WASHINGTON — The damage has been done now. The Redskins rolled the dice last offseason and it came up snake eyes. Kirk Cousins gambled on himself and won. Now the immediate question is where they go from here to salvage the future.
It’s hard to see the current contract negotiations any other way as NFL free agency approaches on March 9. Washington is almost certain to use the franchise tag on its starting quarterback at $23.94 million by Wednesday’s 4 p.m. deadline. The leverage in these contract talks, which have gone on in some form for almost 18 months, continues to swing Cousins’ way.
The two sides never came close to a deal last offseason after Cousins signed his initial franchise tag on March 2 worth $19.95 million. The Redskins decided they had to see Cousins perform at a high level for another year. That was their right and a decision multiple league insiders thought prudent at the time when asked at the NFL owners’ meetings in Boca Raton, Fla. last March.
But if the decision was understandable, the risks were also obvious. Even a decent season in 2016 from Cousins and Washington’s leverage would wane further. And it never really had much in the first place.
Cousins had the will to wait. He didn’t jump at a lowball offer and the team wasn’t willing to go higher at the time. Now it will take extreme organizational discipline to pull back from the brink. Given that Redskins radio analyst and former star tight end Chris Cooley openly wondered on air if general manager Scot McCloughan was drinking earlier this month, that seems unlikely.
But if you’re in a conference room at Redskins Park this week and need to map out a plan for the NFL Combine in Indianapolis, here are some options to present to owner Dan Snyder and team president Bruce Allen to salvage these negotiations.
Make Cousins an offer he can’t refuse
This isn’t what they want to do. But Cousins can sign the franchise tag, take his guaranteed money and skip out the door after next season. The Redskins would need to guarantee $34.4 million to use the tag one last time and that’s way too much for any player. They could use the transition tag at $28.78 million in 2018. That isn’t happening, either, with a number that will be about 15 percent of an expected salary cap around $175 million.
Cousins and agent Mike McCartney believe the open market will set a high price. But at least make them think about it. Put an offer out comparable to what Andrew Luck got from the Colts in 2016 (Six years, $122.97 million, $87 million practical guarantees, $44 million guaranteed at signing). If Cousins is happy in Washington, he’ll take it — or at least negotiate. If he’s intent on maximizing his value, not making a deal, it will be obvious.
This is tricky. Cousins can sense the dysfunction in the front office. Everyone can. He also has a clear escape route. Washington has until the July 15 deadline to convince him things are still headed in the right direction. But how do you make that argument? Head coach Jay Gruden has just two years left on his contract. The top two wide receivers (Pierre Garcon, DeSean Jackson) are headed to free agency. The defense appears to be a rebuilding project and is on its third coordinator in four years.
The Redskins must move fast to solidify that offense, express confidence that Gruden will be around in 2018 and rebuild the defense quickly. That’s a lot for one offseason, but they can also sell a good offensive line, other top weapons like tight end Jordan Reed and wide receiver Jamison Crowder and 17 wins over two seasons. It’s not like this is a 3-13 team. It just feels like it sometimes.
Find a trade partner
Cousins has two former offensive coordinators whom he knows believed in him in Washington — Sean McVay in Los Angeles and Kyle Shanahan in San Francisco — now running their own teams as head coaches. There are other clubs desperate for help at quarterback (Cleveland Browns, New York Jets, Buffalo Bills). There always are. Meanwhile, the Redskins low-balled Cousins last year and have a history of not believing in him. As recently as 22 months ago, Cousins wanted a trade if 2015 training camp wasn’t going to be a legitimate competition with Robert Griffin III.
Washington could simply decide to get something of value now. If it tries to sign Cousins to a long-term deal by the July 15 deadline and fails, Cousins could play out the season and leave eight months later for no compensation — barring the transition tag, which would net them a third-round compensation pick. That would be a disaster and it is that time crunch that could force a trade sooner than the team would like.
Gruden wants and needs Cousins to stay. But if this is looked upon as a roster rebuild, the Redskins could flip Cousins for the draft picks that could speed up that process, start backup Colt McCoy, under contract for two more years, and develop a young quarterback for the future. There’s the makings of a deal with San Francisco, which has an immediate opening at quarterback, the No. 2 overall pick and Shanahan.
Little good is expected between now and the July 15 deadline anyway except that other quarterbacks will sign extensions (Matthew Stafford with Detroit, Derek Carr with Oakland) that could reset the market again. If Cousins is determined to maximize his value, those potential deals will likely only raise the price for Washington, which always appears a reluctant suitor.
None of these options are ideal, but the Redskins must decide quickly which is worst and avoid it at all costs. If the front office isn’t thinking clearly, it could make a mistake in the next 36 hours that could haunt the franchise for years. No pressure.
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