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NFL investigates Falcons for tampering with Kirk Cousins

Tampering is rampant in the NFL, particularly in the days and weeks preceding free agency. Usually, the NFL overlooks it. Sometimes, it's too blatant to ignore.

The NFL isn't ignoring the mounting evidence that the Falcons might have violated the tampering rules as to former Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins. According to an NFL spokesman, the league is looking into the situation as part of the "standard review process."

There's nothing standard about what apparently happened between Cousins and the Falcons. There are four separate issues for the league to explore, depending on how thorough it is, or isn't, inclined to be in its investigation.

First, did team officials communicate with Cousins or his agent, Mike McCartney before the start of the 52-hour negotiating window? That's the most common type of tampering, and it usually triggers little more than a shrug from the league. It starts typically at the Scouting Combine, with communications that lay for the foundation for the formal offer made once the negotiating window opens.

Second, did Cousins or McCartney provide medical information to the Falcons before the start of the 52-hour negotiating window? Given the unique combination of serious injury, massive contract, and speed with which it was negotiated, common sense suggests that the Falcons knew something before embarking on active negotiations with McCartney.

Third, did tight end Kyle Pitts, or other players, recruit Cousins with the knowledge of or at the direction of the team? Ordinarily, the tampering rules don't apply to players. That changes when players act as messengers for the organization. Pitts, who strongly denied rumors linking Cousins to Atlanta last week, was actively recruiting Cousins then and previously; Cousins said so himself. The effort by Pitts to conceal it suggests an awareness that the Falcons might have been doing something that breaks the rules.

Fourth, and most importantly, did Cousins speak to or meet with Falcons officials before 4:00 p.m. ET on Wednesday? Cousins admitted in his introductory press conference that he spoke with the team's head athletic trainer on Tuesday. (He initially used the word "meeting" before stopping himself and changing it to "calling.") Cousins also mentioned talking to director of player personnel Ryan Pace. Although Cousins didn't specifically say the Pace conversation happened before 4:00 p.m. ET on Wednesday, Pace's phone records will provide a simple and easy answer.

Although the league has couched the review as standard, the Vikings were surprised (we're told) by Cousins's admission that he spoke with the Falcons' head athletic trainer on Tuesday. At this point, the question becomes whether the league will pursue the matter aggressively or perfunctorily.

It won't be hard to get to the truth. Surveillance video will show when Cousins walked through the door. Phone records will show who he spoke to and when. Text messages and emails might be very revealing, too, if (as it seems) the Falcons were reckless in their apparent tampering. On that front, there could be smoking-gun communications between coaches and/or executives and Pitts regarding the things to say to Cousins.

Something clearly happened. It seems that it might have been extensive — so extensive that Cousins admitted on Wednesday that he participated in the recruitment of former Bears receiver Darnell Mooney, who agreed to terms with the Falcons on Tuesday morning.

So, yes, it looks like the Falcons committed multiple violations of the tampering rules, as to Cousins and perhaps as to Mooney. How determined will the NFL be in getting to the bottom of it?

If it was involving the team that beat the Falcons in Super Bowl LI, we wouldn't need more than one guess.