INDIANAPOLIS – If the journey to the next Kirk Cousins contract were a car ride, the Washington Redskins would have sideswiped every parked vehicle on the street by now.
And there’s little doubt about how they got here. The Redskins have internal problems. Again. They have Bruce Allen problems. They have Daniel Snyder problems. They even have Scot McCloughan problems, which is a pity, because he has already infused that team with solid young talent since arriving as the team’s general manager.
Before diving into the civil strife, let’s absorb the logistics of finance that are in play now for Cousins. On Tuesday, he received a franchise tag that will amount to a one-year deal for $23.94 million in 2017. This means Cousins will be on the books in Washington for a two-season total of $43.89 million in guaranteed money.
After following this situation for the last year and speaking with multiple sources familiar with the negotiations, this much is unequivocal: If Washington had offered Cousins a multiyear deal last offseason that included $44 million guaranteed and base salaries of $20 million, he would have taken it. Anyone who says otherwise (on either side of this negotiation) is either lying or trying to rewrite history with alternative facts.
Without a shred of doubt, Cousins would be under a multiyear deal now, with the bulk of his guaranteed money set to expire after the 2017 season, given that the Redskins could have done the deal in a manner to take the same financial gut-punch that they’re already sustaining.
That must look enticing to the Redskins’ brass now, given what its reticence (and ultimately, its blunder) has resulted in. Unless the Redskins secretly believe Cousins is a total phony as a quarterback – or even a mid-level phony – he is wielding an absolute axe right now. The Redskins have nothing in negotiations. They are naked. And someone is responsible for that.
Here’s the bind they’re in:
• Tag Cousins and trade him – a move that will draw far less of a draft pick or player compensation now than ever because NFL teams can see the flames lapping against the windows of the negotiation room.
• Cousins plays out the season at a similar pace of the last two seasons. The option here is the Redskins let him go after 2017, blowing through $43.89 million and having no long-term answer to show for it. Or Washington can franchise tag him for a third season at a clip of $34.47 million for 2018. After that? They’d have sunk $78.36 million into Cousins for three seasons – significantly more guaranteed money than any player has ever made over a three-season span. And they’d be forced to let him go to free agency, having nothing to show for one of the biggest financial negotiation blunders in NFL history.
• The Redskins can transition tag him ($28.78 million) in 2018, paying out $72.67 million over three years – still more than any player has ever earned in three years. But under the transition tag in 2018, Cousins would have the right to negotiate with other clubs. And if the Redskins matched, they’d be on the hook for a brand-spanking new deal likely to come with at least $50 million in guaranteed money. And with the salary cap climbing, that $50 million guaranteed figure in 2018 is very conservative. This means Washington pays out $43.89 million for 2016 and 2017 and then, if its hand is forced, matches a transition offer sheet that delivers potentially another $50 million in guaranteed money, most of which will likely be paid in the first two years of the deal. That would put Cousins at likely more than $93.89 million in guaranteed money for four years of work.
To put that digit in perspective, the New Orleans Saints will have paid Drew Brees and his massive, mismanaged, back-end contract just over $71 million the last four years of his deal. The Indianapolis Colts’ Andrew Luck just signed a deal that if it goes as planned, will pay out about $88 million in cash over the next four years. To recap: Brees, $71 million over four. Luck, $88 million over four. Cousins, $93 million (or more) over four.
All for a guy Washington could have had under a six-year deal right now, if only it had seen this coming last offseason and made him a six-year offer with $44 million guaranteed. Instead, the Redskins made a final offer that included $24 million in guaranteed money, which was laughable given that Cousins was about to earn $19.95 million of that just by showing up in 2016.
So who is responsible for this mess?
Allen, the Redskins’ team president holds the purse strings. He made the ultimate decision on Cousins last offseason. While McCloughan wields influence, Allen is the guy who does the deals, making him the one who is most influential when it comes to the salary slot and what a player is worth under the salary cap. McCloughan, for all his upside, is not a cap guy. He’s not a deal-making guy. He’s a talent procurement guy, a more rare commodity that makes him one of the most respected minds in the NFL.
Allen wanted to get Cousins at a number that benefited the team. It was Allen who gambled on where everything was going. That’s fine since the money guys are paid to do that. But they’re also paid to know the downside of the gamble – and whether it’s worth taking the risk in the first place. And Allen misjudged this one. He has to see that. Really, everyone has to see that.
As for McCloughan, here is the sense I get when it comes to Cousins: He views Cousins as a good-but-not-elite quarterback. And general managers are always reticent to lean on their dealmakers to pay a ton of money to a player who they see as less than elite. There has been no claim or even an indication that McCloughan ever went to Allen and said, “Get this done.” And even if he did, it might not have mattered, because Allen is the guy with the juice. He’s McCloughan’s boss and ultimately runs the show. Just like Mike Tannenbaum does with the Miami Dolphins. Just like Howie Roseman does with the Philadelphia Eagles. And just like Tom Coughlin does now with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
This is the new throne in the NFL – the president or head of operations, who sits next to the owner and runs things, with the first guy below him (the general manager) being the one who is on the firing line if things go bad. That’s where Allen is perched. People in Washington have to know that by now. And if things go rotten with the Redskins, it will be McCloughan who gets dismissed long before Allen. That might explain why a guy like former tight end Chris Cooley – who is ultimately in the employ of the team – can openly speculate about McCloughan’s struggles with alcoholism on the radio and have the team say nothing about it.
Does Cooley have the green light to say what he did? Teams aren’t normally laid back about ex-players working for their radio stations taking shots at the current general manager. Unless, of course, someone on the team – or someone who owns the team – was OK with it. That’s certainly how this situation looks.
All of which brings us to Snyder, the Redskins owner. All over the NFL, we’ve seen front offices and coaching staff relationships go sideways. We’ve seen significant personnel blunders brought upon by disagreements or flat-out mismanagement. And always, everyone ultimately gets fired but the owner who has the power (and the responsibility) to get everyone in the building on the same page. It’s like the San Francisco 49ers czar Jed York said: You don’t fire owners.
But they can be held accountable. And Snyder has to be for some of this mess. He has owned the Redskins long enough to know what the franchise looks like without quarterback talent. And he has been in the NFL long enough to understand that if there’s one guy – any guy – that you sometimes have to pay (or even overpay) to keep, it’s a successful quarterback. Snyder has said he believes in Cousins. Head coach Jay Gruden has said he believes in Cousins. Allen has said he believes in Cousins.
And in return, over the last two seasons, Cousins has proven to be a winning quarterback who is better than any other option on the table. That’s the kind of guy who gets a deal done in the NFL. And that’s what Washington could have done a year ago.
No matter what happens now, Cousins wins this game off the field, too. Significantly. And someone is responsible for that in Washington. No matter where this goes, that reality should linger far longer than any forthcoming quarterback contract.
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