Whether Cousins returns for his sixth season as a Redskin may take the next six months to play out.
On Sunday, Cousins was at the NFC championship game at Atlanta’s Georgia Dome, along with his wife, Julie, a Georgia native, and 71,125 others, cheering the offensive fireworks as the Falcons routed Green Bay, 44-21, to earn a trip to the Super Bowl.
Cousins’s presence triggered immediate speculation, as did his Instagram post from the scene. Was Cousins simply voicing his enthusiasm and respect for the expertise of quarterbacks Matt Ryan and Rodgers? Or was it an artful provocation related to his uncertain contract status in Washington? A double-entendre intended to remind the Redskins’ front office that he not only intends to be Super Bowl-ready next season but also shares a mutual admiration with Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, favored to become the next head coach of the quarterback-needy San Francisco 49ers?
“Negotiating,” wrote one former NFC East general manager in an email exchange, asked how he viewed Cousins’s presence at the Georgia Dome.
Former Redskin Brian Mitchell, now a radio host for ESPN980, saw nothing of the sort. “I didn’t read anything into it,” Mitchell replied, asked about Cousins’s Instagram post, which read: “Watching two of the best in the world do what they do & taking notes to make it to this game next year — score a lot of points!”
Said Mitchell: “I felt he was just commenting on the game. I don’t think Kirk plays the message game.”
Amy Trask, former CEO of the Oakland Raiders, cautioned against drawing conclusions about what was behind Cousins’s social media comments. “Far better for Washington to focus on whether it wishes to retain Kirk [and at what cost it believes appropriate to do so] than to focus on whether his social media chitter-chatter was intended to send a message,” Trask wrote in an email exchange.
Agent Leigh Steinberg, whose roster of elite quarterback clients over the decades has included Troy Aikman, Warren Moon and Steve Young, said he viewed Cousins’s attendance at the NFC championship game as entirely positive — a reflection of Cousins’s intense desire to reach the playoffs and an admiration for a high-scoring offense. Steinberg noted that he’d had numerous clients over the years who’d missed out on the playoffs and attended postseason games and Super Bowls as motivation.
To NFL Network analyst Charley Casserly, a former general manager with the Redskins and Houston Texans, it mattered not what Cousins was saying, if anything, via his Instagram post. “It’s immaterial,” Casserly said in a telephone interview. “The Redskins have the leverage. They hold the franchise tag on him.”
Cousins, 28, is due to become an unrestricted free agent this offseason, able to sign with any NFL team willing to pay him unless the Redskins sign him to a long-term contract or prevent him from leaving by using the NFL’s franchise tag for a second consecutive year.
ESPN analyst Andrew Brandt, a former NFL agent and former Green Bay vice president, saw no gamesmanship in Cousins attending the Falcons-Packers game.
“I don’t see him as a person to have ulterior motives with social media or to even be thinking that way,” Brandt said of Cousins.
By all accounts, the Redskins intend to keep Cousins after he led them to their first back-to-back winning seasons in 20 years, although his shaky performance down the stretch left the team 8-7-1 and shut out of the playoffs.
Multiple scenarios are in play, whether the Redskins strike a long-term deal or revert to the franchise tag.
A long-term deal would likely include a guarantee of $50 million to $60 million and an annual salary approaching $24 million. In last year’s failed negotiations, the Redskins didn’t budge from a $16 million offer, while Cousins sought $20 million — which is roughly what he ended up getting paid via the one-year franchise tag.
In Brandt’s view, the leverage in contract talks shifts to the team when the tag is an option. “When you have the tag, you have a backstop,” he explained.
In Brandt’s experience, players prefer the security of a long-term deal rather than a one-year salary, however handsome. He expects the Redskins to negotiate aggressively, knowing the franchise tag is in their back pocket. If the two sides can’t agree on a suitable annual salary and guarantee money by July 15, the franchise tag applies — barring a trade.
Steinberg said that while the Redskins certainly had the right to franchise Cousins a second time, doing so, he cautioned, wouldn’t be ideal for either party.
“A long-term contract stabilizes the position in the eyes of the teammates, gives Cousins security,” Steinberg said, “and the second franchise exercise carries adverse consequences for the team. It is very hard to develop a franchise quarterback.”
The dilemma for the Redskins, in Steinberg’s view, is: “If not Cousins, who?”
If the Redskins use the “unrestricted” tag, Cousins could sign elsewhere, but that team would have to give the Redskins two first-round draft picks as compensation. Brandt doesn’t believe any NFL team would pay that steep a price, noting that NFL trades are more popular debate fodder among fantasy football players than general managers. “GMs feel the currency of draft picks; they understand what picks mean in terms of purchasing power,” Brandt said.
But nothing bars the Redskins from accepting lesser compensation for Cousins — perhaps one first-round pick and lesser considerations — in a “tag and trade” deal. And the most likely partner in such a deal may well be a Shanahan-led 49ers team.