WASHINGTON — One month from Thursday, the Redskins and Kirk Cousins will finish their latest contract dance one way or the other.
The NFL’s deadline to sign franchise players to extensions is July 15. A lot of movement can still happen between now and then. There is certainly more optimism that a deal could get done this spring than at the same time last year. But the only parties that really know what’s going on behind the scenes are Washington team president Bruce Allen, senior vice president of football operations Eric Schaffer, Cousins and his agent, Mike McCartney.
Cousins says his plan for the next few weeks is to “rest and recover” so that he’s fresh for training camp when it starts in Richmond on July 27. He’s also preparing to be a dad. He and his wife, Julie, are expecting a baby boy in September. That helps put some of the daily stress of a serious contract negotiation in perspective.
“It’s a part, but it’s really about playing football and winning football games and, as I’ve said all along, if we do that everything else takes care of itself,” Cousins said. “I hired Mike [McCartney] because I trust him to do the job and I feel like he’s done a very good job all the way along. And while things he’s told me I haven’t always liked to hear or they haven’t always been easy to act on, he’s always been right as I look back. So I have great trust in his counsel and his approach and I’ll definitely be leaning on him as we go forward all the way through it.”
It is a unique situation. Cousins was named the starting quarterback unexpectedly just before the 2015 season when the Redskins finally decided to move on from Robert Griffin III. He put together a monster second half with 24 touchdown passes and just three interceptions over the final 11 games, including a playoff game vs. Green Bay.
Management wasn’t ready to commit to Cousins long-term, however. Who exactly took that stance – Allen, owner Dan Snyder, former GM Scot McCloughan – isn’t clear. The coaching staff, led by Jay Gruden, has been on board to keep Cousins since the end of that season, which resulted in an NFC East title.
Washington decided to use the franchise tag at $19.95 million and that was fine with Cousins. The two sides never came close to a deal. This past offseason saw the pendulum swing further in Cousins’ direction after he set the franchise passing record for a second straight year. The Redskins increased their offers, but were forced to use the franchise tag again. This time the price is $23.9 million for 2017.
Both sides know Washington could employ the tag in 2018 at an exorbitant cost ($34.4 million). That is hard to justify when the salary-cap is expected to come in around $175 million – maybe a little higher with rollover cap space and extra revenue for the NFL.
The transition tag is also possible ($28.7 million), though Cousins would be able to shop for a better deal elsewhere with the Redskins only getting the chance to match. Allen has hinted that both of these options are available to the team and in play. But is that just a negotiating tactic?
That’s all months down the road, anyway. For now, Washington has 31 days to put together a deal that Cousins will accept. If there is one. Because if the Redskins are bluffing about a third franchise tag, Cousins will become an unrestricted free agent and re-set the bar for all NFL quarterbacks on the open market.
Schaffer, for one, doesn’t see these talks as all that complicated. He is a lawyer and was once an agent himself at IMG, one of the country’s largest talent management companies. He worked with Tom Condon, now at the agency CAA and one of the NFL’s most prominent agents, on plenty of complicated deals for star players like Peyton Manning, Tony Gonzalez and LaDainian Tomlinson.
“I don’t know if I would say it’s unique. Again, Kirk is a really good player and he’s a Redskin and we only want him to be here,” Schaffer said. “We’ve expressed that. But in all of these different negotiations you never know what can happen. It’s also a two-sided deal. We just did a deal with [right tackle] Morgan Moses, who is another one of the key guys that we drafted. He’s a local guy. Those are the kinds of people that we want here. Again, Kirk’s another one and he’s a very important one.”
That echoes what Allen has said recently. He’s “optimistic” and dialogue is “constant” and “ongoing” between the two sides. But there was an interesting caveat.
“I think even Kirk said it: There’s a lot of players around the league on one-year deals, so it’s the nature of it,” Allen said on May 22. “We’d like to get a long-term deal, and I think he should want to get a long-term deal.”
The implication here from Allen and Schaffer is that Washington isn’t completely sure Cousins’ side is invested in getting a long-term deal done at all. Certainly, after gambling on himself twice, Cousins could be eight months away from choosing his own situation. That’s something very few established quarterbacks have ever had the chance to do.
Negotiation is a high-stakes game. Schaffer told a story this week about sitting in an office at IMG as a young agent “negotiating” with Condon, trying to game-plan what the other side was thinking and how to counter it. He learned a lot about the art of making a deal. Those skills will be put to the test over the next month.
“We’re not trying to get into anybody’s head,” Schaffer said. “Our goal, particularly for those guys, our own guys, is telling them ‘We want to reward you, we want you to be here, we feel like it’s important for you to be a Redskin.’ But, again, all those decisions go both ways and they’re two-sided. But as an aspirational goal you’d like to grow and develop your own guys. You’d like to reward those players who have done well for you and been loyal.”
Cousins has already ensured himself $43.8 million over two years. He turns 29 on Aug. 19. The thought is Cousins and McCartney are playing with house money. They can push the Redskins to the deadline and hope to get a record-setting deal and if they settle at all they still gain a big victory.
Washington, meanwhile, can maintain it still controls Cousins’ rights for another year. But unless Cousins is hell-bent on leaving the team – he’s given no public indication of that – he doesn’t lose in that case, either.
Along with new vice president of player personnel Doug Williams, Schaffer was also given a new title this week to codify the crucial role he plays in the Redskins front office. He and Allen and McCartney have plenty of work left to do. It all makes for a fascinating test case being watched closely throughout the NFL.
“Eric’s done a great job all along. He’s very smart. This isn’t his first rodeo,” Cousins said. “I have a lot of faith in him, not only in handling my situation, but when my situation is handled, handling everybody else’s. I have faith in that. But make no mistake — there are titles ahead of him, you know? And those people make decisions, too.”
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