Cousins made play of the year before this season kicks off


Kirk Cousins photo courtesy of Washington Redskins

Health-care reform and the federal budget aren’t the only places in Washington where the numbers don’t add up. The same is true at the Redskins’ offices.

Only hours after quarterback Kirk Cousins agreed to become the first quarterback in NFL history to play two consecutive seasons under the franchise tag, Redskins’ president Bruce Allen took the unusual step of outlining the team’s final offer and claiming his 2017 starting quarterback had turned down “the most’’ guaranteed money ever offered an NFL player.

Of course, he forgot to mention more than half of that “guarantee’’ was the $23.9 million Cousins was already guaranteed without signing anything because it was the cost of the franchise tag the team slapped on him.

In truth then, Washington’s “guarantee’’ was actually less than the $40 million Derek Carr received from the Raiders and far less than what Carr figures to collect a year from now. For one of the few times in history, an NFL player was negotiating with house money.

This is always how it is for major-league baseball players and NBA basketball players. Even hockey players generally are guaranteed the number they sign for. Not so in the NFL, where their labor contract has never afforded players true free agency because of things like the franchise tag, the salary cap and the fact that the number they sign for is seldom fully guaranteed.

Cousins’ decision to reject Washington’s five-year deal was the smartest call he’ll make this season. His decision was not a sucker’s bet. It was a brilliant negotiating ploy that turned the tables on management. In the end, it was Cousins who used the franchise tag against his team rather than the other way around.

A year ago, Cousins wanted a long-term contract for a fair number, but the Redskins low-balled him, wanting to see one more season of production. That cost them $20 million because they had to put the franchise tag on Cousins to control his movement. But it was a price they were willing to pay because club management was not in agreement on Cousins as a long-term answer to its quarterbacking problems.

Cousins went out and threw for nearly 5,000 yards, completed 67 per cent of his throws and answered all his doubters. Problem was he was also in position to become a free agent.  So the team had to franchise him again at a cost of $23.9 million for this season. Their expectation was that he would agree to a team-favorable long-term deal, thus mitigating both the cap hit and that salary figure.

Only problem was Cousins said, “I’m good.’’

He didn’t just mean as a player. He meant he was willing to bet on himself again this year in exchange for a fully guaranteed $23.9 million, knowing he can again be a free agent at the end of the season unless Washington franchises him a third straight time at a cost of over $34.4 million.

Do the math, and it’s $58.3 million in guarantees, $5.3 million more than Allen admitted they offered. If they let him walk, he’d receive an even bigger guaranteed sum. In theory he could end up with $75 million guaranteed between 2017 and the length of any new deal beginning in 2018.

You have to give Allen credit for trying to tap dance the Redskins into a position where the fans believe Cousins was greedily refusing a great offer. But the truth is they were lowballing him at a time when they had no leverage. When they had the leverage a year ago they did the same thing. So what goes around comes around in this case.

That’s a rarity for NFL players, who sign big deals and are lucky if they see half the money in most cases. Cousins, however, became the quarterbacking equivalent of a major-league baseball player or, more simply, an employee who desires to sign a contract that isn’t a one-way train to becoming an employee at will.

Employee “at will’’ is another way of saying they will screw the employee at some point because they have a long-term contract with you, but you don’t have one with them. The only reason you’d take what the Redskins’ offered is if you were thinking like most football players – which is to say not beyond your next Ferrari payment.

Some have said the danger for Cousins is he could be seriously hurt– and thus reduce — his value in future negotiations or, in a worst-case scenario, see his career end. Even if that were the case, he’d already have been paid $43.9 million in guarantees for 2016 and 2017. That’ll pay for a lot of rehab plus a pretty nice house, car and boat.

Unless you’re a moron you can live a long time on that kind of payday.

In fact, Cousins will have received more guaranteed money than anyone but Eli Manning, whose contract extension guaranteed him $51 million. Andrew Luck and Joe Flacco signed new deals that didn’t guarantee them $43.9 million, and Carr’s new $125-million contract only guarantees $40 million. So what did Cousins have to lose?

Nothing.

If the Redskins weren’t willing to commit fully to him with big guaranteed money equal to the market place for 2018 and beyond, what did he care? If they franchise him a third time, he’ll get another $34,478,784 in 2018, which means he’d received $78.3 million in fully guaranteed cash for three years. The only other guy to get that is nobody.

If the Redskins decide instead to put the transition tag on him next year to ensure compensation if he left, it’s still a guarantee of $28,732,320, which also beats Carr’s deal. Under that scenario, Cousins would be free to seek a better contract elsewhere or play another year in Washington and become a free agent at the age of 30.

Through it all, Kirk Cousins has insisted he doesn’t want to leave Washington, even though he’s keeping his options open. One of those options could be rejoining his former coach, Kyle Shanahan, in San Francisco in 2018. Shanahan and new GM John Lynch have done a good initial job of rebuilding the 49ers, but they didn’t seek an offseason fix at quarterback.

They opted instead to sign Brian Hoyer to start for backup money and Matt Barkley to ride shotgun for third-string money. Maybe that’s because they see the fix Cousins has the Redskins in and think in a year he can fix their problems under center?

How likely is it that the Redskins tag him a third time at a cost of nearly $35.5 million? Washington has done dumber things but usually only in Congress. If not … and he has another season like last year … the Niners might be willingly give up the draft picks required to pry him away from Washington.

And they’ll have the cap room to do it.

The 49ers can’t be sure such a scenario will come to pass, of course, but when it comes to this particular passer they may have a little insider insight. Why? Because the same agency that represents Cousins also represents Shanahan. How convenient.

That’s why it would be wise to take with a grain of salt what Cousins told former Redskins’ quarterback-turned-D.C. broadcaster Joe Theismann this week when he said he was happy in D.C. and, “I don’t need to look elsewhere.”

Nope. All he need do is look at his situation, both financially and contractually, to see he’s already made his best play of the year two months before the season begins.

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