What is a surprise, however, is what happened next. Team president Bruce Allen released a statement detailing the offer Washington made to keep Cousins in the organization while revealing that Cousins’ representation failed to ever respond to the proposal. While teams often leak information to try to negotiate through various media channels, this sort of public revelation is virtually unprecedented. It also says a lot about Cousins’ future in D.C.
First, let’s talk about the offer itself. Allen suggests Washington made a generous offer on May 2 that would have given Cousins a record $53 million in full guarantees at the time of signing and $72 million in guarantees for injury. The organization apparently did not make a further offer after Derek Carr signed his extension in mid-June.
While there’s little reason to doubt that the numbers Allen put out there are inaccurate, they’re nowhere near as impressive as he’s suggesting. For one, Cousins’ franchise tag for 2017 already guarantees him $23.9 million, meaning that Washington’s deal would only be worth $29.1 million in new money. Barring a career-threatening injury, Cousins unquestionably would get more than that in unrestricted free agency next year.
Former NFL agent Joel Corry suggested Cousins could get $100 million in guarantees on the free market. Cousins’ deal would likely top the $87 million Andrew Luck received in guarantees on his extension with the Indianapolis Colts, and $90 million seems like a reasonable baseline.
To keep Cousins in town for 2018, Washington will have two options. One is an unprecedented third franchise tag, which would guarantee Cousins a staggering $34.5 million on a one-year deal. Alternately, Washington could employ the transition tag, which would allow them to match any offer without compensation at the cost of $28.8 million for one year.
In other words, Cousins was already in line to make a minimum of $52.7 million over the next two seasons without sacrificing the leverage of going year-to-year on his contract. Allen and the organization wanted him to give up that leverage and leave nearly $40 million on the table for an additional $300,000. Even if you want to believe that Cousins should take a conservative approach in a league in which the attrition rate is perilously high, there’s no way to make that math credibly work. This wasn’t the sort of record-setting, no-brainer offer the organization is suggesting in Allen’s statement. It’s barely a credible one given Cousins’ current leverage.
Perhaps more importantly, it’s telling that Washington released this statement publicly. It’s a remarkably transparent attempt to poison the well of public opinion against their star quarterback, painting him as greedy and disinterested in sticking around for the long term. That’s downright bizarre. Can you imagine the Patriots putting out this sort of statement about Tom Brady? Or the Packers throwing Aaron Rodgers underneath the bus like this? Would they call their quarterbacks “Tim” or “Arnold” while doing so?
You can’t. In part, that’s because those organizations aren’t as dysfunctional and publicly dependent upon winning in the newspaper as Washington. More so, those teams wouldn’t try to pit their fans against their quarterback because they expect their signal-callers to stick around for the long term. Every bit of evidence we have suggests that Washington does not expect to have Cousins around for the long haul. It hasn’t made a viable offer to keep him off the market for two years running, even long after Cousins broke out as a useful passer. Slamming him publicly makes things only worse. This is a broken relationship.
Washington is quickly running out of options. It can use the franchise tag on Cousins for a third time next year and make him the highest-paid quarterback in the league by a significant margin, which will mean it will have paid a quarterback who Allen & Co. didn’t believe was worth a long-term deal a record $78.4 million over three seasons and then be subject to the same long-term issues a year from now. Washington can hope that Cousins changes his mind and suddenly wants to stay, which seems unlikely given that the organization just tried to take him down in its own public forum.
More plausibly, the team will try to slap the transition tag on Cousins and be stuck facing down an offer it can’t match. Washington has a little more than $45 million in cap room for 2018 before accounting for its draft class or fellow free agents such as Bashaud Breeland, Spencer Long, Trent Murphy and Shawn Lauvao. It doesn’t have an easy path to extra cap space outside of cutting one of its superstars such as Josh Norman, Ryan Kerrigan or Jordan Reed.
Washington hates to pay huge signing bonuses in one fell swoop, spreading the $20 million or so in bonuses paid to guys like Norman and Trent Williams over two seasons via the contract structure or straight-up deferrals. Teams like Cleveland and San Francisco, which will both easily approach $100 million in cap space next year, will be well-positioned to offer Cousins a deal with, say, a $30 million signing bonus and $30 million roster bonus, forcing Washington to clear out a minimum of $36 million in cap space while paying $60 million in cash out of pocket.
It might very well be time for Washington to face some hard truths. If Cousins does leave, this is the day people are going to identify as a turning point for the organization, the moment it became publicly clear Cousins wasn’t going to stick around. The organization has done its best to try to defame Cousins, and while some semblance of the fan base might take it as gospel, this is as transparent an effort as anyone has seen in recent memory.
If Washington lets Cousins leave next offseason, the maximum return it will get is a compensatory pick at the bottom of the third round during the 2019 draft. If it spends in free agency to try to replace Cousins by signing someone like Sam Bradford, it won’t even get that selection. Losing Cousins is a nightmare, but losing him for free is even worse.
Washington is also about to face a 2017 season that will be defined by the battle between Cousins and the organization, one which is (even for Washington) likely to become a circus. Few are expecting Washington to compete for a playoff spot in 2017, and while anything can happen in the topsy-turvy NFL, it’s not as if the organization seems likely to win a Super Bowl this season, regardless of who is playing quarterback.
With that in mind, does it make sense for Washington to try to be proactive about its future and trade Cousins now? And, as is the case with the Oklahoma City Thunder trading for Paul George a year before his own free agency, is there a team out there bold enough to trade for Cousins in the hopes of retaining him next year?
There should be. Teams like the Browns and 49ers could acquire Cousins in free agency next offseason, but they could also try to trade for Cousins now and convince the former Michigan State star that his future lies in their city. They can’t negotiate an extension with Cousins until after the season, but each of those teams would have the cap space to franchise Cousins for a third time without incurring significant opportunity cost in the meantime. They would also presumably be willing to give Cousins the sort of long-term deal he expects to receive in free agency.
If you’re San Francisco, do you offer your 2018 second-round pick and Brian Hoyer to Washington? Would Cleveland be willing to give up Houston’s first-round pick and Brock Osweiler (after a contract restructuring) to try to steer Cousins away? And would Washington be willing to take a guaranteed pick and a veteran quarterback to try and move on from the Cousins era with something to show for its efforts? Neither of those options seem particularly appealing, but after a bizarre day, Washington doesn’t appear to have an appealing long-term future at quarterback, either.