The Redskins are about to go where no team has ever gone with its starting quarterback after Kirk Cousins played out the 2016 season on the franchise tag.
Only one other quarterback, Drew Brees of the Chargers, has played a season on the franchise tag. The Chargers tagged him in 2005 and he started 16 games for them. The team had acquired Philip Rivers to be their quarterback of the future but they wanted to hang on to Brees for one more year. That’s what they did and they let him become a free agent in 2006.
Why do quarterbacks almost never make it to a first franchise tag season and never to a second one? Because teams are afraid of losing their quarterbacks and usually lock them up before their deals run out, even if they must overpay to get it done. The demand for competent starting quarterbacks exceeds the supply and if you have one you do whatever you must do to hang on to him for as long as he still is effective.
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While you can argue where Cousins fits into the pantheon of current NFL quarterbacks, he certainly is competent. The past two years he has thrown for over 9,000 yards with an average of 7.9 yards per attempt with 54 touchdowns and 23 interceptions. With him behind center, the Redskins won the NFC East in 2015 and posted their first back-to-back winning seasons since 1996-1997.
So why aren’t the Redskins doing whatever they must do to keep Cousins in the fold? It appears that they have a different fear. They are afraid of paying top-tier money to a quarterback who in terms of career accomplishments and future potential is maybe in the lower part of the top dozen quarterbacks in the league.
Is Cousins good enough to compensate for the holes in the roster that may develop because they are cap strapped after paying Cousins some 14 percent of the available money every year for the next five years or so? The Redskins are not sure that he is and they fear entering the realm of being hamstrung by the cap and unable to build a roster that can win with a good but not great quarterback.
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The odd angle on the Redskins’ fear factor is that they paid Cousins $20 million last year and likely will end up paying him $24 million this season. They could tag him for either the $28 million transition tag or the $34 million franchise tag in 2018. Potentially paying Cousins between $72 million and $78 million for three seasons seems to be an odd way to show concern about overpaying for an above-average quarterback.
The problem with prioritizing your fear of cap problems over your fear of losing your quarterback is that you can always create cap room. Yes, you will pay for it down the road but if you really need money you can find it. If you really need a quarterback you can’t just pluck one off of a tree somewhere. Even throwing a tremendous amount of resources at trying to get a QB (see the RG3 trade) is no guarantee that you will find one.
We will see if the Redskins’ fears are in the right place or if they are misguided. Given the Redskins history, there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical.