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Washington Redskins

Who’s really to blame for the Kirk Cousins contract mess?

FILE - In this Jan. 1, 2017, file photo, Washington Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins (8) runs onto the field before an NFL football game against the New York Giants in Landover, Md. The NFL salary cap for the upcoming season will be $167 million per team, up more than $12 million over last year. This is the fourth consecutive year the cap has risen at least $10 million. (AP Photo/Nick Wass, File)
Nick Wass/AP photo

Here’s the primary issue with coverage of the never-ending contract saga between the Washington Redskins and quarterback Kirk Cousins: All the blame lands with the franchise. Talk about your easy mark. Should we reach Monday’s deadline without a long-term deal, meaning Cousins plays on the franchise tag for a second consecutive year, the pitchforks are coming out.

Going whack-a-mole on the Redskins lets folks ignore a different angle: Does Cousins actually want to stay with the Redskins?

Anybody who has paid attention to the fumbles and gaffes emanating from Ashburn, Va., in this calendar year, let alone the past two decades, won’t think twice about a columnist, radio host or Twitter egg taking a 2-by-4 to the organization. Washington probably deserves it just for Jim Zorn and charging $50 for parking alone.

But negotiations only work if both sides are open for compromise. The discussion for over a year essentially centers on the Redskins not coming anywhere near the middle despite numerous comments from the head coach and team president about wanting the quarterback around for the long haul. Just words used to form sentences without any true heft? Perhaps, though Jay Gruden isn’t that good of an actor.

Now go try finding quotes where Cousins says he truly wants to stay.

“He said it once, I think,” a colleague remarked when asked if he could recall any such statement from the dozens of press conferences, radio interviews or articles.

“I definitely want to play here, but it’s football,” is something free-agent-to-be Pierre Garcon said after Washington’s regular-season finale.

“I would love to stay here as a Redskin, but at the end of the day I have to do what’s best for my family,” defensive lineman Chris Baker said as the season concluded in January.

Things don’t always work out. Both Garcon and Baker signed elsewhere. The Redskins weren’t terribly aggressive in those negotiations. The Garcon and Baker camps might have had some inkling how things would go, but the players still said the right things. At some basic level, that’s what free agents do.

Teams don’t slap franchise tags on the same player repeatedly. Weird or not, the Redskins have shown they want Cousins around.

The same week as those Garcon and Baker comments, Cousins did his weekly paid radio interview for 106.7 The Fan. He was asked about staying in D.C.:

“Well you know, I need to let some time pass right now and get some objectivity and have a chance to think things through,” Cousins said. “I’ve been so focused in the season, just trying to get ready for the next opponent, the next opponent and do all I can to get ready that I don’t know if my head’s clear right now.”

Time passed. Two months later, ESPN’s Adam Schefter asked Cousins, “Do you see yourself in Washington long-term?

Armed with the skills of a veteran politician, Cousins responded, “Ya know, I see myself keeping an open mind.”

This week at his football camp in his native Michigan, he told a local TV reporter asking about the contract talks, “I never want to play football thinking about money. I think that you get in trouble doing that.” He told another Michigan outlet, “I hired my agent to do his job.”

Cousins didn’t tell those reporters he wanted to stay with the Redskins. Smart negotiating tactics, probably, but guess what? That might be the truth.

In 2012 the Redskins drafted Cousins into a situation where fellow rookie Robert Griffin III was the chosen one.

In 2015, the Redskins held a QB competition without telling anyone, then awkwardly gave Cousins the job shortly before the season. Then Cousins rewrote the franchise record book and led the Redskins to the playoffs. Then came the first franchise tag because the organization needed to see more before signing off on a long-term deal.

In 2017, Cousins is on the verge of becoming the first QB in NFL history to play on the tag in back-to-back years.

If he reaches free agency in 2018, Cousins might play in San Francisco under former offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan – or at least with a team that didn’t initially tell him to sit in the corner.

Cousins has the right to have some anger, but that doesn’t mean anyone should turn him into a martyr by suggesting he’s holding strong in negotiations as a way to boost the pay of all quarterbacks. Whatever the exact truth, there’s certainly risk involved.

“Few players are willing to take the risk Cousins has absorbed,” Andrew Beaton wrote in the Wall Street Journal. “Franchise tags are lucrative, but only one year long. That is daunting in a sport where the pervasive threat of injury can torpedo a player’s value on any given snap.”

Beaton makes a strong point, which raises the question: Why take the risk? Is Cousins taking the risk for the NFLPA? Is he sincere that money isn’t the driving force? Perhaps yes for both. Folks are willing to accept these narratives. There is another angle worth considering, one that can be resolved with a simple yes or no question: Do you want to sign a long-term deal with the Washington Redskins?

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