The problem with the Kirk Cousins situation for Washington, in the end, was best expressed by running back Chris Thompson. He and Cousins shared a mutual admiration, having risen together with Washington.
Thompson didn’t criticize Cousins, but he did indirectly express the reason the Redskins moved in a different direction.
“Everybody got some mixed messages, I will say that," Thompson told the Team980 in Washington on Wednesday. "I know for me, talking to Kirk, being with Kirk, all we talked about was, you know, 'C.T., with you staying healthy, we can do this with you, we can do that with you,' and we were able to do a lot of the things that Kirk wanted to do with me. We wanted to continue this, so for me, I expected him to be here.”
At season’s end, the feeling among some close to Cousins was that the Redskins would tag him again. But because there hadn’t been much dialogue, no one really knew. Cousins planned for life in Washington, but with an eye on an escape route, too. Cousins wanted to feel wanted; the Redskins wanted to feel he wanted them too. This isn’t about being needy, but if one side is going to invest big money and the other is going to invest multiple years, it’s important. Every relationship is a two-way street.
Thompson also pointed to the economics of the situation -- something the organization clearly believed in based on their offers -- and a desire to build around the quarterback. Perhaps if they had Minnesota’s roster, they could afford to pay Cousins more. They don’t have that roster.
"I knew it would be hard given that we want to win, but if you pay a guy [$30 million] a year,” Thompson told the radio station, “it's going to sacrifice some other things as well, as far as helping our defense out, maybe getting some more receivers or running backs and all those type of things. It's kind of hard to say. I think everybody got a different feel about it, but I know Kirk enjoyed being with me, and I enjoyed being with him, so I wanted him to be here, and I think part of him wanted to be here. But at the end of the day, you gotta do whatever you think is best for you and your family."
One thing that appealed to Washington about Alex Smith, according to one team source: He wanted to be here. When it comes to a leadership position, that’s important. And perhaps leading becomes easier with a longer deal.
When a quarterback doesn't have a long-term deal, it makes other players wonder what the franchise doesn’t like. Or, in this case, why the guy wants out.
But it’s not as if every player was consumed with Cousins’ contract status. On the first day of training camp, knowing this was the case, I asked corner Josh Norman how much he wondered about Cousins’ situation. He gave me a look that said it all: He didn’t.
Having so many players on one-year deals was also a problem. At one point in training camp, the Redskins had 17 players considered either starters or key players who were entering the final year of their deals. Some ended up getting hurt (Trent Murphy, Phil Taylor) before the season started. Still, nearly a third of their roster was in a situation similar to Cousins'. And their focus, ultimately, is on what matters most: themselves.
It’s one thing to have hungry players wanting to prove themselves -- that can be good. But it’s another to have guys who need to build stats to get that new deal.
And it’s hard to build the sort of culture you want when there’s constant change. There are concepts you can’t build upon -- or that take longer to add -- when you have to go back a step to get new players up to speed. Change happens every year, of course, and the Redskins’ offense was able to build over the past few years (the defense was not) because so many returned.
Players have to give reasons for a team to keep them around. Conversely, teams have to make players want to stick around. Money talks, but to win, you must create an atmosphere that speaks to more than just a player's financial well-being.
If you’re going to pay a guy a huge sum of money, you want that player to truly want to be part of your organization. Cousins never changed his work habits or his approach. And if he had signed a long-term deal, there would have been no mixed signals -- from either side.
While there were plenty of mistakes made a few years ago, trading for Smith was the right move.