Kirk Cousins walked a tightrope over his final three years as the quarterback in Washington.
Following the 2015 and 2016 seasons, he engaged in an annual offseason courtship producing only a pair of one-year franchise tags instead of the NFL's true love language — multiyear guaranteed money. Washington's front office wasn't intent on keeping him long term, despite a 2015 NFC East title in his first year as starter.
After the 2017 season, the Redskins decided against another franchise tag and Cousins became a free agent, signing a fully guaranteed three-year, $84 million deal with the Vikings.
Now Thursday night's stage is set with Cousins and Redskins quarterback Case Keenum — who led the Vikings to the 2017 NFC title game — reversing roles. They'll face their former teams for the first time since the Vikings replaced Keenum with Cousins, giving him what he sought in stability, financial commitment and chances to win.
But with a short week, the NFL's top-rated quarterback wasn't talking about the change in scenery.
"That's not something I need to get into," Cousins said Tuesday. "It's been well-documented, and it's about trying to win a football game."
Emotions will still run high on Thursday night; coach Mike Zimmer wants to guard against Cousins, an eighth-year pro, being overcome by natural emotions of beating a team that wouldn't commit to him. He'll face Washington as the NFL's leader in passer rating (114.3) and yards per throw (9.1) through seven games.
"I'm going to talk to him a little bit [Tuesday] about some of those things," Zimmer said. "He needs to just focus on his job, focus on getting guys in the right place and doing what he's supposed to do. There's always some emotions when you're playing a team that you went against. I'm sure [former Vikings running back] Adrian [Peterson] and Case are doing the same thing, right? It's more important that we focus on what we have to do and his job and what he has to do than worry about all the other things."
Hanging in there
Cousins said he's "grateful" for Washington drafting him in 2012's fourth round (102nd overall) out of Michigan State, and believing in him during his first full season as starter in 2015.
"They stuck by me when there was a stretch there," Cousins said. "We were 2-4 and many people thought it should be over for me to be playing, and then we had that comeback game against the Buccaneers and I yelled the words, 'You like that!' and kind of never looked back. So, I'm just so grateful, and I could list the names."
One of those names is Rams coach Sean McVay, the ex-Redskins coordinator who oversaw Cousins' two best seasons in Washington in 2015 and 2016.
"Sean had a big part of his success," said Redskins interim head coach Bill Callahan, who was promoted from offensive line coach this month. "They're really close and were tied to the hip relative to game planning, suggestions and how they were going to attack people. They were a great duo."
Despite a roller coaster 2-2 start, Cousins has flourished during the Vikings' three-game winning streak. He's thrown 10 touchdowns and just one interception, and that was a fluke off a ball that bounced off receiver Stefon Diggs.
Cousins' stellar play of late makes the Vikings' decision to sign him over Keenum two years ago seem savvy. Keenum, the journeyman who has since bounced from Denver to Washington, will make his seventh start for Washington on Thursday as he plays ahead of first-round rookie Dwayne Haskins.
"He's our guy," Callahan said. "We're going forward with him, and we're lucky to have him."
There should be plenty of emotions for Keenum, too, as he'll play at U.S. Bank Stadium for the first time since the 'Minneapolis Miracle' clinched the Vikings' only playoff win of the past decade. Keenum's 61-yard touchdown to Diggs as time expired beat the Saints in the NFC Divisional playoff, a moment that lives on the walls of the Vikings' practice facility in Eagan.
Keenum told reporters in Washington that he hopes it's "just a normal game."
"There's really no need to get more amped up for any game in this league," he said, "especially when you're playing a team like this with a great defense.
"The fact that it's my old team, I've played long enough to where I feel like if I keep going like I'm going I might play against my old team every week. So it's just a normal game for me."
Diggs downplayed Thursday night's reunion when asked if he and Keenum would share a moment.
"Nah, that's not my girlfriend or nothing," Diggs said. "When I see him, it's all love though. I guess that was a moment we all shared, especially me and him. He gave me an opportunity, and I'm thankful for it. That's my guy still — it's all love. No hugging and all that type of stuff, just a 'nice to see you.' "
Keenum's former teammates had fond memories of him stepping in for an injured Sam Bradford two years ago to save what became a 13-3 season and first-round playoff bye.
But both sides of the line of scrimmage are trying to suppress a range of nostalgia and emotions.
"I hope he doesn't have any miracles on Thursday," tight end Kyle Rudolph said. "I love Case, appreciate everything he did. I hope that Minnesota — Minneapolis — was his last miracle in U.S. Bank Stadium."