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The Kirk Cousins conundrum should not be as difficult as it is, nor should it have gone on for this long. Either you believe he is a top-tier starting NFL quarterback, in which case you pay him whatever the market dictates, or you believe he is not, in which case you let someone else pay him what the market dictates and allocate those funds elsewhere.
The braintrust in Ashburn has kicked the can down the road as far as they can by using franchise tags to sign Cousins to two consecutive one-year deals, but that strategy isn’t going to work anymore. The cost to franchise Cousins again would be more than $30 million, a number that would be exorbitant even if he were undoubtedly a top-five QB—an Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady-level talent. Even Cousins’ most ardent supporters don’t put him on that level, so committing that much money seems … unwise.
A quick note on the amount of money: I do not care, personally, how many dollars Kirk Cousins receives to do his job. The number, whatever it turns out to be, will look ludicrous. It will be more money than you and I will make in our combined lifetime, almost regardless of who you are. It will be enough to fund Washington City Paper for many more years. It will be enough to have weekly family dinners at minibar until the inevitable collapse of society. As a number, that doesn’t matter to me. Daniel Snyder’s financial planner may feel differently, but that’s not my problem.
What does matter, at least to anyone concerned with fielding a winning team, is the percentage of the salary cap Cousins consumes each year. That number directly affects a team’s ability to recruit other competitive players. The team’s management needs to figure out how many other positions you can afford to skimp on to afford your QB—if you assume that he’s a guy who makes up for shortfalls elsewhere on the field.
Which is why the Cousins situation remains difficult: No one seems to be sure he’s that kind of player.
(I myself have gone back and forth on this, in conversation and in print, for well over two years. It’s a cycle whereby I declare Cousins to be overrated/terrible/done, and then he goes on an extended hot streak that makes me look exceptionally foolish. This is a totally fun, healthy, two-way relationship, not just a coincidence that I’ve expanded in my mind.)
Cousins’ statistics—the so-called “counting stats” that excite fantasy football owners—are excellent. That’s part of the problem. Compared to the quarterbacks that Cousins might otherwise appear similar to, the Andy Daltons and Joe Flaccos and even Eli Mannings of the world, his counting stats (completion percentage, touchdowns, yards) are far better.
That should be all that matters, especially for smart, forward-thinking, analytic football fans. After all, anyone like that knows that “clutch” is an unquantifiable quality, “QB wins” are a pointless statistic, and fourth-quarter comebacks are somewhat arbitrary. But those are the areas where Cousins already seems to come up short.
To sum it up in the most gut-feel, non-scientific way possible, he plays well enough to win games in which things go well, but rarely rallies the team to the win on his own. Conversely, he makes regular boneheaded mistakes that can lose a game, or at least severely undercut his team’s chance to win. (He does have a number of successful late-game heroic drives, but his own earlier errors often force those kinds of plays.)
Despite my occasional hyperbole, Kirk Cousins is not an objectively terrible quarterback. In fact, he is abstractly a very good one. He might, however, be a terrible value at his likely price point.
Think of it in real estate terms. If you pay $300,000 for a house in York, Pennsylvania, that’s cool. If you pay $1 million for a house in Friendship Heights, that’s also cool. But if you pay $1 million for a house in Scranton, Pennsylvania, you’d better be getting a hell of a house.
The difference is that you can appraise a house. You can thoroughly inspect it and objectively identify any cosmetic flaws or structural issues. There are things that are dealbreakers, and things that you can repair down the line. With quarterbacks—and with all living things, really—there’s never any such certainty. At some point, your level of belief dips below what the market is paying, and you back away from the deal. I’ve reached that point with Kirk Cousins, and I think the team should have as well.
Now that I’ve said that, go ahead and pencil him in for the Pro Bowl this year, just to spite me.