The future of Kirk Cousins — the cloud that hovers over every DMV day — returns to burden a week of your summer. There are only a handful of business days left until the July 17 franchise tag deadline. If the wishy-washy Washington Redskins don’t reach an agreement with Cousins on a long-term contract by then, he’ll make $23.9 million next season playing on that tag, and then, no matter how anyone in Ashburn spins it, we’ll return to our regularly scheduled hell.
At the start of this long and embarrassingly noncommittal nightmare, the debate was about Cousins’s worth. The situation was crazy: A player who had flopped during the first nine sporadic starts of his NFL career suddenly turned into a starter putting up ridiculous numbers. It was hard to determine his value. More than a year later, there’s greater clarity, but Cousins has been so productive and the franchise has managed the situation so poorly that a multiyear contract would require giving Cousins record-setting money.
The quarterback isn’t the one under heavy scrutiny anymore. The franchise is, again. Of most importance now is how much Washington values stability. Considering Daniel Snyder’s history as owner, stability is about as important as rapport with the media. But Washington has spent more than two years rebuilding with a focus on drafting, developing and rewarding its own players. Now the team has a very good option at quarterback, one who thrives in Coach Jay Gruden’s offensive system, but it is dangerously close to breaking from that philosophy and losing a homegrown talent at the most difficult and essential position in team sports.
The next week is crucial to solidifying or destroying Washington’s future. Without a new contract, this will be Cousins’s final season here, assuming the franchise doesn’t do anything more financially absurd than its current double-franchise tag, pay-as-you-go strategy. Placing a third franchise tag on Cousins would cost more than $34 million. Washington also could use the transition tag, which provides less protection but would still allow the franchise the right to match another team’s offer for Cousins. But that would cost about $28 million next season if no deal materializes.
Two franchise tags already will have cost Washington nearly $44 million. Another year of this nonsense would mean doling out $72 million or $78 million, depending on which tag is used.
Last summer, if Washington had negotiated harder and not stood firm on a lowball offer of about $16 million per season, it could have signed Cousins for something in the neighborhood of $44 million guaranteed.
With that reasonable guarantee, it would have been a four-year contract with a full value averaging between $18-19 million per season. That’s what multiple sources believe would have been a dealmaker for Cousins and agent Mike McCartney. Washington wanted to see more because, at that time, Cousins had one good season — which concluded with a second-half statistical explosion — on his résumé. It’s understandable. I even agreed with the decision. But the franchise tag shouldn’t have been a reason to hold firm to an unrealistic offer. The offers needed to improve, and the conversations needed to advance. If nothing else, it would have been progress toward the current wave of negotiations.
To be fair, there are some aspects to Cousins’s performance and the league’s rising quarterback salaries that make this situation complicated and somewhat unprecedented. Cousins has thrown for an incredible 9,083 yards and 54 touchdowns with an excellent 99.3 passer rating the past two seasons combined. He threw for 4,917 yards last season, the 15th-most in NFL history. It’s difficult to make sense of such productivity out of a player who looked like a classic backup his first three seasons. It’s even more difficult to assess because, despite those elite numbers, Cousins is still considered a second-tier NFL quarterback at best.
But the market for quarterbacks continues to explode. Cousins may not be elite, but because Washington is attempting to pay him right now, he wants a fair chunk of a salary cap that keeps growing, not to be slotted in some imaginary salary pecking order with quarterbacks who signed their deals years ago. It’s unfortunate that Cousins couldn’t have exploded earlier; it would have made this process much easier. Then again, the franchise would have been too obsessed with Robert Griffin III to notice any earlier.
There is a Griffin hangover to consider. Washington has yet to appreciate fully how difficult it was for Cousins to emerge from Griffin’s shadow and how the past has subtle influences on the present. Cousins is humble and soft-spoken, but he has an ego. He wants to be respected as the franchise quarterback he has become, not left to feel like he’s a good player that Washington created in a lab.
Can that be accomplished after two franchise tags and two offseasons of fruitless contract negotiations? I’m doubtful. Washington keeps sending the message that it takes two sides to complete a deal. The implication is that Washington fears Cousins doesn’t want to be here, especially with Kyle Shanahan now in San Francisco. If that’s the case, it’s hard to blame him because most franchises wouldn’t have taken this long to present an offer truly worth contemplating.
This is the week for Washington to present its best offer. With the deadline as a pressure point, both sides should talk numbers for the first time in months. They’ve had amicable conversations and frequent communication, but new figures haven’t been put on the table in a while. In a sense, Washington is acting like the teenager who flirts but is afraid to ask the pretty girl out for fear of rejection. He should have asked her out before everyone realized how attractive she is.
There’s little time left now. The big dance is almost here. The franchise must equip Eric Schaffer, the senior vice president who is skilled at negotiating and structuring contracts, with the power to give Cousins something to ponder.
If Washington doesn’t offer a deal that includes about $58 million at signing (the equivalent of this year’s and next year’s franchise tags) and about $70-$80 million guaranteed overall, then the question of where Cousins wants to play is moot because the team that drafted him doesn’t really want to consummate a deal. It would prefer to have one strange, lame-duck season and then receive compensation to move on to an uncertain future. For all the good work Washington has done to slowly build a competitive roster, its direction would be in doubt without the quarterback around which it built.
Many would say instability is inevitable. Many would say instability is Washington’s permanent residence. But many would happily eat crow if given the opportunity.
The franchise is now on the clock to alter perception — or awaken rancor and chaos.
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.