Once negotiations entered this offseason -- with another solid year and a rising salary cap boosting the price tag -- it was always going to be more difficult to get a deal done. Cousins owned the upper hand thanks to a second year under the franchise tag. A deal might be more elusive now given the Redskins' statement after the deadline.
The Redskins failed to sign Cousins to a long-term deal Monday, the deadline for franchise tag players, setting the stage for his possible departure next offseason.
Redskins president Bruce Allen outlined the Redskins' offer to Cousins in a statement to the media Monday.
“On May 2, right after the draft, we made Kirk an offer that included the highest fully guaranteed amount upon signing for a quarterback in NFL history [$53 million] and guaranteed a total of $72 million for injury," Allen said. "The deal would have made him at least the second-highest-paid player by average per year in NFL history.
“But despite our repeated attempts, we have not received any offer from Kirk’s agent this year.
“Kirk has made it clear that he prefers to play on a year-to-year basis. While we would have liked to work out a long-term contract before this season, we accept his decision.”
Cousins has said publicly several times that he likes playing in Washington; sources have said he's privately told them the same. Multiple sources over the past few weeks have reiterated that he’d definitely consider staying here beyond 2017. However, when the team president makes a statement like this, it certainly doesn't help. Was that offer made before the pre-tag deadline in March? If so, that could have kick-started talks. Was the offer made in May? That would have been too late. In essence, Cousins would have received one additional year of guaranteed money (two years overall) – but he can do much better when he hits free agency. The deal, a five-year extension, never made sense for Cousins to sign.
But if the statement was designed to get fans on the Redskins' side, then it could turn fans against the very quarterback that the Skins say they want to keep around. Unless they now know they won't. Is that statement really the way the Redskins want to enter training camp?
Still, here are the factors that will help determine Cousins’ future home:
Direction of the franchise: Again, the management of the team will play a crucial role in Cousins' future decision. It's easy to read Allen's statement and think, "Cousins is done here." After firing general manager Scot McCloughan and promoting Doug Williams, among others, the Redskins have altered their front office. One year isn’t enough to tell how good they’ll be, but it can at least provide indicators. Early in the offseason the perception was that Washington’s front office was in chaos (the Redskins say it was more chaotic before the firing). It’s not just about the front office, but also results on the field. If the Redskins struggle – and if it’s not due to Cousins -- then, sure, that could increase a desire for change. On the flip side, Cousins already is playing for a quarterback-friendly coach with a good pass-protecting line and plenty of weapons in the passing game. Assuming they stay productive, it would enhance his desire to stick around. But how the team is managed overall will play a crucial role, too. If that doesn't improve? It's hard to imagine Cousins staying. Some have said he won't sign; others say that's not true.
Working with Jay Gruden: Cousins clicked with Sean McVay as a playcaller and offensive coordinator, but McVay is now the head coach of the Los Angeles Rams. And though Cousins started only four games with Kyle Shanahan calling plays, the QB worked well with him, too. Gruden called plays in 2014 when Cousins played five games. But how will that go this season? Every coach has a different style; McVay is different than Gruden. Both, though, are considered good offensive minds. The early stages of the Gruden-Cousins working rapport apparently went well. Cousins has talked to other quarterbacks about this topic, so it matters. If they’re in sync, it increases the odds of a return. Both are good at what they do and know how to work together. There’s a belief, too, that working together in this role will deepen any relationship, giving them an understanding of each other.
Owner Dan Snyder: The Redskins never came close to finalizing a deal with Cousins. However, owner Dan Snyder’s involvement since early April helped change the notion that Cousins’ departure was a foregone conclusion. During Cousins’ first four years, he rated a clear second to Robert Griffin III when it came to the owner. But without Griffin here, and with two productive years under Cousins' belt, that has changed. In order to have a shot at Cousins long term, it needed to.
The transition tag: Because the franchise tag would be prohibitive at $34 million, the Redskins could use the transition tag for 2018 at a cost of $28.7 million. They would be eligible to use the transition tag in 2019 as well (at approximately $34 million). The danger would be possibly losing Cousins with no compensation if another team signs him and the Redskins decline to match. It could help set the market, though Cousins could always prolong this year-to-year storyline by signing the tag -- and then see what happens in the 2019 offseason.
Cousins' performance: Cousins’ career, dating to high school, always has been about proving himself. For a third consecutive year, he’ll enter a season needing to do so again in order to receive a new contract. The Redskins’ offense lost two 1,000-yard receivers, DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon. The Skins added receiver Terrelle Pryor, but it’s not the same passing attack (though Cousins still has tight end Jordan Reed and receiver Jamison Crowder). Cousins must get in sync with Pryor and 2016 first-round pick Josh Doctson. Cousins needs to do his part to keep this passing game productive. But he has set a franchise mark for passing yards in each of the past two seasons (4,166, then 4,917).
Unlike 2015, Cousins was inconsistent down the stretch in 2016. In the Redskins’ last six games, he posted three games with a passer rating below 79 and three games above 104. In their last two home games, the Redskins lost to Carolina and the New York Giants, and the offense struggled in both games. If Cousins doesn’t produce to a certain level, the Redskins could always decide they just don’t want to hit a specific price. If that’s the case, they could decide to let him walk and gain a third-round compensatory pick in 2019.
Cousins has played in only one postseason game, so leading Washington to the playoffs for a second time in three years would boost his stock. Of course, one person alone can’t get a team there -- or even win a game -- but a strong performance in the playoffs would matter.
McCloughan said Cousins had reached his ceiling as a player. Those who have worked with Cousins disagree, though how much better he can get is, as usual, debatable. But based on how he works, those who know him best say he’ll always be productive. Clearly, if you’re going to pay someone an average salary in the mid-$20 million range, that’s a must.
Leverage: If there’s no threat of a future franchise tag, it would alter Cousins’ stance. The Redskins needed to make offers the past two years that reflected their ability to keep him under the tag. They did not, opting for offers that might have made sense if had he been completely free. If they don’t use a tag on him next offseason, then everyone finally will see his true market value.
Timing and leverage always dictate who becomes the highest-paid player at a position, or at least who rates among the top. Of course, free agency poses its own threat. If the San Francisco 49ers or the Los Angeles Rams need a quarterback, Cousins will have two fantastic options. (Of course, if Jared Goff develops for the Rams, they’ll be out of the market for a QB.)
Cousins has a strong relationship with 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan and with the Rams' McVay, having worked with both in Washington. It’s also rare for good quarterbacks to hit the open market, so other needy teams could help drive the price.