Who’ll make Kirk Cousins the highest-paid player ever?

Who’ll make Kirk Cousins the highest-paid player ever?

It doesn’t happen all at once. You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.
— Margery Williams, “The Velveteen Rabbit”

The Redskins will pay an unprecedented price for betting against their franchise quarterback.

The question is whether Washington’s twice-backfired gamble will leave Kirk Cousins overcompensated as the highest-paid player in NFL history or, as an alternative, leave the organization empty-handed at pro sports’ most complex, influential and valuable position.

Forced to undergo a three-year audition as the stand-in for fallen franchise savior Robert Griffin III, Cousins has entered the new year peeking over the tips of a royal flush in his poker hand.

Since replacing Griffin to start the 2015 season, Cousins ranks third among qualifying NFL quarterbacks in completion percentage (67.0) and sixth in passer rating (97.5) — rivaling two-time MVP Aaron Rodgers in both categories. Over that 48-game sample size, he also ranks an impressive fifth in adjusted net yards per attempt, a discerning metric that rewards a strong touchdown-to-interception ratio and punishes sacks taken. Cousins is just the 11th quarterback in history to reach the 4,000-yard passing mark in three consecutive seasons, joining a host of current and future Hall of Famers.

The key to understanding the ever-polarizing quarterback’s value lies in his Tom Brady-like devotion — bordering on obsession — to polishing his skill set and phasing out weaknesses in his game.

Not long after Cousins displaced Griffin to earn one of the league’s coveted 32 QB openings, he approached Brady seeking answers from on high. How long will I have to wait for my own epiphany?, the impatient young Jedi wondered. When will it click? Unlocking the secrets to football’s version of “the Force,” quarterback Yoda emphasized the importance of “the process.”

“Hey, it’s still clicking,” Brady instructed. “It’s a process. It takes time and each year you’re better than the last.”

Cousins took that guidance to heart, spending the next three years slavishly devoted to the grinding process of gradual improvement.

To that end, the game films show obvious growth and steady development in vital areas such as pocket toughness, downfield production and the ability to elevate the play of his surrounding talent. Taking a beating behind a patchwork offensive line, Cousins still finished the season fifth in completions of 20-plus yards. Despite losing a pair of 1,000-yard wideouts in the offseason and receiving little help from his nominal No. 1 receiver (Terrelle Pryor), Pro Bowl tight end (Jordan Reed) and injury-decimated backfield, Cousins kept the Redskins competitive down the stretch and cemented his standing in the locker room.

“He’s an amazing quarterback. He’s an elite quarterback in my eyes,” right tackle Morgan Moses testified Monday, via The Washington Post. “He has the smarts, he has the tools, he gets the ball out of his hands fast, he’s able to read defenses — all the things you ask a quarterback to do in the NFL.

“Obviously we want him here, we love him, we love what he brings to the team and hopefully we can figure a way to keep him here.”

Moses’ effusive praise begs the question, Why wouldn’t the Redskins figure out a way to keep an evolving quarterback with top-five numbers, strong leadership ability, rare intelligence and a maniacal commitment to self-improvement?

The front office is facing an extraordinary NFL contract conundrum, paying for the original sin of misevaluating a fourth-round pick who deliberately blossomed into a franchise quarterback under the Redskins‘ own watchful eyes.

“You know, we kind of messed up in Washington not getting him done earlier, from the standpoint of the contract,” former general manager Scot McCloughan acknowledged last summer. “… He’s a very intriguing guy. I respect him as a player, and I respect him more as a person.”

An unlikely revolutionary, the mild-mannered, hyper-religious Cousins is the first quarterback ever to play back-to-back seasons under the franchise tag. Having successfully maneuvered the Redskins into checkmate, he will end up shattering the three-year record for guaranteed earnings ($78.36 million), should team president Bruce Allen wield the franchise tag yet again.

Insisting that financial route is “not the worst thing for the franchise,” Allen stressed last offseason that he views the seemingly prohibitive $34.47 million third-tag figure as an option year that would potentially keep Cousins in-house until at least March of 2019 at a sum of $58.4 million for the 2017 and 2018 seasons.

While substituting the franchise tag for the less-popular transition designation would theoretically save the Redskins roughly $6 million, that option is not on the table. The prospect of a front-loaded deal resulting from a bidding war is enough of a deterrent to shelve the idea, team sources have assured NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport.

Allen’s decision won’t be as simplistic as falling back on the franchise tag for a third time, however. If Cousins continues building on his success and lifts a healthier Redskins roster into next season’s playoff field, it will only serve to perpetuate the quarterback’s unparalleled leverage and further reduce his likelihood of submitting to a long-term contract in the nation’s capital.

In other words, Cousins’ future looms as a Faustian bargain for Allen and owner Daniel Snyder.

“As far as I understand, the Redskins are undecided,” Rapoport explained last week. “It’s not a question of Is he a good quarterback? Is he a franchise quarterback? It’s not really that. It’s Is he a franchise quarterback relative to the $34 million franchise tag that it would take? And then what would his contract be? Because if you tag him, you’re not going to pay him $34 million a year to do a long-term [deal]. Would he take something that’s palatable? Or would he make sure the $34 million is the baseline?”

Therein lies the rub. Rapoport has emphasized the need for Cousins to “feel the love” in prospective negotiations, perhaps in the form of an apology contract to make amends for a sense of underappreciation that stretches all the way back to the Griffin years.

In fact, Cousins’ father recently suggested the damage between the two sides might just be beyond repair.

“They could have made him the highest-paid player in NFL history, and he wouldn’t have signed,” Don Cousins told The MMQB’s Greg Bishop in late November. “People say, Well, he’s making $24 million. Fact is, he could have gotten a whole lot more.”

Against that backdrop, desperate teams are circling overhead, prepared to dive in and pick the Redskins clean as punishment for miscalculating the impending free agent’s market and underestimating his ability.

The Browns, Jets, Bills — and perhaps even the Jaguars, Cardinals or Giants — will be on the prowl for a fresh face of the franchise. Broncos general manager John Elway has already resolved to fix his own quarterback quandary, Rapoport has reported, with Cousins as one of the targets in the crosshairs.

If Elway carries a high esteem for the former Michigan State star’s talents, he’s certainly not alone at Broncos headquarters. Before Washington’s aerial attack shredded his vaunted defense in Week 16, coach Vance Joseph touted Cousins as “a tough guy, a special guy.”

After falling prey to Cousins’ audibles, awareness and quick release in that Christmas Eve clash, All-Pro pass rusher Von Miller was left wowed.

“Kirk is a great quarterback. I’ll say that every day of the week,” Miller raved. “A lot of teams would … literally kill to have a quarterback like that. The list [of Cousins suitors] is long. We’ll cross that bridge if we ever get to it.”

Pro Bowl cornerback Aqib Talib was similarly hyperbolic in praise, leaving little doubt that Denver’s respected veterans view Cousins as a top-of-the-line field general capable of leading the Broncos back to the promised land.

“He runs the show. He’s a real NFL quarterback,” Talib explained. “There’s a difference, if you really look around the league. There’s a handful of guys that really know their offense and run it to a ‘T’. He gets the ball out of his hands, he can create time in the pocket, he’s very accurate, he’ll take the checkdown when it’s there. He plays like a real NFL quarterback.”

While it was once fair game to wonder if Cousins could replicate his success outside the cozy confines of Jay Gruden’s offensive system, his standing as a legitimate franchise quarterback is now beyond dispute. The tangible strides shown throughout the 2017 season without the benefit of NFL Coach of the Year favorite Sean McVay’s play-calling mastery have left Allen and Snyder in a bind.

There’s simply no precedent for a durable franchise quarterback to walk out the door in the prime of his career, leaving a vacancy under center. The two franchise-altering outliers of the free-agent era were made possible by unique circumstances involving serious injuries and promises of an upgrade to a newer model.

Faced with a career-threatening shoulder procedure, Drew Brees was allowed to exit San Diego because the Chargers were ready to turn the offense over to Philip Rivers in 2006. Peyton Manning’s four neck surgeries paved the way to the Andrew Luck era in Indianapolis a half-decade ago.

Along the trade route, established quarterbacks such as Drew Bledsoe (2002), Brett Favre (2008) and Alex Smith (2013) were jettisoned only once it was determined that the younger alternative — Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Colin Kaepernick — offered greater upside.

Perhaps the closest parallels to Cousins are a pair of ex-Broncos in Jay Cutler and Jake Plummer. The former forced his way out of Denver upon learning of incoming coach Josh McDaniels’ covert trade talks with Tampa Bay. The latter left Arizona for the Mile High City when both team and player opted for a change of scenery.

Whereas Cousins has been among the productive and efficient passers in the league, though, Plummer was coming off a disappointing 2002 season in which his 65.7 passer rating ranked near the bottom of the league. That’s where the comparison breaks down.

Under the modern NFL’s increased demands, the value of a franchise quarterback is beyond calculable. Absent a viable replacement at the game’s most imbalanced position, the Redskins would risk years of irrelevance if forced into a trade or Cousins defection. Just ask the Browns, eternally in quest of a quarterback — as noted wordsmith Marc Sessler once quipped — like the Earth needs our sun. Better yet, ask the 49ers, only recently delivered from pigskin purgatory when Bill Belichick gift-wrapped Jimmy Garoppolo at the trade deadline.

“Until you find your quarterback,” Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff has conceded, “the search for him consumes you.”

If Cousins is left to twist in the wind for the next few months, it’s a good bet the competition for his services will consume Elway and several other football czars around the league. The resulting sweepstakes would represent a windfall for the coveted quarterback, almost certain to result in the richest contract the NFL has seen to date.

Should that fate befall the Redskins, the Hamlet act of Allen and Snyder will have only themselves to blame for failing to heed the timely advice of their own head coach.

“Being an accomplished quarterback in the National Football League is a heck of a thing, and there aren’t many of them,” Jay Gruden cautioned in the summer of 2016. “If you get one, you better hang on to him, because they don’t grow on trees.”

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