The Kirk Cousins contract saga began with Washington reticent to commit Rolls-Royce money to merely a nice and reliable automobile. It shifted when Cousins grew far more enamored with freedom than security. Then finally, mercifully, strangely, two unnerving years of limbo ended Tuesday night during the State of the Union address, in the middle of Super Bowl hype and with those infamously imprudent, burgundy-stained decision-makers hurling the franchise from one dilemma to the next.
You could scratch your head raw pondering the outcome: The team reticent to commit Rolls-Royce money to merely a nice and reliable automobile just traded a third-round pick and a good 22-year-old cornerback to the Kansas City Chiefs for Alex Smith, who is merely a nice and reliable automobile. That's not the worst part, however. To complete the deal, the team committed Rolls-Royce money to Smith — reportedly a four-year, $94 million extension that includes $71 million in guaranteed pay, on top of his $17 million salary for next season — who turns 34 in May. Washington couldn't agree on a long-term contract with a quarterback it drafted and groomed for six seasons, but pending details of the contract structure, it gave Smith what appears to be the third-largest guarantee in NFL history.
The new nice and reliable automobile is also four years older than Cousins, and while Smith is a comparable talent who has won more because he has played on well-rounded teams of late, he is not as aggressive and effective throwing down the field as Cousins (who is only average in that area), not as creative throwing when plays break down as Cousins (who is slightly above-average in that area) and not as reliable of a touchdown generator as Cousins (who leaves plenty of room for griping in that area).
In three seasons as a full-time starter, Cousins has averaged 4,392 yards and 27 touchdowns per year. In 2017, Smith had the best of his 13 NFL seasons, throwing for more than 4,000 yards for the first time and posting a career-high 26 touchdown passes. Smith is athletic and can run. He rarely throws interceptions, which is a great attribute. But there's a catch to his success: During good runs with Jim Harbaugh in San Francisco and Andy Reid in Kansas City, the coaches did an exceptional job of building around him, and Smith thrived because he played a small and very defined role. And then those coaches dumped him for younger and more talented quarterbacks.
Smith did more heavy lifting last season, but 2017 is an irregularity when you look at his résumé. For the majority of his career, he has been a don't-mess-it-up quarterback. Considering the holes on Washington's roster, this is a problem. To win with Smith, the roster needs a lot of upgrades. Just to be Cousins-era average with Smith, he needs a lot more help.
Washington was right to be proactive in seeking quarterback security. Of course, if they had been more proactive negotiating with Cousins, particularly in the early stages, they might not have needed to turn to Plan B options. Remember that two years ago, when they placed the franchise tag on Cousins for the first time, the quarterback proposed a four-year contract averaging about $19 million per season with $44 million in guaranteed money. If Washington had agreed to those terms, Cousins would be two years into a contract that would have him outside the top 10 highest-paid quarterbacks in both average annual salary and total dollars.
At the time, it may have seemed like a lot of money for a player without a long track record. But the franchise can't hide behind layman's naivete. The front office is paid to evaluate talent and project salaries to determine fair deals. It blew it in both phases. Team President Bruce Allen didn't fully appreciate Cousins' talent until it was too late, and he got all wide-eyed and noncommittal about a contract proposal that Cousins could have easily outperformed. You get ahead by thinking ahead. You fall behind by, well, being the Redskins.
Before the Cousins debacle, no team had used two franchise tags on its quarterback because no team would be so foolish. With extreme arrogance, Allen pooh-poohed the difficulty of a Cousins contract, botched the negotiations and tried to save face by releasing the normally private details of a contract offer that Cousins didn't respond to last year. That stunt was proof that the relationship wasn't going to end with a long-term agreement. Washington was destined to be in salvage mode, and Cousins was going to hit the open market.
As secondary options go, Smith is a solid choice in a vacuum. Forget about comparing statistics for just a minute. He is a useful veteran quarterback. He has Cousins-level character. It's not a bad thing to want Smith.
The problem is that Washington went too far in pursuing him. Why? For one, coach Jay Gruden was done with the uncertainty. He couldn't stomach another year of innuendo and a lack of clarity about how to build the offense for the long haul. But this trade also reeks of Allen and the team overreaching again to make a statement about stability. It would have been wiser to play the game a little longer and vet other quarterback options. This looks to be a rare offseason of decent possibilities at the position. In free agency, the trade market and the draft, Washington had more choices than usual in trying to move on from Cousins.
It could have further explored using the No. 13 overall pick on a high-ceiling quarterback, or signing a stopgap quarterback while drafting a future signal caller a little later, or waiting out the possible availability of Cincinnati Bengals quarterback and Gruden protege Andy Dalton in a trade. Instead, Allen went all in on Smith in late January. Trading a 2018 third-round pick was standard, and the team could get back a 2019 third-rounder as a compensatory pick for Cousins in free agency. Inserting Fuller into the deal was unreasonable. Extending Smith at the top of his value was preposterous.
Smith used his leverage perfectly. He would not have come to Washington with one year left on his contract; he might have quit. The team had to commit to make it work, and Smith was coming off the best of his 13 professional years. After Cousins's 2015 breakthrough, Allen balked at such a risk. But if Washington is thinking that Smith will have more career years after the age of 34 — while directing an offense lacking an established run game and a No. 1 wide receiver and clinging to an oft-injured star tight end — it just jumped out of a plane without testing their parachute.
Yes, it's better than placing a third franchise tag on Cousins, which would have cost $34.47 million. It's better than the $28.7 million transition tag price for Cousins. But is this the best long-term solution Allen could muster? After all this time, after shelling out $44 million the past two seasons for a temp quarterback, did the saga have to end on some random Tuesday night on the last day of January?
Washington paid top dollar, in trade assets and that fat new contract, for quarterback security. It has cost certainty now. It might not know exactly how Smith will fit in Gruden's system or whether it can build a complete team around a dependent quarterback making superstar money.
But when the deal becomes official, Smith will be under contract for five years. It's not exactly news that will inspire you to go searching for the next five Super Bowl sites. The aspiration of quarterback security was a fine pursuit. However, the execution of this plan could sentence the franchise to long-term mediocrity.
One awkward and mismanaged quarterbacking conundrum ends. Another begins.