You Would Treat Kirk Cousins the Same Way
Business of Football

You Would Treat Kirk Cousins the Same Way

Washington’s handling of the quarterback’s contract status isn’t dysfunctional. In the NFL, it’s just smart business

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I’m writing from the Sloan Sports Analytics conference at MIT, where I spoke on sports and marijuana, and next I’ll be heading to South by Southwest, where I will speak on sports and gambling. You might be sensing a theme there, but first, some NFL thoughts as the business of football heats up.

Making Sense of Cousins

I continue to disagree with narratives about Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins, who has been franchise-tagged for the second consecutive year, and the team’s alleged dysfunction of handling his contract status. Having been on both sides as a team executive and as a player agent, I’m not seeing any of this here.

Although I grew up in Washington a diehard Redskins fan, my readers know that I have been quite critical of the team in the past, specifically its history of unsuccessful attempts at making expensive quick fixes rather than taking the long view toward sustained success. Having said that, I cannot find fault over their management of Cousins’s contract. Were Cousins a “normal” free agent, I would feel differently. This, however, is not normal due to the powerful management tool of the franchise tag.

Last year, the team and Cousins negotiated a $15-16 million level before applying the $20 million franchise tag. And, I am told, they were surprised that Cousins, who had made little in career earnings at that point, didn’t jump at such a deal. Should Washington have negotiated at a higher level last year? Well, the top “true free agent” quarterback, Brock Osweiler, wasn’t able to garner much more than that ($17 million a year) and Washington was able to “rent” Cousins at a high one-year number despite being apart on valuation.

Spinning it to the present, Cousins's camp sees the $24 million tag number as a fresh data point for average per year on a long-term contract. And while Washington may be willing to go above the level of their negotiations last year, they are not going to the $24 million level for more than one season, a contract that would make Cousins the second-highest player in the NFL (only behind Andrew Luck).

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As to Cousins having leverage, well, he had leverage to get a $24 million, one-year deal. Beyond that, the tag has stripped him of leverage to get the long-term deal he wants. Washington has plenty of salary cap room and can negotiate (or not) at whatever level they like with the tag as a powerful safety net in negotiations. And while Cousins may have more leverage next year, the team can start to plan on life without him if they choose to do so.

As to the notion of trading Cousins, well, why would they do that? Cousins is under team control and knows the offense well. And as to the potential trade partner of the 49ers and Kyle Shanahan, well, 1) they seem to be linked to every potentially available quarterback; and 2) it would take a “stupid offer” for Washington to consider a trade (along with a massive contract for Cousins). New 49ers general manager John Lynch does not want to start his tenure with a one-sided trade.

One interesting thing to watch is whether Cousins signs his tag contract soon, as he did last year. I have had a thought about Cousins that may sound counterintuitive; that his “niceness” and good nature hurt him here. Washington has known that he will not complain or miss any offseason work, and he’ll continue to be a leader in the locker room, etc. Were Cousins to be more of a pain to the team, which is not in his nature, it may actually have served him better to force the team into dealing with him more on his terms.

Kirk Cousins may well have leverage over Washington one day, but despite his high short-term earnings, that day is nowhere near.

Lowering Expectations

As I note every year at this time, “Deletion Season,” as I call it, precedes acquisition season, turning hundreds of millions of (illusory) contract dollars into dust. Among the casualties this year have been team signature players from the recent past including Adrian Peterson, Jamaal Charles, Darrelle Revis and (to come) Tony Romo.

Peterson and Romo are problematic signings now, due to the combustible mix of recent injury and advancing age (players do not become “less injured” later in their careers). Both situations scream for performance-based contracts very different than what these players have been used to. They have to be willing to adjust to a contract light on “hard money” and heavy on incentives. Neither can expect to walk into a team as the presumed starter; injury histories will not allow for that. There will be interest, but that interest will be as a 1A or a 2 at their position, not a 1.

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As for Romo, it is hard to see the fit. I don’t see rebuilding teams like the Bears, Jets, Browns of 49ers being interested. Denver has a first-round pick from last year (Paxton Lynch) who has to start playing at some point. As for Houston, are they really going to not play Osweiler and his $16 million guaranteed, or take a closer look at their draft investment of Tom Savage in favor of an unreliable (physically) Romo? I’m not seeing it. Your guess on Room’s 2017 home is as good as mine.

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Kaepernick Practicality

Another intriguing name on the market is Colin Kaepernick, who just opted out of a team that has zero quarterbacks on its roster (which, to me, means Shanahan and Lynch told him he wouldn't be welcome there). As for his pending free agency, he has tried to guard against what I call “distraction discrimination” by no longer kneeling for the anthem.

I do not share the cynicism of many that Kaepernick’s protests were in vain and that he looks insincere now. His protests were important and effective, brought a wealth of discussion, and evoked previously latent feelings among players and coaches in many sports. Further, he put his time and money behind his protest. Kaepernick was and is able to both protest and engender substantive conversation on difficult issues and be practical about his career. They are not mutually exclusive.

Deceiving Numbers

Finally, my annual warning about free agency: contracts are not what they appear to be. This is not the NBA or Major League Baseball, where contracts are what media reports say they are. Even the best NFL free-agent contracts rarely guarantee more than two years of these four and five-year contracts and, in most cases, even the second year has a trigger point to activate guarantees. Believe me when I say this: team executives smile when media reports—driven by the agent—inflate the actual value of these deals. It makes the agent and player feel good while the team and owner know they can “get out” after two years. As we have seen in recent weeks, five-year deals signed in 2015 have ended in 2017. And many of these “splash” signings this week will be casualties two years from now, when the guaranteed money runs out. Players, and readers, beware.

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