra mustard on shorter passes to prove he had arm strength, veterans like Moss told him to stay in his lane and not try to become something he was not. "I remember Kirk threw me a ball in practice once, and he threw it so hard it kind of messed up my finger," Moss says. "I said, 'That's not you. You throw a catchable ball.'"

But Cousins knew he had to show he could stretch the field. Each offseason since he was drafted, Cousins has worked with throwing mechanics guru Jeff Christensen to improve his technique. They labored for hours over his footwork, when to open his hips, how to position his elbow. Cousins learned his lower body, not his arm, was the key. The ball started coming out with more zip and accuracy, without additional effort. Now Cousins might not have a cannon for an arm, but he has one of the NFL's quickest releases. He gets sacked on only 4.1 percent of his attempts, seventh best in NFL history.

You could see all that hard work jelling into something special during Washington's Week 4 game against Kansas City at Arrowhead Stadium. Cousins, who had missed practice during the week for the birth of his son, Cooper, but still managed to FaceTime into meetings, came out throwing lasers, including a 44-yard touchdown to Terrelle Pryor Sr. on the first drive. As the game went on, he recognized mismatches and exploited them readily, making crisp throws into small windows and avoiding big mistakes.

On Washington's next-to-last drive, with his team trailing 20-17, Cousins twice eluded pressure, broke the pocket and darted downfield, risking his safety and, potentially, millions of dollars to dive for first downs. What came next felt like Cousins' pièce de résistance. On third-and-2 from the 22, he dropped back, looked right and considered throwing to tight end Jordan Reed. Instead he scanned the field, stayed calm, looked left and saw receiver Josh Doctson in single coverage on the other side. He patted the ball once, reset his feet and uncorked what was, considering the moment, one of the best throws of his career.

The pass knifed through the air, just beyond the outstretched arm of the Chiefs' Phillip Gaines, and settled in Doctson's large hands. Doctson tucked the ball away, got one foot down, then the next, and crashed to the ground. It looked as if he and Cousins had just connected for the winning touchdown.

Then the ball squirted free; the pass fell incomplete.

Washington settled for the tying field goal, and with under a minute to play, Kansas City easily drove the field for the winning field goal. All of Cousins' magic went for naught. Instead of being upset, he tried to take solace in the process, not the outcome. "When you're outcome-focused, it's toxic," Cousins says. "I think it comes back to bite you."

THERE HAVE BEEN signs of thawing in the relationship between Cousins and the team. This spring Snyder got involved in Cousins' recruitment for the first time, reaching out to express that he wants Cousins to be part of the team's future. He has taken Cousins to dinner, texted with him off and on, and tried to make his appreciation clear. "He's done everything right," Cousins says.

Cousins, in turn, has said several times that the Redskins remain his first choice. He would like to play his entire career with one franchise, he says. Asked last week about the significance of the 2012 locker room snub, Cousins says he has moved on. "The team has clearly communicated their desire to have me around," he says. "I was the one who decided to play on the tag. The team was happy to commit and do a long-term deal."

Against San Francisco in Week 6, facing his old coach Kyle Shanahan, Cousins at times played as if he were auditioning for a job in 2018. He carved up the Niners with surgical efficiency, throwing two touchdowns early and helping Washington open up a 17-0 lead. The winless 49ers clawed their way back, but Cousins eventually finished them off, scoring on a 7-yard read-option in the fourth quarter, the exact kind of play Griffin used to run with transitory brilliance. "I'm happy for him," Gruden says. "He's done a good job. He's going to keep doing a good job, either here or somewhere else. Hopefully it will be here. That's what our plan is, anyway."

After Cousins' touchdown run, he jogged the length of stands behind the end zone of FedEx Field with his hand out, vacuuming up as many high-fives as he could. The crowd went bonkers, and you could even see a few fans dangling their arms over the railing while wearing Robert Griffin III jerseys. It was easy to imagine the scene on repeat, with Cousins stirring up the home crowd every week, for years and years to come.

It was just as easy, though, to think of the victory lap as a polite precursor to him saying goodbye.