Everyone from Washington Redskins Coach Jay Gruden to team President Bruce Allen, General Manager Scot McCloughan and Washington’s most prominent players wants to see the team work out a long-term deal to keep Kirk Cousins. But, that’s not happening before the franchise tag is applied to the quarterback, which will happen sometime before the March 1, 4 p.m. deadline.
The two sides very well could still reach an agreement, and have until July 15 to do so, but it’s clear to two NFL experts that, if there’s a “winner” and a “loser” to any contract negotiations, the Redskins have already lost. It’s just a matter now of how badly.
The Redskins wanted to hammer this thing out before the tag deadline, but the reality was that was never going to happen. Nor is an extension likely before mid-summer. Why, you ask? Business.
It’s the goal of Cousins’s agent to get his client the best possible situation, and as much money as possible. And right now, according to former NFL executive Joe Banner, who spent 12 seasons as the Eagles’ president and two seasons as the chief executive of the Browns, and Joel Corry, a former player agent and current analyst for CBS Sports and National Football Post, Cousins and his agent are holding all the cards. In fact, Banner believes Cousins holds more leverage in these negotiations than any quarterback in the history of the NFL.
To dive into the nuances of the impending negotiations and better understand how the scales have tipped so dramatically in Cousins’s favor, we enlisted Banner and Corry to break it all down from the perspective of the team and the player, explaining the potential end scenarios and offering their best guess on how it will ultimately play out. What follows is the transcript of a 45-minute roundtable discussion during which Banner plays the role of the Redskins front office and Corry acts as Cousins’s agent, Mike McCartney.
Mike Jones: Bruce Allen has said of these negotiations, “I don’t think it’s as complicated as everyone wants to make it.” So, what’s the holdup?
Joe Banner: “I don’t think there’s anything to talk about because the agent will just wait to see if he’s going to get tagged … Whatever the Redskins may want, and I’m representing them in this case, so I would love to sign him, but the agent wants to – and he would have to be an idiot, and this guy is not an idiot – make sure that he got tagged and use that as the basis for a negotiation, if he even wants to have a negotiation.”
Joel Corry: “I’m not going to negotiate until after March 1, or so, let’s say March 2. So, that means the Redskins have made me an unrestricted free agent or tagged me, and if they’ve made me an unrestricted free agent, this is a whole different process, because then I’m going, ‘Well, you can submit a bid with everyone else.’”
Banner: “This is a very unique situation, as I’m sure Joel will agree.”
Corry: “Oh, yeah, it is. You’ve never seen a quarterback that’s in his prime that’s healthy and potentially hitting the open market after playing on a second franchise tag. That’s rare. That is rare.”
Banner: “It’s also rare for a player to be as completely in control. I’ve never seen a negotiation where a player was this completely in control of a negotiation as Cousins is here. It may be his position that no matter what the Redskins offer, he wants to once and for all find out if a quality quarterback under 30 years old hits the free agent market with absolutely no restrictions, what is he worth? How much guaranteed can he get? If that’s the view of the agent, then he could go through a fake negotiation, but the reality of the situation there is absolutely no way to get a deal done if you’re the Redskins.”
Corry: “Right. There’s no way for the Redskins because if that’s the idea, he’s going to say no to anything the Redskins put out there. It could be something which is reasonable in everyone’s eyes, but if he’s hell-bent on testing the open market and seeing what his true value is, then you can’t get a deal done.”
Banner: “And really, the only amount the Redskins could even possibly throw out – and I emphasize the word possibly – is more than what he thinks he could get a year from now as a completely unrestricted, 29-year-old free agent quarterback. So, if you make him the highest-paid quarterback in the league, you pay him $25 million bucks. But if he thinks if he hits the market that San Francisco or Cleveland or somebody will pay him $27, $28 million or even $30 million, the only way to convince him to not even test the market is to do that. And it’s inconceivable that [the Redskins] would even do that. . . . Oh, and the other thing is, Redskins have some problems that they can’t get rid of. Kirk Cousins does not know who, in the first new year of his deal – in other words, 2018 – who’s going to be the head coach of the Washington Redskins?”
Corry: “Right, we don’t know that, and if it’s a [make-or-break] year for Gruden, it could be complete turnover, and we don’t know, but it could be that [Redskins owner Daniel] Snyder blows out everybody after a bad or disappointing season.”
Note: Jay Gruden enters Year 4 of five, which typically is the prove-it year for coaches. With a successful year, they earn a contract extension the following offseason. A disappointing year in this situation often leads to a pink slip at the end of the season.
Banner: “So, Kirk’s decision is, ‘I’m signing in Washington where a year from now, I have no idea who will be my head coach, or I’m waiting a year and then I can go to San Francisco and play for a coach that I know I love and in a scheme I love.’ So, if I’m representing the Redskins, what am I to say to counteract that? That’s why this is such a unique situation.
“You see negotiations where the agent has a little advantage or the team has a little advantage depending on the dynamic. But I can’t think of a situation where the advantage to the player and the agent was so out of balance. There are so many things that Joel could say that I can’t respond to. Kirk wants to know who his coach is going to be in the first year of his deal, which is 2018. I can’t promise him anything. I could say that I fully expect it to be Gruden and I fully expect to have continuity and I could say that I believe that since he’s such a good quarterback, he’ll almost guarantee that. But I can’t promise him that while there are other situations he knows are better for all intents and purposes.”
Corry: “Actually there are two. I’m assuming Sean McVay was signed [by the Los Angeles Rams] in part to develop Jared Goff. But what if Goff flops in 2017. That’s another place, so he has two former offensive coordinators as head coaches, so he could [approach] the Rams, and say, ‘I’m getting to California one way or the other; northern or southern. And I could bid them against each other next year.’ Because the only thing the Redskins potentially could do, because one thing’s almost certain is that the Redskins aren’t going to franchise tag him a third time for $35 million. They could potentially transition tag him for $28.7-million and change and just have a right of first refusal. But if [Cousins] really wants to structure a deal to get out of D.C., he could probably do that.”
Note: It’s ironic that the Redskins have spent the last 25 years looking for stability at quarterback, and now they finally find that guy and face the strong likelihood they could lose him this year or next. Cousins falling into the Redskins’ lap in the fourth round of the 2012 draft and developing into a life raft after the RGIII debacle was a godsend for this franchise. But now the Redskins find themselves on the brink of a debacle.
Jones: So, how did the Redskins get themselves in this situation where they, as you said, have no leverage, basically?
Banner: “By not taking care of this and getting a deal done last year, they took the risk of this happening.”
Corry: “Plus, they handled it poorly from the standpoint of you insulted the guy. You come in and you don’t go above $16 million and $25 million guaranteed? You could’ve at least obligatorily given him an offer that you knew he wouldn’t accept, which was just a shade under Brock Osweiller, but acknowledges that this is what the market was at. [Cousins] may have felt a little bit of good will, may have felt a little better about things. But, you send a signal with Andy Dalton money, which was a deal done in 2014, and then you go out and pay Josh Norman $15 million a year and give him $50 million guaranteed with $36.5 million fully guaranteed at signing? You’ve created a problem you didn’t have to create.”
Banner: “That’s exactly the point. If they handled last year differently, there’s theoretically no animosity, and really, if they’d signed him to a long-term deal, giving him $40 [million] to $45 million guaranteed, that would’ve been the same thing as tagging him these two years, and they probably would’ve secured his rights for the next four or five years. And I’m talking real guarantee, and probably $60 million or $65 [million] a year ago, and now what are they stuck with? A second year of having to tag him and after that a year with no rights.”
Corry: “They didn’t give Cousins anything to decide. They didn’t make it interesting. If they even gave him something to think about, somewhere in the ballpark, maybe he would’ve at least that something to think about. . . . But we’re not even in the same ballpark. It’s like Venus and Mars.”
Banner: “And think about this, what they also did, was force him to play under the tag twice, so $45 million in guaranteed money, plus you’re having to do another deal, so after those two years, probably another $60 million, so he’s probably going to walk out of the first two years that he’s tagged and the next deal with roughly $100 million in guaranteed over 24 months.
Jones: “So, Cousins can’t lose here?”
Banner: “He really can’t lose. But also, the other factor that we haven’t talked about because we’re thinking of this as negotiators, Cousins very well could say to his agent, ‘I’m very happy here. I like the system. I like my teammates and think we could win. Go make me the highest paid quarterback in the league and if they’re willing to do that, then I’ll stay. Then, you can actually have a negotiation. But if you’re sitting there thinking, ‘How can I maximize my earning potential?’ which his actions seem to suggest that he’s doing, then the scenario that we described and the leverage that he has will be really real. So, if I’m the Redskins, I really don’t know what to say. I’ll try to sell you on what I said, ‘We got a great situation here, we’ve got a great general manager, we’re going to win and you’re going to lead us there. We’ve got an offensive line that’s protecting you, and we’re going to get some more weapons. This is the place for you to be.’”
Corry: “Then the question becomes are you going to re-sign Pierre [Garcon] and DeSean [Jackson]? Because, I don’t know what Doctson can do because he didn’t play. Crowder is good. But time is on the agent’s side because the market could change by the July 15 deadline, if they’re going to have an honest negotiation. You’re likely going to have Derek Carr get a new deal that exceeds Andrew Luck, you’re probably going to have a Matthew Stafford extension, because they can’t really tag him in 2018 for a minimum of $26.24 million. That’s [one of the league’s most powerful agents] Tom Condon, so he’s going to drive a hard bargain. And the Falcons, which surprised me, are also interested in doing a new deal with Matt Ryan with two years left and that’s also a Tom Condon client, adjusting a deal that was in 2013 and putting it in a 2017 cap environment. So waiting is perfect for Cousins. He has nothing to gain by doing a deal now, unless he is really in the mindset of I don’t need to get every last dollar or close to it.”
Banner: “And so, because of what Joel is saying, the earliest date that you could seriously do a deal is probably July 14. There’s no reason for him to not see the quarterback market. Even if privately, he’s saying to his agent ‘I want to stay with the Redskins,’ the agent is still saying, ‘Well, let’s wait until after all these deals are done and let’s demand that you’re the highest-paid quarterback after these deals are done.’ Kirk has no reason to say yes to that, because he’s not going to go get injured in a game this weekend. So, let all this play out and beat the best deal by a little bit. If he doesn’t want to stay in Washington, then it’s the scenario that we talked about at the beginning: ‘I’m going to take your tag and I’m going to play out the year and then be unrestricted, 29-year-old quality quarterback.’”
Note: Kirk Cousins is unique in another aspect in that he didn’t mind playing under the franchise tag last year, and he has no problem playing under the tag again this year. Most NFL players hate the franchise tag because it means that while they’re playing on a fully-guaranteed contract, they also don’t have any long-term financial stability. Many worry the tag will leave them unprotected against injury. If they get hurt, will anyone give them a big payday the following year? That doesn’t appear to hold the same impact for Cousins.
Jones: “Is the risk of injury a factor at all?”
Banner: “That is the only other scenario, playing on the tag and getting hurt. But, short of a career-ending injury, he’s still going to get a massive contract. If he had a major injury, and if he’s going to be fine by next September, he’s still going to get a massive contract. So, the risk of injury isn’t that much to use to get Cousins to sign.”
Corry: “And look at Joe Flacco. He tore up his knee and they had to give him a new deal because his cap number was so high, but he actually got a raise and outside of Drew Brees, who in the final game of the  season on the franchise tag, had a career-threatening shoulder injury, and he signed a six-year deal [with New Orleans], which was basically a one-year deal that the Saints could’ve gotten out of if he couldn’t come back, and he did come back and he ended up playing that whole deal. So the risk is only a slight risk and lesser risk than you would think.”
Note: With all potential questions/concerns in Cousins’s mind answered by our experts. It’s time to finally get down to how the negotiations work.
Jones: “Okay. So, Joe, if you’re Bruce Allen, what are you saying to Mike McCartney to sell him on a deal?”
Banner: “Alright, so I’m trying – if I feel like he’s got an open mind at all – I’m trying to sell him on why Washington is the best place for him to play out the rest of his career. He’s got a great situation here. ‘We’re a team on the rise. We’re playing in a division where we can make progress in; you know, Eli Manning is getting older, we’re not sure about Dak Prescott.’ I’m making a pitch that we’re going to get you the right weapons, we’ve got you the offensive line, which is key to a quarterback’s success, and we’re fixing the defense, making changes there.
“We don’t accept mediocrity here. We had a winning season but we made all these changes because we’re determined to be great. You may hit the market and you don’t know what’s going to happen. What if the 49ers draft a quarterback? What if Goff turns out [to be] good? You don’t know. Where’s your home for $30 million a year? Why wouldn’t you take this sure thing that I could offer you in a really good place, with a team that’s going to win, that you like and you’re comfortable here, you like living in Washington.’
“[By this point] I’ve done some research, and is his family happy here? Does his wife like living in Washington? Hopefully I can use that. ‘But, this is the sure thing. This is the organization that wants you, a team that’s getting better and be really good, teammates you know and like, an offensive line that protects you, defense that’s getting better, a division we can win. We’re not playing Andrew Luck in this division.’ So, I’m selling him on everything that think of, the visibility of the market –”
Corry: “But you can’t sell me on Gruden and the risk of him not returning and Kirk then having to learn a new system and that uncertainty. That’s a big key right there. Say the 49ers go out and get a quarterback and the Rams go get a quarterback. This is a league in demand of quarterbacks. The demand outweighs the supply in terms of guys that can start and play at a high level. There’s going to be teams out there that are going to give Kirk Cousins a crazy deal. No matter what Joe or the Redskins say, that’s hard to overcome.”
Banner: “My response when he says that – and really, I think I’m fighting a losing battle. But the hypothetical is, ‘Listen. [You] can’t deny that if you don’t do a deal now that there are some risks. You don’t know what’s going to happen in San Francisco, or the Rams. You don’t know what team will be available. Maybe they just went 1-15 and have no offensive line and you’re going to get killed. Maybe you just had a major injury and now the teams that are interested in you are terrible! Maybe they have coaches that you hate. Maybe you have no interest in playing for them! You’ve got a coach you like, a scheme you like, a team that’s improving, teammates you like, a system that’s proven in helping you excel, so you can minimize the risks. There always will be team, and I’m not telling you there won’t be. But why take that risk? What if the only team available is a team you have no interest in geographically, or the coach runs a scheme you don’t care for. Or the offensive coordinator isn’t someone you respect. Why would you take that chance when I’m offering you a sure thing here and an absolutely massive amount of money?’”
Corry: “But see, you’re not offering me a sure thing. Because I could be in the same situation [of uncertainty in Washington]. You could put in a coach that runs a system that’s new and I don’t necessarily want. So, unless you’re going to give Gruden the extension now, then that’s a problem. And the fact that he’s bet on himself already once now, and that worked out successfully, you know he’s willing to do it. So, the mindset will just be, ‘okay, I’ll just go do it again.’ He’s going to be thinking, ‘I’m an ascending player. I won the bet now, and I can win another bet.’”
Banner: “You can say what you want. But an agent can’t tell me there isn’t some risk. So, again, why take that risk? And we’re going to talk to Gruden some this offseason and have some conversations. I can’t promise what the outcome is going to be, but we feel good about him. We just let him hire all these new coaches, so they’re not coming here thinking it’s a one-year situation. So, I’m going to do everything to satisfy your questions, but point is, you can become the highest-paid quarterback in the league in a situation that you know brings all the risks off the table: where am I going to live, who’s my coach, who’s my offensive coordinator, what’s the scheme, what’s the offensive line? I’m taking all of that off the table for you, and what happens if you get hurt? We can cavalierly say it doesn’t matter. But what if it does? Why expose yourself to those risks when I’m willing to make you the highest paid quarterback in the league?’ And by the way, I’m saying that, because if I don’t then there’s not even a discussion. (laughs).”
Corry: “Exactly (laughs).”
Banner: “Here’s the key to this whole situation: private conversations are taking place between Kirk and his agent. Is Kirk saying, ‘If I can get the right deal, I’m willing to stay in Washington.’? Or, is Kirk saying, ‘I want to be the first guy to test the market, and I’ve waited this long. I’ve waited my rookie contract, played through this tag, I’ve taken these risks and now I want to be the guy that’s a quality quarterback that is going to hit the market with no restrictions, and all 32 teams can bind on me and see what that leads to.’? Because no matter what I’m saying to them, if they’re having the second conversation, then I’m talking to myself [as the Redskins’ representative].”
Jones: “Say Kirk doesn’t want to be here. What can you do? Are there concerns about him being disruptive?”
Corry: “I don’t think this is like a Josh Norman [with Carolina] situation where you have concern about him being here the last year [of a franchise-tag contract]. But if you think it is, if you’re the Redskins, you’re going to want to do a tag and trade. But, if Kirk does what he did last year and signs the offer sheet quickly, then that locks in the guarantee and he can’t shop himself anymore because that’s a guaranteed contract. And would he really want to shop himself to a team that has to give up two first-round picks? If he thinks he’s going to get there through tag and trade, then the compensation in theory would be less than the compensation for the offer sheet, which is two firsts.
Banner: So, that’s a serious decision to make on whether he wants to sign the tag. On one hand, it guarantees that money no matter what happens, which is great. But on the other hand, he loses control to where he is going to get traded to, if he’s going to get traded.
Corry: Yeah, but you still have to work out a deal with him because you don’t want to step in the Redskins’ shoes where you’re renting him for a year and then give up a first-round pick and whatever else and still have to work out a deal. So, he still has a little bit of control. Because if it’s a place he doesn’t want to go, he’ll just be more unreasonable there than he is being with the Redskins, because that will kill that trade.
Jones: “So, if he signs that tag, then it’s done, he can’t market himself to another team even if it’s a non-exclusive tag deal?”
Corry: “Not if it’s an offer sheet. The Redskins could still trade him, but you’re going to have to get the player involved. . . . But you still have to have the player involved and negotiating with the new team because they’re not going to rent him for a year. . . . No-lose situation [for Cousins], to me. I’ve never seen a guy with this much control, and I don’t know if we’ll ever see that again.
“We’ve never had a quarterback who has been forced to or decided to play out the string. A few years ago, if you had Cam Newton play out his option year, we would’ve had the first $25 million a year quarterback, coming off of the MVP year and an expiring contract? That would’ve been interesting, but he didn’t do it. Russell Wilson didn’t do it. Andrew Luck wasn’t coming off a great year, injury-plagued year, first time to make the playoffs and still became the highest-paid player. They didn’t hold that against him, but I don’t think he maximized his earning potential as far as average salary per year.”
Banner: “Most of the great quarterbacks have chosen to be somewhat cooperative with their teams, they haven’t pushed the leverage to the limit. So, that’s going to be the question: Is Kirk going to be the first one who says, ‘I’m going to take what I have and my ability and if they force me to play under the tag for the year without giving me a real offer . . . ‘”
Corry: “And that’s the key right there, that may drive it in the direction of, ‘Let’s see what we can do in uncharted territory,’ which no quarterback has done. And it all goes back to how the Redskins handled it last year.”
Banner: “These players are very emotional, and very, very competitive, and if you underestimate that, you’re in a very tough spot, and they’ve tested that here.”
Corry: “I’ll give you an example of that. Years ago, we had a guy in Tennessee, that was undrafted by them and then re-signed as an RFA extension, and we had talks about an extension in his contract year, never went anywhere. Mike Reinfeldt was the GM, and he wanted us to test the market and then match it, and the player was like, ‘Oh, hell no! You had me for six years, you should know my value better than anybody. Under no rights should I give you a matching right. What I will do, is give you a courtesy call, and you need to put your best foot forward, and I’ll give you a courtesy call when I go elsewhere so you won’t read it in the paper.’ So, Joe is right. Players are emotional, and that’s entered into a negotiation dynamic.”
Banner: “And you’ll see how few players that hit free agency actually re-sign with their own team after free agency has begun, and that’s for the exact reason that Joel just described. It’s not never, but it’s clearly the exception.”
Jones: “So, with all this taken into account, would the Redskins be better off trading Cousins?”
Corey: “Yes from the standpoint: Max compensation is a third-round compensatory pick if Cousins walks as an unrestricted free agent in 2018.”
Banner: “The tag gives them another year to find a replacement. Trade only makes sense if they get a lot and like a [Mike] Glennon or [Tyrod] Taylor [if available] or have another way to go forward with a good quarterback.”
Conclusion: So, basically, everything is coming up Cousins. The Redskins are at his mercy in many ways. This virtually is the most important contract negotiation the Redskins have had in years. And by mismanaging last year’s negotiations – and some team and league insiders argue they should’ve locked up Cousins during the 2015 season – team officials made things harder on themselves.
Even if Cousins wants to be here, this is playing out exactly how it should from a business standpoint from his perspective. So, look for the tag, and then we’ll revisit this July 14 — unless the Redskins get to the point where they think it’s better to trade him and get some compensation now instead of getting nothing next year.
If the latter happens, get ready for the Colt McCoy era and an early-round quarterback draft pick.
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