Kirk Cousins' 'How you like me now!?' moment revealed plenty of tension over his Redskins future

Charles RobinsonNFL columnist

Kirk Cousins wanted real, guaranteed money. The Washington Redskins said no. Instead, the franchise wanted Cousins to sign a team-friendly, long-term deal and lower his one-year $19.95 million salary for 2016. Cousins said no.

Neither side was happy with the situation. And those dynamics are still hanging overhead.

While the Redskins have a 6-3-1 record and Cousins’ play is trending upward, make no mistake: the “prove it” campaign is still underway for the Redskins’ starting quarterback. And there’s still some tension wrapped up inside that reality. A slice of that uneasiness was on display in the compelling snippet of video that made the rounds following Washington’s 42-24 romp over the Green Bay Packers on Sunday night. In it, an emotionally charged Cousins gives a congratulatory slap of the hand to general manager Scot McCloughan, then promptly screams, “How you like me now!?” directly into McCloughan’s ear as the executive tries to give Cousins a hug.

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It’s a somewhat awkward, intense moment. McCloughan looks almost shocked, replying “That’s good [expletive]. That’s good stuff, man.” He gives a pat on the midsection to a straight-faced Cousins, who then responds with a feisty swipe of McCloughan’s hair – the kind of thing a big brother might do to his younger sibling. On the surface, it looks like the typically amped-up Cousins having a little I-told-you-so moment with the guy who wouldn’t give him the contract he wanted.

And in this case, the surface does a pretty good job of illustrating reality.

Who’s looking to get paid big this offseason? This guy! (AP)
Who’s looking to get paid big this offseason? This guy! (AP)

“In a perfect world that doesn’t get caught on camera and it’s just between me and him in a backroom somewhere,” Cousins told the team’s flagship radio station, 106.7 The Fan on Monday. “But for whatever reason, it was on the field. And yeah, it’s just organic, it’s natural out of the emotion coming off of a big win. That’s what comes out, just like, ‘You like that?’ or any of the other stuff that’s been put out there.”

None of this should be confused with unhappiness. Cousins has always been an emotive quarterback who has long felt forced to carve out his space in football on an annual basis. That hasn’t changed in the NFL. So he’s capable of feeling joy while also feeling challenged. Some around him have suggested his penchant for always feeling a little underappreciated has helped drive him forward. There’s little doubt that he continues to feel a little disrespected, not to mention a little more driven, too. There’s also little doubt that the Redskins are happy they are getting some return on the one-year, $19.95 million rental season they purchased with the cloud of a franchise tag.

While neither side was appeased by the other exiting the offseason, both have benefitted from the arrangement that has unfolded. But some feelings remain. And Cousins showed a little bit of that on Sunday night, after putting up one of the best performances of his career, throwing for 375 yards and three touchdowns, in a game the Packers badly needed to win. But all of this is leading to another crossroads, and there’s no guarantee what that means.

Here is what’s clear: Cousins could still be elsewhere next season. His next contract can’t be signed until the offseason, but right now it’s no closer than it was back in July. As of this week, the Redskins still haven’t made a significant push to lay down the parameters of a deal that Cousins would effectively sign when the season ends. Even with Cousins’ streaking play in the past month, there hasn’t suddenly been pivotal moment that has made his future in Washington seemingly secure. There’s still a chance that all of this ends up back at square one in February, with Washington staring at the possibility of having to apply a second franchise tag to Cousins.

Why? Because with every great game, the price is going up. A guy who likely could have been had for Brock Osweiler money one season ago – something in the range of four years and $72 million with $37 million guaranteed – will command more than that on the next free-agent market. The Redskins may have to double the $24 million in guaranteed money that they offered to Cousins one season ago.

That’s what comes through when Cousins screams, “How you like me now!?” in the ear of the man who will have to come to terms with paying the QB like a cornerstone player. Perhaps Cousins means, “Are you ready to pay me now?!” Heading toward his 29th birthday in August, he wants long-term security and the commitment of a franchise telling him he no longer has to look over his shoulder.

Right now, even in the midst of the Redskins success, he doesn’t have that. If he did, there wouldn’t be the occasional report from media members dropping the name of backup Colt McCoy and how Washington might be just as good with him at quarterback. That’s not the kind of thing that happens when a front office and coaching staff is talking up the starter as an absolutely unquestioned player.

Whether or not Cousins can ever achieve that will be based on what happens in the next two months. This despite rebounding from an 0-2 start to run off a 6-1-1 record in the last eight games, while posting a 16-4 touchdown-to-interception ratio in that span. This will ultimately be about how he finishes the season and in the event there is another playoff berth, how he performs on the postseason stage. Laying an egg in either of those scenarios won’t bode well for Cousins and his contract talks.

This situation is similar to that of the New York Jets’ Ryan Fitzpatrick. Like Jets general manager Mike Maccagnan, McCloughan is a long-tenured and well-respected talent evaluator. And guys like that in charge of organizations are reticent to dole out massive contracts to players whose evaluations are either uncertain or lack a definitive arrow pointed upward. Maccagnan looked at Fitzpatrick and saw a player whose 2015 season was an outlier over the length of his career, and saw an arrow that was flat at best. So he refused to give him a long-term deal.

McCloughan is making his way through the same evaluation of Cousins. He exited last season seeing Cousins with good numbers but limited success against top-tier teams. He also wondered if it was an outlier. And that led to a contract offer that would allow the Redskins to give Cousins a raise but also continue the evaluation – and allowing the team to ditch the contract if that evaluation ended in a bad place after 2016 or beyond.

What’s happening right now is a continuation of McCloughan’s measuring process. And it’s not a simple one. It will rely on more than statistics or even getting a playoff berth. Some of it will rely on what Cousins does to get Washington over the next hump – getting to and winning in the postseason. And some of it will rely on McCloughan’s gut instinct (something every scout-at-heart leans on) about whether he’s seeing a franchise cornerstone or a middle-of-the road starter. If McCloughan ultimately feels Cousins is the latter – good but not special – he’s not going to give him a $20-million-per-season contract that suggests otherwise.

All of which leaves this situation where it was four months ago: in a financial holding pattern, with each side waiting to see a development that promises true long-term security going forward.

It’s an awkward embrace happening in the middle of success. With Kirk Cousins literally wondering how much the Washington Redskins like him now, and Scot McCloughan still waiting for the good stuff to get a little greater.

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