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The 5 O’Clock Club: Kirk Cousins’ seemingly failed attempt to champion guaranteed contracts in the NFL

It’s 5 o’clock somewhere…

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NFL: Chicago Bears at Minnesota Vikings Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

The 5 o’clock club is published several times per week during the season, and aims to provide a forum for reader-driven discussion at a time of day when there isn’t much NFL news being published. Feel free to introduce topics that interest you in the comments below.

Two years ago, when the Redskins signaled the end of their efforts to retain Kirk Cousins by trading to acquire Alex Smith, Cousins became the darling of the NFL media for a couple of months. We all know that, while Alex Smith may defy expectations by returning to play for the Redskins, a storybook happy ending for him and the Washington franchise seems unlikely. Smith, of course, stepped in and did what Cousins had never been able to do — win immediately and consistently by playing turnover-free football. Sadly, his career-threatening injury derailed the Redskins’ 2018 season and precipitated the hot mess that the organization is now in the midst of.

Cousins, meanwhile, successfully attracted the interest of two NFL teams who were willing to bid for his services in March last year. The Jets had strong interest in Cousins and offered him a contract in line with his demands, but it was the Vikings that saw their interest reciprocated by Cousins, who clearly wanted to join a ready-built winner.

The Vikings were a bit of a surprise entry in the Kirk Cousins sweepstakes, given that they were fresh off of a successful playoff run that had seen them reach the NFC Championship Game. The move away from the guy who had taken them there, Case Keenum, and to Kirk Cousins — especially given the historic contract that they signed to acquire him — shouted loudly that they felt that they were only one player away from a Super Bowl. Indeed, the Vikings front office said as much.

Cousins, for his part, had played a very successful game of contract chess in DC, refusing to sign contract extensions offered by the team, but signing and playing on successive franchise tags that gave him $44m over two seasons and forcing the Redskins to let him get paid in free agency six years after they had drafted him.

He and his agent, having already charted an unusual course, chose another unusual strategy in his entry to unfettered free agency. Unlike most players, Cousins wanted a limited-term contract of 3-years instead of five or six, and he wanted as close to a fully guaranteed contract as he could possibly achieve.

He ultimately got both from the Vikings.

Thanks to the decision by the Cousins team to document his free agency experience, we know exactly what happened in the hours between the opening of the “legal tampering” period last year and Kirk’s eventual signing with his new team. Kirk talks on camera about how fast the process moved, and how quickly teams took other free-agent quarterback options in a domino-effect that left him, just hours into the process, with a choice between the Jets and the Vikings. On-camera, we see a series of phone and video chat conversations he has about his decision to sign with the Vikings that helps illustrate why media reports often may not reflect the real state of affairs in the NFL.

First we see Kirk improbably call his Triple-A guy and say, “I did sign my contract today as you instructed me to,” followed by a conversation with his wife in which he tells her, “It’s official... the Vikings came up to 28 per year fully guaranteed.” He then lets her in on the fact that his agent is telling a different story, “What Mike McCartney is telling everybody is that nothing’s official until we sign on Thursday.”

But beyond the deceptive public posturing of Cousins’ negotiating team as they ran a Dutch auction between the Jets and Vikings, Cousins talked rather candidly about what they were trying to accomplish. After pondering aloud on-camera about the importance he should place on the amount of the contract, he concludes his thoughts by saying, “Structure is as important if not more important... we want the money to be guaranteed.”

And there’s one more thing that Cousins wanted. “The dream is that we go to a place where we can win,” Kirk says, “and the hope would be that this isn’t a decision for two or three years; this is a decision for decades.

Cousins was, at the time, in a position to choose between what appeared to be a losing franchise — the Jets — stuck in an impossible situation in the AFC East where they had to contend with the Patriots twice per year, or a proven winner in the Vikings. In a sense, that was no decision at all.

The choice was easy. Kirk wanted a team that was built to win already, and he wanted guaranteed money. The Vikings offered both.

Talking to Cousins on-camera, his agent McCartney made a very positive and hopeful statement filled with expectations about the future and Cousins’ place in it: “Hopefully,” McCartney said, “it’s a game-changer where players, for years to come, say, ‘Thank you, Kirk Cousins, for being strong.’”

The expectation, clearly, was that the Vikings would give Cousins what he needed — not a few million dollars more per year, but a team constructed to win a championship with a good quarterback who couldn’t put the team on his back and carry them.

Kirk had been the epitome of a .500 quarterback in DC, but he would now be a champion on the field with a trophy to prove it, and a champion for NFL player contracts off the field, with $84m and the thanks of a generation of players as the bonus.

Only, it hasn’t worked out.

Cousins, 20 games into his 48-game contract, is 10-9-1 as a starter in Minnesota.

This past off-season, Cousins spoke on the record about how the 8-7-1 finish to the Vikings 2018 season, and in particular the inability to get a win in a Week 17 contest against the Bears, who had already clinched the division and a spot in the playoffs, simply wasn’t good enough, and wasn’t the type of result the Vikings wanted when they signed him.

“I’m pretty much a .500 quarterback in my career so far,” Cousins said, “and I don’t think that’s where you want to be and that’s not why you are brought in or people are excited about you.”

Unfortunately, 2019 has picked up where 2018 (and 2017 and 2016 and 2015) left off. The Vikings are 2-2, playing exactly .500 football. With seasons of 9-7, 8-7-1, 7-9, 8-7-1, and now 2-2, Kirk is 34-32-2 over four and a quarter seasons as a starter in the NFL.

That isn’t going to be good enough to cement Cousins’ legacy as the guy who brought guaranteed contracts to the NFL.

The Vikings couldn’t break through last season with John DiFilippo calling the offense, which was too pass-heavy, and too reliant on Cousins’ arm for Mike Zimmer’s taste, so DiFilippo was fired and replaced.

The new coordinator, Kevin Stefanski, has made Dalvin Cook the centerpiece of the Vikings offense. Cook is in a dead heat with Christian McCaffrey for the league rushing lead, with 71 carries for 410 yards, so the commitment to the run has been there, along with a defense ranked 5th in the league in points allowed. The two elements — strong defense and strong run game — are what people said were needed for the Vikings and Kirk Cousins to win a championship.

It hasn’t been enough to change the Cousins-led Vikings into a winner, however, and fingers are increasingly being pointed at Kirk Cousins, who was supposed to be “the final piece” to get this franchise its first Lombardi Trophy.

Against the Packers in Week 2, a comeback attempt fell short when Cousins threw an end-zone interception on 1st and Goal that effectively ended the game with a Vikings divisional loss.

This week, in a second divisional loss, this time against the Bears, the running game was ineffective and Cousins, in addition to an early lost fumble, simply couldn’t solve the puzzle of the Bears defense that attacked him relentlessly for three and a half quarters.

After the game, receiver Adam Theilen seemed critical of the quarterback’s play, saying,

“At some point, you’re not going to be able to run the ball for 180 yards, even with the best running back in the NFL,” Thielen told reporters, via Chad Graff of “That’s when you have to be able to throw the ball. . . . You have to be able to hit the deep balls.”

Theilen’s piled on a bit after that.

“He made a great read of finding me open and just didn’t complete the pass. It’s as simple as that,” Theilen added.

Now, after the 2-2 start, putting the Vikings in last place in their division, the Cousins narrative is heating up, and not in a good way.

One article this week laid out the issue that is increasingly bothering Vikings fans:

Though the Vikings are 2-2, the offense has underwhelmed, with Cousins ranking among the most ineffective quarterbacks in the NFL so far.

As has been the case this season, Cousins missed big opportunities downfield and often resorted to checkdowns for minimal gains. Though some of that can be attributed to the Bears’ fierce defense, Cousins has frequently been hesitant to take chances on the field and has missed open players; he has just three passing touchdowns.

ProFootballTalk has gone further, asking the headline question: What will the Vikings do with Kirk Cousins?

PFT opines that the Vikings may be feeling a bit of “buyer’s remorse”, and may soon be actively seeking ways to get out of the three-year contract that they were celebrating as a franchise milestone ahead of the 2018 season.

There are no good options, short of someone willing to trade for the privilege of paying him $29.5 million in 2020. And that’s not happening. At best, the Vikings would have to do a Jadeveon Clowney-type deal, trading Cousins to a team and paying a large chunk of his salary. Or maybe they’ll have to do a Brock Osweiler-type deal, trading Cousins and his contract to a new team and sending a first-round pick to the team that assumes the responsibility to pay Cousins.

At worst, the Vikings would bite the bullet, cutting Cousins, paying him the difference between $29.5 million and whatever he gets elsewhere, and moving on.

The Vikings will have to ask themselves whether paying him not to play for the team is better than paying him to continuing to play for the team. Without knowing more about their other options, it’s impossible to answer that question.

At this point, though, it’s fair to say that the Vikings made a mistake when entrusting so much cash and cap space to Cousins. Barring a dramatic turnaround by a player who seems to be all too conscious of — and all too freaked out by — big games and big moments, the Vikings will be looking for a way out of a third year with Cousins, even if they won’t have one.

This kind of editorializing about the quarterback who, a year ago, was the poster-boy for the guaranteed contract revolution that many people said was coming doesn’t bode well for the players who want to see the NFL adopt universal NBA-style guaranteed contracts. And this is just one article in a sea of noise that has erupted around Cousins this season.

The “Beta test” with Cousins hasn’t reached the halfway point yet, but unless the situation changes pretty dramatically in the coming weeks, it may well end up being an object lesson to NFL GMs to stick with the traditional contract structures they are comfortable with, avoiding guaranteed contracts as they always have. GMs will now be able to point to the Vikings experiment with Cousins and shake their heads and continue to write contracts that give teams maximum opportunity to walk away.

There have been a number of reports of players “flexing their muscles” in negotiations with teams this year, reports of a shifting in the balance of power between players and owners, making it more like the NBA. I think that the evidence to support that idea is underwhelming.

Jalen Ramsey has asked for a trade. At the time of writing, he was still a Jaguar, and traveling with the team to this week’s away game.

Trent Williams has demanded... something... and continues to hold out in an apparent stalemate.

Lev Bell sat out a year, only to return to the NFL free agent market to find it soft. He has ended up with a less-than-stellar contract to play for a pretty bad team in a tough AFC division, having lost out on around $14m that he will never make back.

Antonio Brown elbowed his way out of Pittsburgh, only to find himself elbowed out of the NFL before the calendar turned to October.

Melvin Gordon rejoined his Charger teammates this week, much poorer than he would have been if he hadn’t staked out a confrontational position early in the off-season.

Yannick Ngakue got no new deal and is still a Jaguar.

In one apparent ‘win’ for a player in a contract negotiation, Zeke Elliott vacationed in Cabo while his agent sipped Margaritas with Jerry Jones. This was never truly a confrontation. Jerry loves to give players long-term overpriced contracts, and he could barely restrain himself from signing Zeke to a record breaking running back deal. I doubt whether Elliott could have stopped Jerry from doing it.

The idea that players are suddenly bending NFL front offices to their will doesn’t really hold water. True, Clowney ended up in Seattle, and Michael Thomas got a well-earned market-setting contract, but I don’t think this season sets any new high-water mark for players negotiating for trades or new contracts.

The fact is, NFL players and the NFLPA have always been at a disadvantage in negotiations with NFL owners. Paul Brown, of the Cleveland Browns, was famously quoted as saying, at the inception of the NFLPA in 1956 that “it was both just and necessary that management could cut, trade, bench, blackball and own, in perpetuity, anyone and everyone that it wanted”.

The owners may have become more circumspect in their phrasing of these types of sentiments over the intervening six decades, but there can be no doubt about who is in control of this league.

Players are young, with short careers. They rarely have the will or the wherewithal to take personally painful collective action against the league in an effort to win concessions for themselves or the players to follow.

These young men in their 20s often come from middle class or poor backgrounds, and they have the chance to fulfill a lifelong dream of playing in the most prestigious league in their chosen profession — a league that is cut-throat competitive, and where half a second of speed in a 40-yard dash can be the difference between a multi-million dollar contract and stocking shelves at Sam’s Club.

Giving up even a single game check can be very costly, and, at any given time, perhaps as many as half of all the active members of the NFLPA are fighting to make a roster, or fighting to stay on a roster. Missing any time at all, be it off-season work, training camp or regular season, may cost them the chance at a career that they’ve spent a lifetime training and hoping for — a career that has an incredibly short window of opportunity for most people.

Organizing over 2,000 of these young men with individual competing priorities to take collective action against a group of 32 multi-billionaires with business acumen and a coordinated strategy must be akin to herding cats.

The owners have proven adept at using bait-and-switch negotiating tactics against the NFLPA over the years, often getting the union focused on an issue that is not really very important to the owners, and carrying on extensive negotiations on minor issues that allow the union to score a “win” that they can take to their members, with the owners never really having to concede much of substance.

Andrew Brandt, of Sports Illustrated, wrote in June that, “Opening salvos have come from each side that appear not only scripted but also replays of the posturing done eight years ago.”

In just the past week or so, Daniel Kaplan of the Athletic wrote an article about the state of the current CBA negotiations:

The NFL has dropped a proposal for an 18-game season and is now focused on expanding the regular season to 17 games, ownership sources said.

Owners...floated earlier the idea that players could take two games off an 18 game season.

That idea was widely mocked as unfeasible given fans would be unhappy if they bought tickets and didn’t see all the players.

“Quite honestly, that is a hard sell to fans,” Green Bay Packers president Mark Murphy told reporters this summer.

Beyond regular season expansion, key issues are the commissioner’s disciplinary authority, revenue share, drug policy on marijuana, and expanding pensions.

The 18-game season

Owners have done a wonderful job of using the 18-game season as a red herring for the second time in a row in negotiations with the NFLPA. By first floating the concept via media leaks, and then formulating it in a manner that led to sniggers of scorn, the owners are in a position to now publicly back off a proposal that they likely never seriously considered feasible in 2020.

They will replace it with a more reasonable proposal that may or may not win player approval, but the owners will want concessions in return.

Marijuana testing

An easy “win” for the players should be the drug policy on marijuana. There is really no good reason for the owners to want to continue testing for and suspending players for marijuana use. This is a concession that the owners can make that will not only cost them nothing in real terms, but will likely enhance their entertainment product by eliminating the embarrassment of positive test results and the loss of marquee value when high-profile players are suspended.

Commissioner’s disciplinary authority

The commissioner’s disciplinary authority might be more important to owners than I perceive it to be, but I have to imagine that even Rodger Goodell might like to see player discipline moved to the control of an independent arbiter, removing a frequent PR nightmare from his ‘to do’ list. Getting forward movement on this, as with the marijuana policy, may represent a win for both sides, though the owners could claim it as a concession in order to ask for something in return.

Revenue sharing

Of all the topics listed in the article, the one that should probably be the highest priority for the NFLPA is the one that could potentially put more money in the paycheck of every player/member that they represent; that is, league revenue sharing.

In a league that currently counts revenues at around $16 billion annually, a 1% swing in the revenue sharing formula could represent a minimum of $160 million annually to the players. That is significant wealth redistribution.

Keep them looking in the wrong direction

In fact, with digital distribution of games and legalized gambling both coming on line as significant new forms of revenue, the desire to expedite the current CBA negotiation may be an attempt to get a fresh agreement from the player’s union on a revenue sharing system that mirrors the current one — even if it has an enhanced percentage for the players — as long as the lion’s share of the emerging new revenue streams are left in the owners’ pockets.

The owners tend to get the union to take their eye off the ball by distracting players with side issues like expanding the regular season, making changes to the non-PED drug policy, or re-assigning responsibility for handing out player suspensions. Players, who mostly just want to approve the negotiated document and continue with the business of playing football, are mostly uninterested in interrupting training or the regular season. They just want to play.

So, while the NFLPA works to roll back drug testing in the NFL, the owners will be keen to finalize an agreement that keeps the players’ hands off of new revenue streams that involve gambling, digital broadcast rights, and maybe others as well.

The other topic that is nowhere near the negotiating table is mandated guaranteed contracts. Despite the clamor over recent seasons, and the feeling a year ago that Cousins might’ve scored a watershed breakthrough, the NFL is no closer to adopting guaranteed contracts as a standard practice (and may actually be further away in the wake of the Vikings experience with Cousins).

Who has the power?

Real change in the NFL — at least change that runs counter to what the owners prefer — almost has to be driven by a few people who have the ability to hit the owners where it hurts — in the wallet. While there are a few marquee players at every skill position, the ones who really have the power to create change are the figurative and literal signal-callers; that is, the league’s quarterbacks. Trying to run the NFL without talented QBs is like trying to run the Kentucky Derby without horses. You might still have a race, but it’s nowhere near as exciting to watch.

The AFL-NFL merger, which was announced in principle in 1966 and accomplished in 1970, was driven by the decision of high-profile players taking their skills to the rival AFL. But it was the loss of a single charismatic talent that made all the difference. Joe Namath, in this way, is one of the most important protagonists of the National Football League as we know it today.

There’s a lesson here: Quarterbacks in the NFL are powerful — at least the great ones are.

Tom Brady sends a tweet in the middle of a Thursday Night Football game and suddenly the penalty flags stop flying. It seems like more than mere coincidence.

There are only 32 starting NFL quarterback jobs in the entire world, and only about twenty men alive at any given time with the skills to perform the job at a very high level. Supply and demand makes those guys highly sought after... but not invincible.

Colin Kapernick tried to use his platform to send a message about social change. I’ll leave it to history to decide what his actions amounted to. He certainly got the attention of the public and the owners.

More recently, Kirk Cousins was seen, at least by his agent, as a warrior — not for social justice, but for improved player contracts.

Cousins’ bid to become the first player to sign a multi-year, fully guaranteed contract at $28m+ per season may eventually come to be seen as a self-serving grab for the cash, but it was, at least publicly, presented as a bold attempt to “win” something for all NFL players. For his gambit to pay off for anyone aside from himself, Cousins was always going to have to lead Minnesota to a championship.

To be fair, he is less than halfway through his 3-year contract, but Vikings fans are starting to get worried (and maybe the Vikings front office as well). The loss to the Bears in Week 17 last year hurt; the early season losses to the Packers and Bears in 2019, which seem to have been laid primarily at Cousins’ feet by fans, media and even teammates, also hurt.

There is now public speculation about whether the Vikings brass might take action to try to get out of the Cousins contract and move on if they can. That would represent an incredible reversal if it were to eventuate.

If nothing changes, then the cause that Kirk Cousins seemed to champion — the idea of high-dollar fully-guaranteed contracts for NFL players — that seemed to take a huge step forward a year ago, will almost certainly be relegated to the “close but no cigar” bin behind the back burner when the Vikings are eliminated from playoff contention for a second year in a row.

Vikings fans are certainly rooting for Cousins to turn it around. Fans of guaranteed contracts for players should be doing the same, because if Cousins fails in Minnesota, it may be a very long time before a front office takes a similar kind of risk on a player contract.

If he can’t lead his team to a championship, Kirk Cousins, instead of being the poster boy for the wisdom of guaranteed money for players, will be the object lesson story that GMs use to justify their insistent beliefs about the evils of fully guaranteed deals in football.


What’s the ultimate destiny of the 2019 Minnesota Vikings?

This poll is closed

  • 2%
    Super Bowl
    (9 votes)
  • 1%
    NFC Championship game
    (4 votes)
  • 18%
    A loss in the playoffs prior to the NFCCG
    (62 votes)
  • 78%
    Eliminated from playoff contention by Week 17
    (268 votes)
343 votes total Vote Now