The minute Brock Osweiler signed his deal with the Houston Texans in March, life changed for Washington Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins. If Osweiler, who had started just seven games during his four years in Denver, could receive a contract worth an average of $18 million a year, then Cousins could expect more. Problem is, the Redskins weren’t willing to go that high.
The Redskins used the franchise tag on him, so Cousins' camp believed he should receive at least $20 million in the first year of a new deal. After all, Cousins had the leverage and the franchise tag was $19.95 million. The thinking was any salary should average that amount.
From the Redskins’ perspective, it was a matter of belief. Publicly and privately, key members on the football side say Cousins is their long-term guy. But that belief by the organization is only to a certain degree, considering their offer to Cousins for most of the offseason averaged $16 million a year -- or $4 million less than the get-it-done price. The guaranteed money didn’t come close at all, either -- it was around $13-14 million less than Osweiler's $37 million.
There’s risk for both sides, but the Redskins would rather overpay Cousins after two good seasons than have buyer's remorse after one. Cousins would rather bet on himself than accept an offer that for the average person is like hitting the lottery a few times over, but is not close to what it could be for him in the future -- or came close to what Osweiler received. You can easily state a case that both sides are right.
Cousins’ side knows this: He’ll maintain negotiating leverage into next offseason -- as long as he plays relatively well. Finding a legitimate starting quarterback is difficult and rarely done in free agency. You don’t rush into a deal just for that reason, but it complicates matters for teams. As others in the league told me earlier this offseason, teams pay for the position more than the player.
If Cousins is just average this season, the decision becomes tougher for Washington. Then what do you pay him?
In almost any scenario, Cousins comes out ahead next year by playing on the tag. If he’s good? Add that tag figure to the approximately $40 million in fully guaranteed money he’d get in 2017. If he’s average? He’ll still receive around $20 million in guaranteed cash and likely more; add that to this year’s tag fee, and Cousins will still earn more than he would have had he accepted the Redskins' offer this offseason. If he's bad? He’ll still have a two-year total of around $34 million, including this year’s tag number. Those numbers might be conservative, too.
If nothing else, Cousins should have peace of mind when betting on himself. In any scenario, he’s set for life. Still, he’ll have to make sure to focus on his job only. It helps that he has talked quite a bit this offseason with New Orleans' Drew Brees. He’s the only other quarterback to have played under the franchise tag, having done so in 2004 with San Diego.
But Cousins' talks with Brees and other quarterbacks have been more about the journey they’ve traveled and work they’ve done -- and how they handle a leadership role. That’s what Cousins is focusing on, not necessarily how to play under the tag.
“His work ethic is not new, his desire to be better isn’t new,” one teammate said this offseason, “but it’s grown.”
Another risk to not reaching a deal: What happens if both Cousins and outside linebacker Junior Galette have big seasons? The Redskins would need to sign one before free agency, knowing they could franchise only one (if necessary). But the cap won’t be an issue: The Redskins are approximately $40 million under and can clear more room.
It’s not as if the entire organization is uncertain what Cousins will do. He has major fans in key places within the football side -- some who felt, even as he struggled in 2014, that he could be special. But it’s also true that some in the organization want to see more, hence their offer. Was Cousins' 2015 season the start of something big or a Nick Foles-like anomaly and byproduct of a kinder schedule? We’ll find out this year, but you don’t luck your way into a 29-touchdown, 11-interception season. Yes, he has excellent talent around him, but he made it work. Ask the linemen how much he helped them with how he handled things. Now he just has to do it again. He’s definitely capable. He'll also have a bigger chip on his shoulder, knowing what he still must prove to people in the building.
However, some facts worked against him. Cousins has never led his team to a win over an opponent with a winning record in 25 regular-season starts, a stat some in the organization are very familiar with. He’s 0-1 in the postseason. It’s not all on him, but just like the money is wild for quarterbacks so are expectations and responsibility. For $20 million per year, and perhaps then some, being better in one of those areas clearly would have helped his cause.
This isn’t exactly a game of chicken as both sides can emerge happy. If Cousins excels, he’ll get the deal he wants and the Redskins get their franchise quarterback.
“It’s a critical moment for Kirk and the franchise,” one teammate said. “If this pans out, the franchise is set for the next eight years.”
At this point, nobody involved wants to consider the alternative.