-- KAPALUA, Hawaii -- The thick beard has been replaced by stubble that comes from going a day without shaving. That might be the only thing different about Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins since he signed his franchise tender, a one-year contract worth nearly $20 million.
The intensity and drive that marked his surprising rise last year in his first full season as a starter are still evident when you speak to him. He insists that determination won't diminish despite being scheduled to earn nearly $17.5 million more than he did in his first four seasons combined.
"I never played football thinking about money, and going forward I never want to play football thinking about money," Cousins said. "That's why I think it's important for me to play with a salary that's just locked in. I don't want to be thinking about individual accomplishments or rewards that would boost my salary or up my numbers. I just want to go out and play football and try and win games. So whether I'm making what I made last year [$660,000] or this year, I just want to play football and treat it like I did back in high school and love playing. It's a tremendous blessing to be paid to play this game the way I will this year."
Cousins and Washington have until July 15 to negotiate a multiyear contract, but the former Michigan State star said he's comfortable playing under the franchise tag for 2016 if a long-term agreement fails to materialize.
"Discussions are always ongoing," he said. "You're never really finished. It's a process and I think much like the process of preparing for a football game, you're not ready to play the game on Wednesday; you prepare to get ready for Sunday. I think negotiations often work that way. You know that maybe it's not Sunday yet -- it's Wednesday in this negotiation -- and we're just taking steps toward what will eventually be Sunday. So we'll see. Obviously it gets more interesting as it gets closer to 'game day,' if you will.
"But I'm not too worried about it. I'm very content in the situation I'm in and love the opportunity to prove myself again next season. I feel like it's only fair if that's what's asked of me -- to go out and prove it, that I ought to be a starting quarterback. That's OK with me."
Many were stunned last year when Cousins was named the starter shortly before the season opener. The job was supposed to belong to Robert Griffin III, for whom Washington surrendered three first-round picks and a second-round selection to move up four spots and draft No. 2 overall in 2012. Cousins was taken three rounds and 100 picks later in the same draft.
Griffin started his career spectacularly, winning offensive rookie of the year after completing 65.5 percent of his passes for 3,200 yards and 20 touchdowns, with just five interceptions. He also rushed for 815 yards and seven scores. But injuries and inconsistency took hold from there, eventually prompting coach Jay Gruden to name Cousins the starter before Week 1 last season.
It was a bumpy ride early. Cousins had only limited opportunities to work with the starters in training camp, and the lack of chemistry showed. He threw multiple interceptions in four of his first six games, each contributing to a loss. Things got worse in Week 7, when Washington fell behind Tampa Bay 24-0 midway through the second quarter. Did Gruden make a mistake naming the starter? Was Cousins in over his head?
Cousins answered by leading the biggest comeback in franchise history, his 6-yard touchdown pass to Jordan Reed with 24 seconds to play producing a 31-30 victory that kicked off a march to the playoffs. Washington finished 7-3 over its final 10 games, with Cousins throwing for 23 touchdowns and only three interceptions during that time. It marked not only a tremendous finish to the season, but an interesting start to contract negotiations. In essence, Washington has said to him: We like you a lot, but we'd like you even more if you showed us you could do it again.
"There's no doubt that next year if I'm playing on the tag it's a great opportunity to prove yourself again, and that's OK," Cousins said. "I think that's part of playing in this league and being in a lot of pressure situations and facing a lot of scrutiny. ... I was a much better quarterback going into that playoff game than I was going into Week 1, and I guess that's why there's a lot of excitement going forward 'cause you feel like if that much growth could take place -- not just in me as a player, but in our offense and in our team in 17 weeks -- why can't we continue to grow and take steps forward in our offseason program and training camp and go into another season? I think a lot of us are excited, especially on the offensive side of the ball, for some of the chemistry we've been able to build and the future that lies ahead. I think the key is to not get complacent."
The team and the offense now belong to Cousins for the foreseeable future. Washington left no doubt when it released Griffin on March 7.
"It was a good relationship," Cousins said of his time with Griffin. "I go back to the very first day in Washington. He and I were roommates in the hotel at rookie minicamp and he had a laptop already and had already picked up some of the offense, and he sat me down and started showing me some of the plays he'd already learned and gave me the chance to continue to get a head start at rookie minicamp. That kind of relationship continued on from there for four years, and it wasn't a distraction at all in Year 4.
"He was a great teammate throughout the season and supportive, and he had a lot of experience having played a lot and was able to be a big help to me. So, it was a positive thing. ... It was a good relationship and I've always felt that way."
Cousins is in Hawaii for the NFL Players Association meetings. Executive director DeMaurice Smith repeatedly stresses the need for players to see football as a business and not just a game. Cousins took those words to heart during contract negotiations, acknowledging that he heard outside comments that he should take a lesser salary so the team could have more money to sign other players.
"I understand all perspectives on the issue," he said. "I, as a fan, would understand why you'd say 'take a discount.' It certainly opens up salary cap space; it's gonna make it a lot easier on a general manager, on a team, to be able to have success. I understand where they're coming from. It's a little more complicated than that, but everybody's entitled to their own opinion and I'm certainly not gonna tell them that they have to think a certain way."
Will money change Cousins? Those who know him doubt it. But the fifth-year veteran does admit that financial stability will bring about one change. That 2000 GMC van he drove to and from work in the past? It will be replaced -- or dare we say complemented? -- by a new vehicle.
"I'm gonna have that van as long as possible. Even when it dies I may just put a new engine in it and rebuild it for the sentimental value," Cousins said. "Whether I drive it to work or not on a daily basis, like I did last year, that probably won't happen. I'll probably get a car to go to work back and forth. But it becomes a great car when family comes to town for games. FedEX Field's an hour and a half away from where I live in Ashburn, Virginia, so it's a nice, comfortable ride for seven to eight people. They'll come into town and all need a way to go to the game and we've got a TV in there, we've got a lot of leg room. So the van will stay and, if nothing else, will be a great way to get to and from games.
"So if you come to FedEx Field you'll see me driving off in that. Hopefully after a big win."