Nearly three years ago, the Detroit Lions backed themselves into an indefensibly poor contract negotiation with All-Pro defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. Talks were bungled. Salary restructures were poorly designed. Egos were bruised. Eventually, it led to Suh becoming one of the biggest free-agent prizes in NFL history, while adding momentum to the eventual demise of Detroit’s failed front office tandem of Martin Mayhew and Tom Lewand. In the chronicles of star management, Detroit’s multi-year handling of Suh will forever be one of the worst.
Amazingly, the cycle of incompetence is repeating itself now.
Thanks to negotiations that have stepped into every available pothole, Washington Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins is more likely than ever to hit free agency in March. And not just because his one-season franchise tag is a staggering $34.47 million for 2018. No, there’s more in play here, and it has everything to do with the inability of Redskins team president Bruce Allen to manage the tone in a star quarterback negotiation. As team owner Dan Snyder’s chosen czar, Allen continues to fail this situation on almost every front – and that’s pointing to Cousins eventually being the hottest free-agent commodity in the league next March.
The Redskins still can’t get the message right on Cousins, who is arguably showing more grit and leadership now than at any point in his career as a starter. The skill-position players around Cousins were downgraded this offseason and have only deteriorated since with injuries. But his decision-making under duress – which has been knocked consistently by critics – has gotten better. His numbers have been less gaudy, but his leadership has been more robust. If anything, his roots as a starter have deepened more in 2017 than any prior season.
In an era when quarterbacks ring up numbers like a pinball machine, this is what cements a guy into the top 10 at his position: Performing and helping players grow around him in a lean year. Cousins is doing that. And right now, the mood around him should be: We have our centerpiece and we’re going to sell him as our future. We’re committed.
Instead, Allen’s messages continue to be: We’re evaluating. We’re waiting. We’re seeking good value.
For those who have paid attention, that has been the never-changing cloud that Allen has cast over Cousins. Always circling beneath some phase of waiting or evaluation. Always looking to get a better deal. Short-term investment while protecting against a long-term cratering.
That works in Year 1 of an experiment. It’s a cautious approach in Year 2. By Year 3, any hope of a solid foundation in the relationship gives way to a termite factory of doubt. And while Cousins will never say that much publicly, he has got to be feeling it. To the point that the only way the Redskins can retain him now is another franchise tag. There’s a difference between being wanted and simply being paid. Allen might pay Cousins to stay for another season, but there’s little indication he really wants to do it. And if he does, he’s doing a terrible job of getting that narrative out into the open.
A recent NFL Network report has only reinforced that, claiming that the Redskins will measure Cousins’ future based largely on the final five games of this season. The same report also referenced a stat that is strikingly indicative of a franchise looking for anything to justify letting Cousins go to free agency.
From the report: “Cousins is completing just 44-percent of his passes inside the 20 and 35-percent inside the 10. Rarely is he among the top quarterbacks for touchdowns. [The Redskins] want more plays in the red area and in crunch time.”
The totality of the message here – which Cousins should be taking to heart – is remarkable. It’s also laughable. Cousins has started 44 games (including one playoff contest) going back to the start of the 2015 season. But his viability as the future of the franchise is going to be measured on the five games to finish the 2017 season. And despite a litany of positive situational statistics this year, the focus on his ultimate success or failure is being nitpicked down to a pair of highly contextual red zone statistics.
If that analysis is meant to set up the next chapter of this already failed negotiation, then it’s right on schedule. Here is reality for Allen and the Redskins: The franchise gambled on Cousins potentially cratering and he didn’t. It could have offered him an elite quarterback deal last offseason and ended this entire conversation. It didn’t. And just like previous years, the price went up.
Now – like Suh and the Lions in 2015 – Cousins has Allen and the Redskins backed so deep into a corner that the franchise sees no good options. It can slap him with the transition tag and let another team set the financial table with a massive front-loaded contract offer that is difficult to match. It can apply the franchise tag and pay Cousins $34 million in 2018 and try to disingenuously pass it off as the outcome it most preferred. Or it can surrender at the negotiating table and offer Cousins a contract that would get him very close to being the highest paid quarterback in the NFL.
Or Allen can take the route he’s already on – allowing a narrative to exist that makes Cousins’ future look undone in Washington, padded with whatever stats look unappealing in an otherwise Pro Bowl-worthy season.
Knowing how Allen has operated thus far, all signs point to the latter, with Cousins entering free agency in March despite arguably his best season in Washington. Right into the arms of a multitude of quarterback-starved teams. One of whom will lavish Cousins with a deal far richer than the one Washington could have doled out far earlier in this negotiation.
In its wake, Washington and Bruce Allen will put the finishing touches on one last chapter in a horribly failed negotiation. Recording one more cycle of historic incompetence before heading back into the quarterback wilderness – in search of the next franchise centerpiece to undercut when it matters most.
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