The struggle of supporting any one team in any one sport is that you constantly view the league landscape through a specific lens. That's why right now if you're a Washington Redskins fan, getting to the truth of the Kirk Cousins contract question requires doing something that goes against the very nature of sports fandom: moving past what he's done for you lately.
It's a really, really hard mental hurdle to clear, especially after how efficient Cousins was down the stretch in 2015 to get his team atop the NFC East and into the playoffs. But let's try to get through this together, because seeing the entire Cousins picture is a necessary exercise to answer complicated questions.
Should the Redskins offer a long-term contract and pay him now? Or be patient and make him prove himself again?
For me, the answers in order are no and yes. And for ESPN's Adam Schefter, who spoke to ESPN 980 in Washington, the reality is that landing on the right value before a July 15 deadline will be too difficult.
"How do you establish his value when I think there would be teams willing to pay him if he were on the open market today more than Washington feels like it needs to pay him?" Schefter asked.
Although he's shown promise, we can only make an educated guess about who and what Cousins is at this point. Guesses can lead to salary-cap craters in the near future.
Washington slapped Cousins with the franchise tag in March. He tripped over both himself and a stack of Creed albums to sign the tender just two days later. Most players despise the franchise tag and react to it with the same enthusiasm that Brussels sprouts brought out of them as children. Signing it takes place either months later or not at all (hey there, Von Miller).
But Cousins gladly accepted the fully guaranteed salary for 2016 because of a simple motivating factor: common sense.
He was assigned to second-string game-watching duties for most of his first two NFL seasons. He'll turn 28 years old later this offseason and has made 26 starts (including playoffs). That's a problem for two reasons: It's the equivalent of just over a season-and-a-half, and more importantly, Cousins has looked like a competent quarterback for only eight of those starts.
See, recency bias is one hell of a drug.
Now the franchise tag has gifted him a base salary of $19.953 million. That's the highest base salary for any player in 2016, according to Spotrac.
It sounds astronomical in that context. Then you remember the rapidly ballooning quarterback market that's being pulled along by the Colts' Andrew Luck and the Texans' Brock Osweiler. Suddenly, paying Cousins a tick under $20 million for one season feels affordable.
But what the Redskins are forking over for one year isn't the debate here. What lies beyond 2016 is the real issue. That's where things get sticky for all parties involved.
On one side of the table is Team Cousins, with his agent looking at the contract just given to Luck. The most important number now attached to Luck is $87 million, his total guarantee. Cousins won't get Luck-level money for many reasons that are about to become clear. But he benefits from Luck's establishing a new market peak and dragging along the value of those below him.
The more direct contract comparison for Cousins is Osweiler. The Texans' hopeful savior has made all of seven NFL starts, and he was benched in favor of Peyton Manning during the Denver Broncos' playoff run. Please recall that Manning's performance had declined and he was a legendary quarterback in name only, and he was instead one of the league's worst passers. But since Osweiler is young at 25 years old and brimming with potential, he was deemed worthy of a $72 million contract, $37 million of which is guaranteed.
So Cousins' agent, Mike McCartney, will slide those two contracts across the table. He's also surely noted that with Cousins already tagged once, applying a second tag in 2017 will cost the Redskins $23.94 million. Add those two tags together, and Team Cousins is working with a guaranteed-money baseline of about $44 million over the first two seasons of any long-term contract.
That's $22 million per year, which lines up directly with the new market value for Cousins calculated by Spotrac editor Michael Ginnitti:
At the barest of bare minimums then, handing over that $44 million guaranteed and an overall contract of, say, $110 million over five years is what it will take to keep Cousins in Washington long-term.
In all likelihood, though, since Luck has elevated the market and the salary cap is climbing dramatically every year, the floor for that guaranteed amount would surely rise to at least $50 million if the Redskins want to secure their quarterback position now.
Even that could be modest thinking. There are nine quarterbacks playing under contracts guaranteeing them at least $50 million, again per Spotrac. If we expand our scope just a little further, there are 11 quarterbacks guaranteed at least $45 million, which is over a third of the league's starters.
But if you're on the other side of the table and a member of Team Redskins, those dollar figures are still viewed with great hesitation. Even after the current NFL quarterback-contract realities are acknowledged along with the steadily rising cap, guaranteeing that much to a quarterback with Cousins' inexperience gets terrifying fast.
We still can't say anything definitive yet about what Cousins is as a starting quarterback. To make any statement about his future we need to remove that cloud of recency bias, which is when things get confusing.
The 2015 season was Cousins' first full year as a starter. The first half of the season had a familiar odor to it when he threw nine interceptions over those eight games, which equaled his interception total over only six appearances in 2014.
He was mediocre in every sense to begin 2015, especially with five games where his per-attempt average fell below 6.5 yards. But then something shifted.
Cousins seemed to finally ease into head coach Jay Gruden's offense. He found comfort in the second half of 2015 after a Week 8 bye, and as a result his ability to push the ball to deeper areas of the field rose sharply.
Note the jarring difference between the rows below:
|A tale of two quarterbacks in 2015|
|Cousins' first half of 2015||10||9||244.3||6.3||66.9|
|Cousins' second half of 2015||19||2||276.5||9.4||73.6|
There's plenty of reason to believe the guy shown in the bottom section of that table will show up again in 2016.
That may be a worst-case scenario, as Cousins has been given more offensive weaponry to work with in the form of rookie wide receiver and first-round pick Josh Doctson. He's fresh off averaging 17.0 yards per reception (1,326 yards overall) on 78 catches while scoring 14 times during his final season at TCU.
Cousins will also hopefully get full seasons from wideout DeSean Jackson and tight end Jordan Reed. The latter appeared in at least 14 games in a season for the first time in 2015. That's all the time Reed needed to finish fifth among tight ends with 952 receiving yards.
Lastly, the quickly maturing Jamison Crowder adds another infusion of speed. He surged as a rookie to record 59 catches while playing only 68.6 percent of the Redskins' offensive snaps, per Pro Football Focus. He's progressed this offseason and "left folks at Redskins Park excited" during OTAs, according to ESPN.com's John Keim.
Everything is lining up nicely for Cousins' ascension to continue during his third season running Gruden's system. He should also receive more defensive support after the blockbuster signing of cornerback Josh Norman.
But there's still looming confusion that hovers around Cousins and what exactly he'll become as a long-term starter.
Sure, he threw four touchdown passes in three separate games in 2015. That's terrific. Filed under not so wonderful: the four multiple-interception games and five times his passer rating fell below 70.0.
The next direction for the Redskins and Cousins will be determined by assessing which path comes with more risk. There's certainly risk in waiting because the NFL is a league thirsting for even slightly above-average quarterback play. If Cousins takes a small step back in 2016, demand for his services would still be high.
His price would reflect that rising market as he edges closer to Luck-contract territory. However, at that point an increase would be marginal compared to the baseline yearly value of any extension agreement now (again, $22 million).
A rise would still sting, but not as much as the wound left when a commitment is followed by swift regression. That's possible from a still-developing and still-unproven product whose most recent season was evenly divided between competence and mediocrity.
There are times when being conservative is the best management approach. This is one of those times.