With Cousins, the Red­skins can of­fer chaos or sta­bil­ity

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - Jerry Brewer

The fu­ture of Kirk Cousins — the cloud that hov­ers over ev­ery DMV day — re­turns to bur­den a week of your sum­mer. There are only a hand­ful of busi­ness days left un­til the July 17 franchise tag dead­line. If the wishy-washy Wash­ing­ton Red­skins don’t reach an agree­ment with Cousins on a long-term con­tract by then, he will make $23.9 mil­lion next sea­son play­ing on that tag, and then, no mat­ter how any­one in Ashburn spins it, we will re­turn to our reg­u­larly sched­uled hell.

At the start of this long and em­bar­rass­ingly non­com­mit­tal night­mare, the de­bate was about Cousins’s worth. The sit­u­a­tion was crazy: A player who had flopped dur­ing the first nine spo­radic starts of his NFL ca­reer sud­denly turned into a starter putting up ridicu­lous num­bers. It was hard to de­ter­mine his value. More than a year later, there’s greater clar­ity, but Cousins has been so pro­duc­tive and the franchise has man­aged the sit­u­a­tion so poorly that a mul­ti­year con­tract would re­quire giv­ing Cousins record-set­ting money.

The quar­ter­back isn’t the one un­der heavy scru­tiny any­more. The franchise is, again. Of most im­por­tance now is how much Wash­ing­ton val­ues sta­bil­ity. Con­sid­er­ing Daniel Sny­der’s his­tory as owner, sta­bil­ity is about as im­por­tant as rap­port with the me­dia. But Wash­ing­ton has spent more than two years re­build­ing with a fo­cus on draft­ing, de­vel­op­ing and re­ward­ing its own play­ers. Now the team has a very good op­tion at quar­ter­back, one who thrives in Coach Jay Gru­den’s of­fen­sive sys­tem, but it is dan­ger­ously close to break­ing from that phi­los­o­phy and los­ing a homegrown tal­ent at the most dif­fi­cult and essen­tial po­si­tion in team sports.

The next week is cru­cial to so­lid­i­fy­ing or de­stroy­ing Wash­ing­ton’s fu­ture. With­out a new con­tract, this will be Cousins’s fi­nal sea­son here, as­sum­ing the franchise doesn’t do any­thing more fi­nan­cially ab­surd than its cur­rent dou­ble­fran­chise tag, pay-as-you-go strat­egy. Plac­ing a third franchise tag on Cousins would cost more than $34 mil­lion. Wash­ing­ton also could use the tran­si­tion tag, which pro­vides less pro­tec­tion but would al­low the franchise the

right to match an­other team’s of­fer. But that would cost about $28 mil­lion next sea­son if no deal ma­te­ri­al­izes.

Two franchise tags al­ready will have cost Wash­ing­ton nearly $44 mil­lion. An­other year of this non­sense would mean dol­ing out $72 mil­lion or $78 mil­lion, de­pend­ing on which tag is used.

Last sum­mer, if Wash­ing­ton had ne­go­ti­ated harder and not stood firm on a low­ball of­fer of about $16 mil­lion per sea­son, it could have signed Cousins for some­thing in the neigh­bor­hood of $44 mil­lion guar­an­teed.

With that rea­son­able guar­an­tee, it would have been a four-year con­tract with a full value av­er­ag­ing be­tween $18 mil­lion and 19 mil­lion per sea­son. That’s what mul­ti­ple sources be­lieve would have been a deal­maker for Cousins and agent Mike McCart­ney. Wash­ing­ton wanted to see more be­cause, at that time, Cousins had one good sea­son — which con­cluded with a second-half sta­tis­ti­cal erup­tion — on his ré­sumé. It’s un­der­stand­able. I even agreed with the de­ci­sion. But the franchise tag shouldn’t have been a rea­son to hold firm to an un­re­al­is­tic of­fer. The of­fers needed to im­prove, and the con­ver­sa­tions needed to ad­vance. If noth­ing else, it would have been progress to­ward the cur­rent wave of ne­go­ti­a­tions.

To be fair, there are some as­pects to Cousins’s per­for­mance and the league’s ris­ing quar­ter­back salaries that make this sit­u­a­tion com­pli­cated and some­what un­prece­dented. Cousins has thrown for an in­cred­i­ble 9,083 yards and 54 touch­downs with an ex­cel­lent 99.3 passer rat­ing the past two sea­sons com­bined. He threw for 4,917 yards last sea­son, the 15th most in NFL his­tory. It’s dif­fi­cult to make sense of such pro­duc­tiv­ity out of a player who looked like a clas­sic backup his first three sea­sons. It’s even more dif­fi­cult to as­sess be­cause, de­spite those elite num­bers, Cousins is still con­sid­ered a second-tier NFL quar­ter­back at best.

But the mar­ket for quar­ter­backs con­tin­ues to grow ex­po­nen­tially. Cousins may not be elite, but be­cause Wash­ing­ton is at­tempt­ing to pay him right now, he wants a fair chunk of a salary cap that keeps grow­ing, not to be slot­ted in some imag­i­nary salary peck­ing or­der with quar­ter­backs who signed their deals years ago. It’s un­for­tu­nate that Cousins couldn’t have risen ear­lier; it would have made this process much eas­ier. Then again, the franchise would have been too ob­sessed with Robert Grif­fin III to no­tice any ear­lier.

There is a Grif­fin hang­over to con­sider. Wash­ing­ton has yet to ap­pre­ci­ate fully how dif­fi­cult it was for Cousins to emerge from Grif­fin’s shadow and how the past has sub­tle in­flu­ences on the present. Cousins is hum­ble and soft-spo­ken, but he has an ego. He wants to be re­spected as the franchise quar­ter­back he has be­come, not left to feel like he’s a good player that Wash­ing­ton cre­ated in a lab.

Can that be ac­com­plished af­ter two franchise tags and two off­sea­sons of fruit­less con­tract ne­go­ti­a­tions? I’m doubt­ful. Wash­ing­ton keeps send­ing the mes­sage that it takes two sides to com­plete a deal. The im­pli­ca­tion is that Wash­ing­ton fears Cousins doesn’t want to be here, es­pe­cially with Kyle Shana­han now in San Fran­cisco. If that’s the case, it’s hard to blame him be­cause most fran­chises wouldn’t have taken this long to present an of­fer truly worth con­tem­plat­ing.

This is the week for Wash­ing­ton to present its best of­fer. With the dead­line as a pres­sure point, both sides should talk num­bers for the first time in months. They have had am­i­ca­ble con­ver­sa­tions and fre­quent com­mu­ni­ca­tion, but new fig­ures haven’t been put on the ta­ble in a while. In a sense, Wash­ing­ton is act­ing like the teenager who flirts but is afraid to ask the pretty girl out for fear of re­jec­tion. He should have asked her out be­fore ev­ery­one re­al­ized how at­trac­tive she is.

There’s lit­tle time left now. The big dance is al­most here. The franchise must equip Eric Schaf­fer, the se­nior vice pres­i­dent who is skilled at ne­go­ti­at­ing and struc­tur­ing con­tracts, with the power to give Cousins some­thing to pon­der.

If Wash­ing­ton doesn’t of­fer a deal that in­cludes about $58 mil­lion at sign­ing (the equiv­a­lent of this year’s and next year’s franchise tags) and $70 mil­lion to $80 mil­lion guar­an­teed over­all, then the ques­tion of where Cousins wants to play is moot be­cause the team that drafted him doesn’t re­ally want to con­sum­mate a deal. It would pre­fer to have one strange, lame-duck sea­son and then re­ceive com­pen­sa­tion to move on to an un­cer­tain fu­ture. For all the good work Wash­ing­ton has done to build a com­pet­i­tive ros­ter, its di­rec­tion would be in doubt with­out the quar­ter­back around which it built.

Many would say in­sta­bil­ity is in­evitable. Many would say in­sta­bil­ity is Wash­ing­ton’s per­ma­nent res­i­dence. But many would hap­pily eat crow if given the op­por­tu­nity.

The franchise is on the clock to al­ter per­cep­tion — or awaken ran­cor and chaos.

JOHN MCDON­NELL/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

In the past two sea­sons, Red­skins QB Kirk Cousins has thrown for 9,083 yards and 54 touch­downs.

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