The situation between Washington and Kirk Cousins is even worse than I could have imagined, and I have never really thought that this negotiation was going to end well. The organization itself is potentially the worst-run franchise in the league (serious competition from the LA Rams) and the quarterback, while above average and worthy of a team committing to him as a starter, won’t play up to the level of a top-five contract. Not in my opinion at least, but in a world where Joe Flacco is set to be the highest-paid QB of 2017 and Derek Carr has the biggest APY ever, who am I to judge?
Those deals, and many others, are really where teams, quarterbacks, and fans obsessed with figures, have really gotten off track.
Every time a quarterback signs an extension, it comes with the expectations from fans that it should now set the mark as “the biggest ever.” “The most guaranteed money we’ve ever seen.” “The most per year in NFL history.” That’s the new expectation. Colts owner Jim Irsay promised that they’d give Andrew Luck a “shocking” contract, and then they paid him $140 million over six years. Why make that promise? Why does it have to be “shocking”? What’s the obsession with the numbers on the contract being more important than the numbers on the box score? Luck has been, for all intents and purposes, an above-average quarterback with a less-than-ideal string of injuries and little postseason success beyond playoff wins over Alex Smith, Andy Dalton, and Peyton Manning’s ghost.
Carr ranks near the bottom of the league in yards per attempt and has only been successful when playing behind the NFL’s best pass protection, and with one of the top receivers in the game. In the year prior to that, he was borderline unwatchable, averaging 5.5 Y/A as a rookie. He’s one of only five players in history to throw at least 500 passes with a Y/A under 5.6, joining Joey Harrington, Chris Weinke, Drew Bledsoe, and Jon Kitna.
Three years into his career, Carr is now set to make $25 million a season.
And yet, there’s also plenty of logic to support that move by the Oakland Raiders. Flacco had won a Super Bowl just a month before he was set to become a free agent, but I think it’s fair for anyone to say that they’d rather have Carr now over Flacco back then. Shouldn’t Carr be making more than Flacco? And Jay Cutler once signed a $127 million contract, so shouldn’t at least half the league’s starting QBs be making more than that? If Luck is making $24.6 million a season, shouldn’t Russell Wilson — much more accomplished on a pro field than Luck — eventually ask for a raise to at least $26 million a season? Fans are constantly expecting the next QB contract to be “the new normal” and now owners are touting, even boasting, that record salaries will be handed down.
That’s where this whole Kirk Cousins situation got fucked before jump street.
Despite solid overall numbers over the past two seasons, specifically with passer rating and Y/A, Cousins does not appear to be an exceptional quarterback to me. He deserves to be starting, but then you must also account for the fact that a quarter of the NFL’s starting QBs are bad/replaceable. Cousins falls into the above average range for me, but I have no qualms about putting at least 10 quarterbacks ahead of him without hesitation. Rankings 10 QBs over Cousins is very easy to do. There’s also a plausible scenario in which Cousins, who has a 19-22-1 record as a starter, is a backup to open the 2018 season.
Over his two seasons as a starter, Cousins has played for offensive coordinator Sean McVay, a football mind phenom who is now the head coach for the Rams. His top receivers have been DeSean Jackson (now on the Buccaneers) and Pierre Garcon (now on the 49ers).
Here is Cousins six games into first season as a starter, in 2015:
2-4, six touchdowns, eight interceptions, 77.4 passer rating, 6.23 Y/A.
The next week, Cousins faced Tampa Bay, a defense that allowed 31 touchdowns and had only 11 interceptions that season, and he had three touchdowns, no picks. Then he flopped in a 17-point loss to the New England Patriots, posting a rating of 68.4. Then he followed that up with a perfect 158.3 rating, against the worst pass defense pro football has ever seen: The 2015 New Orleans Saints.
Over the first 13 games of that season, Cousins was fine, posting 18 touchdowns, 11 interceptions, 7.28 Y/A, and a rating of 93.2. But then his numbers exploded in the final three games, all against middling pass defenses, all wins, with 11 touchdowns and no interceptions. If those three games come against three great defenses, then Washington probably doesn’t make the playoffs. He doesn’t post those outstanding numbers. The franchise tag that Cousins receives in the 2016 offseason — maybe then he doesn’t receive it.
But he did and Cousins got one more “prove it” year as a starter. Cousins was more consistently good last season, never having a single dud of a game, never seeing his rating dip below 70 in any of his 16 starts. He did, however, throw an interception in 10 of those games, and he’s thrown a pick 17 games since 2015, seventh-most in the league. Washington is 5-11-1 in those contests.
All of which is to say that the Cousins situation is nothing less than complicated.
Owner Bruce Allen released a bizarre statement on Monday in which he basically blamed Cousins for the fact that the two sides couldn’t reach an agreement before the franchise tag deadline. Allen said they offered him $53 million guaranteed, a figure only Aaron Rodgers has topped, at $54 million. However, almost half of that guarantee is tied to his already-guaranteed 2017 salary on the franchise tag, so it really only amounted to a very sizable 2018 payment and nothing beyond that.
Cousins and his supporters turn around on that offer and say, “Look at Luck, who the Colts are tied to with at least some dead money until 2020, and in many ways my numbers are better than his.” If Cousins can repeat his 2015-2016 success for just one more season, he’ll have an eye on 2018 free agency that could net him a much bigger chunk of change than $29 million.
Still, that’s a considerable “If” statement.
As noted, Cousins has lost his offensive coordinator and top two receivers. He still has Jordan Reed (injury concerns), Jamison Crowder (slot receiver with some limits), Terrelle Pryor (why were teams hesitant to go for more than one year?) and Josh Doctson (injuries, inexperience) but asking Cousins to perform at as high of a level as the last two years with basically a new cast around him is still just a theory. The proof isn’t there yet and the hesitation on the part of ownership is understandable. Every other action by this ownership is not.
Now, I can’t speculate on what Washington should have offered Kirk Cousins, because I have no idea what Cousins actually would have accepted. I’m not privy to that information and nobody should pretend to be. So maybe a standstill was inevitable, in which case the team should have done a better job of exploring trade options — with reasonable expectations on return — long ago.
It still might not be too late.
Given that Allen and Cousins don’t appear to be on good terms, this may be the time for the two sides to split. While Cousins has said he’s open to re-signing with the team after the season .... Why? Why would he want to do that to himself? And why would the team suddenly have a change of heart about his value unless he goes out there and wins the Super Bowl?
I am confident that Cousins, who struggled late last year as Washington was fighting to make the playoffs, won’t win the Super Bowl. He could, however, try and cash in with a different team who won’t won the Super Bowl.
The “in fashion” trade destination of the year for Cousins has always been the San Francisco 49ers. New head coach Kyle Shanahan worked with Cousins for two seasons as Washington’s offensive coordinator. Shanahan also recruited some of his other former players, like Garcon, Brian Hoyer, Tim Hightower, and Aldrick Robinson to come play for him in San Francisco. The Niners also have so much cap room that they could absorb a $25 million salary right now and still have almost $42 million in space, which would rank as fourth-most space in the league. John Lynch also holds the rights to the Saints second round pick and Bears third round pick in next year’s draft, giving them added flexibility to make any deal.
At this point, Washington may seek out “any deal.”
The biggest road block to that is the idea that with Cousins they have a shot at the playoffs this season and without him, they don’t. It’s unreasonable to assume that Robert Griffin III, Colin Kaepernick, or a return of someone like Hoyer could lead them that far. Not impossible, just unreasonable. In fact, it would be pretty hard for Washington to even come close to recouping Cousins’ value, even if they received a first rounder from San Fran, a team that looks like a lock for a top-five pick next year without Cousins and probably tops out at 6-10 with him.
That doesn’t mean Allen won’t feel forced into doing it anyway, given that the alternative could be losing Cousins in 2018 with the only return being a comp pick that relates to being a late third rounder. They’d also save $24 million for this season, which would give them more cap flexibility in 2018, when they could potentially pursue Jimmy Garoppolo or a different backup QB who suddenly becomes noteworthy. Much like Cousins once did.
I don’t think trading Cousins does much to sack Washington’s 2017 Super Bowl hopes, because I don’t think Washington has 2017 Super Bowl hopes. A return of two second round picks and change would open up their books financially and give them more draft capital, but more importantly would officially put an end to an ugly situation for an ugly franchise. For the 49ers, it would give the head coach and GM the quarterback they want to build around, without having to worry about whether or not Sam Darnold or some other QB du jour will fall into their laps next year — though as a Seahawks fan, I can also happily say that I don’t think this trade would land them the QB that changes their whole outlook on the future. Instead, it would be an upgrade at the most important position for a team that can afford it, but still has many other issues to solve before they’re competitive. In addition to that, San Francisco would only be acquiring him with some intention of meeting his contract demands, which at the moment sound like they’re falling in line with the type of thinking that “Bigger is better.”
More total value. More guarantees. More money per year. We have yet to see how that equates to more success, but that’s not our problem to solve. It’s more like our soap opera to watch.