Rocking an old-school rap line, Kirk Cousins asked Scot McCloughan “how you like me now?” at the conclusion of the Redskins 42-24 shellacking of the Green Bay Packers on Sunday Night Football. Cousins had just thrown for 375 yards, three touchdowns and no picks. And he did so engineering five second-half scoring drives, four of which were for touchdowns. The Redskins quarterback downplayed the encounter as an “organic” meeting between the two men. But the cold stare Cousins fixed at McCloughan told a much different story. It marked an awkward sideline faceoff that threatened to lay bare the contentious negotiations last season over Cousins’ worth. The implication of Cousins’ hipster query was obvious: Cousins wasn’t only demanding a new contract, but, more importantly, respect.
The tete-a-tete between the quarterback and General Manager also mirrors a long-standing controversy that’s divided the Redskins fanbase: what is Cousins’ future with the Redskins? Countless pundits and would-be talent evaluators have offered competing assessments of Cousins’ worth and debated what measures, if any, the team should take in retaining him. After the Packers and Cowboys game, that issue is — if it wasn’t already – settled. But as evident as this is, it doesn’t answer other important questions on what it will take to re-sign Cousins. This will depend on several interrelated considerations, some of which aren’t entirely clear at this time.
The first of these considerations is the stark reality that the Redskins have no viable alternatives to replace Cousins. The Redskins depth chart provides little in terms of an effective line of quarterback succession. It features Colt McCoy, a journeyman signal-caller with a weak arm, and a developing rookie, Nate Sudfeld. The slim pickings in next year’s free agent quarterback class also don’t offer any workable solutions. It’s headlined by has-beens and busts such as Ryan Fitzpatrick, Case Keenum, and Blaine Gabbert. None of them are frontline starters and, at best, stop-gaps for teams waiting on a franchise quarterback to materialize.
While the draft is a potential source for new quarterback talent, it’s also fraught with considerable risk. To be sure, rookie quarterbacks such as Dak Prescott and Carson Wentz have made immediate contributions to their team. But, for each of them, there are also a litany of first-round busts. These include Gabbert, Jake Locker, and Blake Bortles, names which are eerily reminiscent of the Redskins own failed quarterback picks such as Heath Shuler, Patrick Ramsey, Jason Campbell and, of course, Robert Griffin.
In addition, moving on from Cousins would disrupt the stability the organization has forged with him under center. Cousins has the trust of the coaching staff and has adapted perfectly within the system created for him. Whatever caliber of quarterback Cousins may be now or in the future, the team is far better off building around a solid commodity they know rather than one they don’t. It should now be up to McCloughan to ply his draft savvy to populate a roster to build around Cousins.
Last offseason, the Redskins and Cousins bickered over a long-term deal before agreeing to a one-year, prove-it franchise tag. The central focus of this dispute was the Redskins insistence on conservatively gauging the risk in signing Cousins to a multi-year deal. Specifically, the Redskins were wary of committing too much money for a quarterback who had a limited body of work. Cousins, on the other hand, gladly took the $19.95 million franchise tag and decided to bet on himself. While most would agree that Cousins has now won that bet, some in the League’s punditry are still split on whether he’s acquitted himself enough to earn a lucrative extension.
On one side are those, like Mike Jones, who are rutted in the skepticism that Cousins has more to prove. According to Jones of the Washington Post, who offered his opinion of Cousins prior to the Packer game, Cousins is “more like an $18 million quarterback now” who lacks the refinement of an established starter. After the Packer contest, Jones quickly changed his tune. But he also added that some in the organization wonder whether they’d be just as well off with McCoy, whose penchant for gunslinging might fetch them more production in areas such as the red zone.
But there’s not too much to wonder about McCoy, who is, at best, a quality backup. His balky tenure in Cleveland proved that he can’t provide a permanent solution as a starting quarterback. And, when McCoy tested free agency last year, teams only expressed interest in him as an understudy to their established starters. McCoy ended re-signing with the Redskins on a three-year, $9 million deal that was pedestrian even by backup standards.
This, of course, isn’t to say that Cousins is close to a finished product. Cousins has, at times, left points on the field by missing open receivers for long gains or touchdowns. Against Dallas in Week 2, for instance, two errant passes to Jamison Crowder and Josh Doctson cost the team 14 points in a game that should’ve resulted in a lopsided win. Cousins can also do better by moving in the pocket to create off-schedule plays. And he can learn to use his legs to pick up yardage and move the chains on third downs.
Nov 13, 2016; Landover, MD, USA; Washington Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins (8) prepares to throw the ball as Minnesota Vikings defensive end Everson Griffen (97) chases in the first quarter at FedEx Field. The Redskins won 26-20. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
Cousins has shown sufficient progress over this season to merit a multi-year extension. Cousins has completed 68.2 percent of his passes for 3,540 yards on 20 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Those numbers register 8.1 yards per attempt and a superb 101.4 quarterback rating. Projected over 16 games, Cousins is on pace to pass for 5,152 yards, 29.1 touchdowns and 10.2 interceptions.
This showing is particularly impressive when measuring Cousins’ production after two uneven starts to begin the season. Since Week 2, Cousins has completed 69.3% of his passes for 2,847 yards, and has thrown 19 touchdowns against four interceptions. Projected over 16 games, this translates to 5,061 yards, 33.8 touchdowns and 7.1 interceptions, a ratio which far eclipses his production last season. His yards per attempt and QB rating over that time are, respectively, a whopping 8.2 and 107.2.
This statistical prowess, however, still isn’t enough to convince those like the Post’s Jerry Brewer. In Brewer’s view, amassing franchise-record yardage levels means little without the scoring to match it. While that’s generally true, the team’s scoring woes can’t be solely attributed to Cousins. Shortcomings on special teams and the running game have contributed to countless points the team the should have scored. In weeks seven and eight, Dustin Hopkins’ sudden bout of mediocrity not only costed Washington points, but at least one win against the Bengals.
Similarly, Matt Jones’ ball security issues and a Hopkins’ missed field goal in Detroit would’ve accounted for at least six points and, in turn, the margin of victory against the Lions. In the Cowboys game, Hopkins, usually a reliable kicker, missed another routine field goal and the Redskins failed to convert a two-point conversion. Those five points would’ve made up the margin of defeat in their Thanksgiving contest in Dallas.
Cousins must also frequently provide the primary impetus for the offense’s production. Despite some flashes in the running game, Cousins lacks the run-pass balance needed to operate an efficient gameplan. This waters down the effectiveness of play-action passes, which are a key component of the team’s offensive attack. In addition, without a running threat, linebackers can lurk back into coverage and take away intermediate passes that are the staple of Sean McVay’s scheme. The emergence of Robert Kelley provides a hopeful glimpse at how an effective running game can complement Cousins’ passing proficiency. But until he does so consistently, the team must look to Cousins as the sole breadwinner of the offense.
Also overlooked is the fact that Cousins only has 27 starts as the unquestioned starter of the team. Although this late apprenticeship has slowed his development as a full-time starting quarterback, Cousins is on pace to surpass his 2015 totals where he either set or came close to matching franchise passing records. In the past nine games, Cousins has also led an insurgent Redskins team to a 6-2-1 record. This continued uptick in production has convinced others that he’s the franchise quarterback the Redskins have sought for years.
Chris Cooley, for one, has been effusive in his praise for Cousins. In Cooley’s view, Cousins is the “epitome of consistency” that “gives you a chance every single snap.” Far from having to prove himself, Cousins isn’t playing the remainder of the season for a new contract, according to Cooley. Instead, he’s simply fine tuning the precise numbers of the blockbuster deal he’ll be getting next year.
Another Post columnist, Rick Snider, concurs with Cooley’s appraisal of Cousins. Snider states his view very matter-of-factly: “Kirk Cousins should be the Redskins long-term quarterback. It’s time to accept that.” Citing the lack of anyone to step in if Cousins departs, Snider accurately warns that the team “can’t do better . . . without great risk or expense.” He also admonishes that “when the time comes, repeating a negotiating stalemate would be pointless.”
This, of course, brings us to the penultimate issue in re-signing Cousins: price.
The driving factor in determining the price for Cousins’ deal is the going market for quarterback services. And that market was set in 2016 by Brock Osweiler. Last year, Osweiler, with only a handful of starts to his name, commanded a four-year, $72 million deal with the Texans, including $37 million in guaranteed money. Osweiler rewarded Houston this year with marginal play, punctuated by an abysmal quarterback rating of 74.9 (through Week 11). While Osweiler’s deal is a cautionary tale for other quarterback-needy teams, his contract nonetheless forms the critical mass for a new deal with Cousins.
In particular, this means that the Redskins will have to beat the market-bending, $18M AAV deal that Houston gave to him. Because Cousins has a larger — and far more accomplished — body of work than Osweiler, he’ll justifiably be entitled to a deal with at least a $20 million AAV and $50 million in guarantees. As Cooley noted, Cousins is playing out the season to “see if he earns 80, 90, 100, 110 [or] 120 million dollars.”
Whatever the details of this new deal may be, the Redskins would be well-advised to make the negotiations as short – and respectful – as possible. While it’s uncertain what Cousins is looking for now, the Redskins can be assured that if he hits free agency, there will be several suitors clamoring for his services and willing to overpay handsomely for them. Cousins has often said that he’s looking for a deal where he feels “wanted.” Last year, that meant a $20 million franchise tag. This year, that means that Cousins will deservedly be asking for more.
While that may be much more, the alarmism raised by some critics that such a contract will bankrupt the Redskins cap is fallacious.
According to Overthecap.com, the Redskins have $14.87 million under this year’s cap. They’ll also have nearly $47 million in cap space next year based on a projected $166 million cap. By rolling their current space into 2017, the Redskins would have nearly $62 million in cap space next year. This would be more than enough to accommodate any deal the team strikes with Cousins.
And it will be more than adequate to keep the team together and add others as well. This is because the team could create more space by releasing older players with high cap numbers. Washington, for instance, could clear nearly $8 million in cap space by cutting DeAngelo Hall and Kory Lichstensteiger. These transactions would push the Redskins cap space to nearly $70 million. And this would allow the team to retain veterans such as DeSean Jackson and/or Pierre Garcon. The Redskins could also extend four standouts from their 2014 draft class before they enter their contract years. These include Trent Murphy, Morgan Moses, Spencer Long, and Bashaud Breeland, all of whom are key starters on both sides of the ball. And this burgeoning budget will allow them to pursue needed help in free agency as well.
While it’s unclear what Cousins is seeking, one possible comparison would be the contract Andrew Luck signed with Indianapolis Colts this past June. That was a five-year, $122 million contract with a $32 million signing bonus. That breaks down to a $25 million AAV and contains $47 million in guarantees. Despite the lottery-like money in Luck’s contract, the cap numbers in the first two years of his deal are $18.4 million and $19.4 million. These, of course, are below the $20 million franchise tag Cousins earned this year. And based on a $62 million cap next year, the Redskins would have $44 million after a Luck-type contract. Although Luck’s cap numbers increase in later years, so too will the cap. With this corresponding rise in the cap, the team can easily accommodate the terms of such a deal.
But there’s also a question of how the Redskins brass will view negotiations with Cousins this offseason. Earlier this year, Chuck Sapienza of Breaking Burgundy chronicled a struggle between two rival factions on Cousins’ future. In particular, it involves two sides in an all too familiar schism in Redskins management. In one corner are those in football operations who correctly want to keep Cousins around. In the other corner are Dan Snyder and Bruce Allen, who, despite their decided lack of football acumen, have reservations about him.
The axis of this battle turns not on winning games, but on who is or isn’t correct on Cousins’ worth to the team. That’s important because being correct yields either side “football capital” in leveraging future decisions on football matters. This means that the football people are more concerned on inflating Cousins statistics. It also means that Snyder and Allen perversely rejoice when Cousins (in their view) regresses.
It’s unclear whether this family food fight will have any bearing on contract talks that arise next year. And it should be noted that Sapienza authored his piece after the Redskins loss to the Cowboys in Week 2. Cousins rapid turnaround and pacesetting production after that week have certainly convinced many that’s he worthy of franchise quarterback money. Whether it has convinced those in the commanding heights of the Redskins organization is anyone’s guess. And those, of course, are the ones in need of convincing. Have they been finally swayed to pay Cousins? Or will they await the outcome of the final five games to make their case, some of which feature stout defenses like Arizona and Carolina? Whatever the case may be, Cousins will get paid after this season.
Will it be by the Redskins?
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