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The 5 O’Clock Club: Playing “what if” with the Kirk Cousins contract

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NFC Wild Card Playoffs - New York Giants v Minnesota Vikings Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

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I read two or three interesting and related pieces of information about Kirk Cousins in the past day or so.

The first was that Kirk Cousins has broken off negotiations with the Vikings for a contract extension.

The second thing that caught my eye was a ‘technical’ detail from Kirk’s contract that I wasn’t previously aware of, published by PFT:

Cousins’s current contract doesn’t include a clause preventing the Vikings from tagging him. It doesn’t have to. Per a source with knowledge of the deal, the contract voids after the deadline for applying the franchise tag.

In other words, Cousins won’t be on track to be a free agent when the Vikings have the ability to tag him. Only after the window for using the tag closes will Cousins’s contract expire.

I kind of shrugged at this because the Redskins had already tagged Cousins twice, meaning that another tag at the end of the ‘23 season would require him to make 144% of his 2023 salary. PFT addressed this:

Even without that clause, it would still be different for the Vikings to tag him. Although his current cap number is $20.25 million, it’s believed that the 44-percent increase for his third career tag would be based on his pre-restructuring cap number of $36.25 million. That would result in a franchise tender of $52.2 million.

Again, it doesn’t matter. They can’t tag him. So either they’ll re-sign him before the start of free agency, or Cousins will become a free agent — six years after he became a free agent in Washington and signed with the Vikings.

Free Agency: The Vikings and Kirk Cousins in 2018

I think most Hogs Haven members will remember that Cousins, after starting nearly every game for the Redskins for three seasons, left in free agency after the 2017 season and was replaced by Alex Smith.

The Vikings had, in 2017, had gone 13-3, but lost to the eventual super bowl champion Eagles in the NFC Championship game. Minnesota’s 2017 starting QB, Sam Bradford, simply couldn’t play after the opening week win in New Orleans, and the team was carried through the final 15 games of the regular season and onto the conference championship game by Case Keenum.

As an aside, Keenum ended up as the opening day QB of the Redskins in 2019; Bradford started for the Cardinals in the first two weeks of the 2018 season — a terrible free agency move by Arizona.

Show me the money

In any event, the Vikings front office went into the 2018 offseason believing that they had put together a championship team that needed only one component — a talented quarterback — to reach a super bowl and win a Lombardi trophy. They went looking with their checkbook open, and signed Cousins early in the ‘18 free agency period.

This is what the Washington Post reported at the time:

He joins a team with Super Bowl aspirations for next season and beyond, and Cousins will have to deal with the expectations that accompany those hopes. He comes with a hefty price tag and he is expected to be the final piece of a Super Bowl puzzle in Minnesota after Keenum had a breakthrough 2017 season, playing at a near-league-MVP level, but could not get the Vikings past the Eagles in the NFC title game.

Kirk made it clear at the time that the move north was all about chasing a championship:

[Cousins] said he chose the Vikings because he believes they’re built to win for a sustained period thanks to a talented roster, stability at head coach and general manager and an ownership that has committed financially to building both the team while moving it into a new stadium and training facility.

Cousins had famously or infamously gamed the system successfully to get two big paydays in Washington in 2016 & 2017, getting about $44m on successive fully-guaranteed one-year franchise tags. He had made it known in 2018 that he wanted a fully guaranteed contract, and Minnesota gave it to him.

Because of the contract’s length — only 3 years — it wasn’t the radical departure from NFL norms that the Deshaun Watson 5-year, fully guaranteed contract was a few years later, and it left room for Cousins to get another bite or two at the apple before he was too old to do so (remember that his career started slowly, and he was in Washington for 6 seasons before he hit free agency).

Per Over the Cap, in 5 seasons with the Vikings, Cousins has made about $136.6m as their starting quarterback. He has a $20.2m cap hit in 2023, and because he has 4 void years in his contract, if he leaves at the end of this season, he’ll leave a $28.5m dead cap hit in his wake for 2024, meaning the total cap hit for his remaining season of play will total $48.7m .

His own coach in Minnesota, Mike Zimmer, was reportedly never happy about the front office decision to go all in on Cousins:

Zimmer complained about dumping a bunch of money into one player back in 2018...he just didn’t view Cousins as the quarterback that could get Minnesota over the hump. His teams had had success with mid-level signal-callers like Teddy Bridgewater and Case Keenum, so he likely didn’t feel that signing Cousins would be the thing that delivered the Vikings their first-ever Super Bowl win.

Of course, Zimmer, to date, has been proven right.

The results over 5 seasons

Here are the comparative results for Minnesota and Washington for those 5 seasons:

In those 5 seasons, the Vikings have won 14 more regular season games but have never come close to winning a super bowl, or even equaling the success they enjoyed with Case Keenum in 2017. The Vikings made the playoffs twice, losing in the Divisional round in 2019 and the Wildcard round in 2022, for a 1-2 playoff record. Obviously, despite the Vikings feeling that they had a ‘superbowl-ready’ team, Cousins hasn’t been the difference maker in the subsequent 5 seasons, and many observers seem to feel that his hefty contract has forced the Vikings to compromise in other areas of their roster.

Washington, of course, lost its only playoff game in those 5 years in Ron Rivera’s inaugural season of 2020.

The “what if” game

I want to keep this question fairly simple, without regard to ripples in the timeline of the NFL story since 2017, so here’s my basic question.

If Washington had made the identical contract offers to Kirk Cousins that the Vikings made, and if Washington had gotten identical results with respect to regular season records (46-35-1) and playoff results (1-2), would you — in the alternate 2023 offseason universe — feel happy with the outcome of having paid and kept Kirk Cousins, or would you be looking back to the past and wishing the front office had done something different?


If the Redskins had met Cousins’ contract demands in 2018 and he had stayed, and Washington had gotten the same results as the Vikings have (46-35-1 regular season + one playoff win), how would you feel about it all today?

This poll is closed

  • 14%
    I’d feel pretty good about Kirk’s history and development with the team
    (77 votes)
  • 49%
    I’d be happier than I am now with what really happened, but I’d still be vaguely dissatisfied with those results
    (264 votes)
  • 30%
    I’d be seriously unhappy about it and always thinking about what the team should have done instead
    (161 votes)
  • 5%
    My reaction would be something completely different
    (30 votes)
532 votes total Vote Now


As a Washington fan, and with the benefit of hindsight, did the Washington front office make the right decision or wrong decision to tag Cousins twice and then let him walk in free agency?

This poll is closed

  • 24%
    (133 votes)
  • 75%
    (402 votes)
535 votes total Vote Now

And then there’s this: