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Kirk Cousins Is the NFL’s Greatest Gambler

After betting on himself with multiple one-year deals in Washington, Cousins signed the first fully guaranteed non-rookie deal in league history. Cousins, his agent Mike McCartney, Vikings GM Rick Spielman, and others tell the story of how the contract came to be and what it means for the future of the league.

Kirk Cousins Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Who do we believe in? Who believes in themselves? Who’s going to take the leap? And are we seriously going to talk ourselves into the Chargers again? Welcome to Place Your Bets Week!

“You know how they say athletes always want to be musicians and musicians want to be athletes?” Kirk Cousins told me. “I grew up always wanting to be a professional athlete and now that I am one, you look out and I kind of wish I was a businessman, but I’m not. I didn’t study that in college. I look at people who are and I say ‘I want to be that.’”

I had to remind Cousins that he is considered a businessman. “A little bit,” he said. Not only that; he’s one of the best businessmen in the NFL. This offseason, he signed the biggest fully guaranteed deal in the league’s history, with the Minnesota Vikings. Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Doug Baldwin called him a “hero.” The NFL Network dubbed the deal “historic” and called Cousins and his agent Mike McCartney “pioneers.” Cousins bet on himself, and he won bigger than any professional football player ever has.

Somehow we weren’t even talking about businessmen because of his contract; we were discussing the History Channel’s The Men Who Built America series. “I wish they made more,” Cousins said. There was a new one this year, Frontiersmen, which he loved almost as much as the first series. He also read former General Electric CEO Jack Welch’s book, Winning. Oh, and he’d also like to meet the writing staff of The Office to see how their brains work. But then I mentioned that, again, he did sign one of the best deals in the history of the sport—in a league where absolute superstars can’t get three-fourths of their deals guaranteed. So, by this definition he is a businessman.

“Yeah, I guess in my own world. I tried to handle my business well,” he said. “You have to be willing to do the things other people in the past haven’t wanted to do, which is to delay the income or delay the gratification for the sake of something better down the road.”

Cousins is at the end of one of the most unusual journeys in the league, and so, too, are the Minnesota Vikings, the team that signed him after making the NFC championship game a year ago. In Washington, Cousins outlasted Robert Griffin III, a superstar-in-the-making second-overall pick who was drafted three rounds ahead of him in the same year, to eventually become the starter. Since getting drafted in 2012, Cousins has been a backup, a starter, a benched starter, a star, a playoff starter, a divisive figure amongst analysts, and a you-like-that yeller who ended up getting the franchise tag twice. He ranks seventh among active players in passer rating and has made just one Pro Bowl, but then he signed a fully guaranteed $84 million deal, at that point the biggest guaranteed-at-signing figure in history.

This also ends the Minnesota Vikings’ quarterback odyssey. The team has not had the same leading passer for three straight seasons since Daunte Culpepper left in 2004. The team had three quarterbacks—Sam Bradford, Teddy Bridgewater, and Case Keenum—all entering free agency at the same time. “So we’ve got a decision,” general manager Rick Spielman said of the team’s outlook this spring. “All three quarterbacks we had were going to get pretty significant deals, so that’s a unique situation, then we’re looking at one in free agency that’s going to be a unique situation.” Spielman, head coach Mike Zimmer, offensive coordinator John DeFilippo, and various other coaches and personnel assistants watched two days worth of film, covering all the quarterbacks involved. “We felt Kirk could do everything [DeFilippo] wanted to do and that there was a chance to stabilize that one position,” Spielman said. “Honestly since I’ve been here, we’ve been through a lot of quarterbacks.”

“We were on a limb because it had never been done before. So yeah, we were off the norm,” Spielman said.

The top quarterback on the open market joined one of the deepest rosters in the NFL. He will be throwing to Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen to create one of the most explosive offenses in the league. The Vikings are tied as second favorites to win the Super Bowl. And Cousins is a folk hero among players.

“People have said that football players can’t get guaranteed contracts. Well—yeah they can, you have to create leverage. Go on the open market and get it,” said longtime offensive lineman Eric Winston, now the president of the NFL Players Association. “What Kirk and Mike did was figure out what was important, and a fully guaranteed structure was important to him. You set your priorities a certain way, Kirk said, ‘I’m willing to play this out, add on extra risk because I believe it will work.’”

Cousins’s deal is such a landmark because of how NFL teams view labor. From a big-picture perspective, there are 53 players on a team and 90 players in training camp, meaning that the vast majority of players are on year-to-year deals with very little guaranteed money. The guaranteed money increases if you are a star, but it still rarely rises above 60 or 70 percent on big veteran contracts. (The lone exception among NFL players are first-round rookies, whose earnings are capped by the collective bargaining agreement but who receive their deals in full.) For example, Texans star J.J. Watt’s deal is guaranteed at about 52 percent, Bengals star A.J. Green’s is at 55 percent, and Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s is at 35 percent. Even the top quarterbacks max out at around 70 percent of their deal being guaranteed, with extra years being tacked on past when the guarantees expire, giving teams an extra level of control if the player performs well.

The root cause of this is that teams are simply negotiating off of the contracts that came before, and in the NFL, where injury risk is massive, players often opt for long-term security before reaching free agency. The widely reported Washington offer to Cousins was for $16 million a year and $24 million total guaranteed. In order to actually reach the open market, Cousins had to play on two one-year “franchise tags,” which pay players an average of the top salaries at the player’s position. This is good money—Cousins received $20 million and $24 million respectively—but it is a massive gamble because no deal is in place after each season. If he’d flopped after the first year he got tagged, 2016, there’s no telling what his deal would have looked like in 2017 (not $24 million and not, eventually, $84 million).

“Some guys don’t want to take on the risk Kirk did and are willing to leave the money on the table to sign extensions,” Winston said. “And that’s OK. The path Kirk Cousins took is not the path everyone is going to take.”

McCartney, who said he hopes the deal is a “game-changer,” also said that he and Cousins spoke after the deal, “and we said, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if players benefitted from this?’”

Cousins doesn’t view this as a grand plan coming to fruition; they simply “took the next step” repeatedly. He said they had an idea that a fully guaranteed contract could happen, then bet on themselves throughout the murky franchise tag process for two years. There was no specific roadmap, though. “I will say, the very first step, back in 2016, was to offer a three-year contract fully guaranteed, and the Redskins didn’t want to do that, so you see what happened. On one hand, we took the next step and it evolved, and on the other we really had the same plan from the very beginning,” Cousins said. “The natural progression just made sense. When you look over three years you say ‘Wow look how far we went’ or ‘Look what took place,’ but in the moment we just took the next logical step. Each step didn’t feel like a game-changer.”

But here he is, perhaps changing the game. Including the franchise tags, he’ll have made about $130 million over five years when his current three-year deal is up. One of the benefits of this deal is that Cousins will reach the open market again at age 33, still in his prime (the Vikings could technically use the franchise tag on him, but because of the way the rules of the tag work it would be prohibitively expensive). So, now that it’s over, were there nerves?

“If you’re going to try to find things to be nervous about, you can always find them,” Cousins said, adding that he thinks he’d have nerves if he was on a 10-year deal. He also took out an insurance policy that helped with the risk in case he got injured. “Was it a stressful two years? Sure. Were there times where I wish I could see the end of the line better than I could at the time? Yes. But it was healthy for me to go through it and go day to day and year to year and put everything I had into each day because I didn’t know what was on the other side.”

Jacksonville Jaguars v Minnesota Vikings
Kirk Cousins
Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Typically, whenever an NFL executive hands out a lucrative contract that could lead to other players asking for their own lucrative contracts, that executive will then receive some joking—and some not-so-joking—text messages from other executives about how he’s made their lives harder. But everyone agrees the Cousins deal is a different situation: It was the cost of doing business with a quarterback on the open market—the rarest of all things in football.

“I think it’s about availability,” said Carolina Panthers general manager Marty Hurney. “You add availability to the most valuable position and this is what happens.”

Most quarterbacks sign extensions well before they approach free agency, and if they don’t, can be given the franchise tag for three seasons. Andrew Brandt, a former Packers executive and now a columnist at The MMQB and The Athletic, said that Aaron Rodgers’s ongoing contract talks is the kind of thing the league watches for potential precedent. Brandt pointed out that Rodgers has two more seasons left on his deal, so even though he’s the better player, he wouldn’t have the same leverage as Cousins. He mentioned the speculation that Rodgers would try for an extension tied into a percentage of the salary cap or an adjustable contract based on who the top-paid players are at the position.

“[Packers president] Mark Murphy would never be allowed into a league meeting if they did that,” Brandt said. “First of all, teams don’t want to set a precedent. Imagine Julio Jones looking at that.” Brandt thinks that only true free agents—and not stars inking extensions—can get the type of leverage Cousins had. He called Cousins an “extreme leverage” case, still hard to come by in the NFL.

“It was something where—this is something other teams are going to do. If we don’t do it, someone will,” Spielman said. “So if it’s ‘OK, we are going to stick to our structure,’ it would be ‘OK, see ya.’ I think it was a very unique situation that rarely comes along.”

Indeed, there were multiple teams that would have offered Cousins a guaranteed deal if the Vikings hadn’t. Now the question is how many players can follow in his footsteps.

“I can’t set a standard unless other guys follow. So if other players don’t, which at this point, other players haven’t, then it doesn’t really matter,” Cousins said. “It doesn’t really matter either way because I’m content with my situation, I can only play on one contract at a time, so I’m good. I don’t need other players to go and do what I did.”

He continued: “Hopefully, other players can use their leverage and create leverage for a situation they like. It took a lot of patience. I played out a rookie deal, played on a league-minimum deal, then played on a franchise tag for two years. Not a lot of guys may be willing or want to do that.”

Cousins’s deal may set a precedent, but it is not going to lead directly to every quarterback asking for a fully guaranteed deal. In fact, Matt Ryan’s new five-year contract, signed after Cousins’s deal, is good for $94 million worth of guarantees at signing, but that’s just two-thirds of the overall deal.

“I hope it’s the standard—not just for quarterbacks, but for all players going forward,” Winston said of Cousins’s deal.

Two summers ago, the Vikings were on the verge of walking down a very different quarterback path.

“We were in a situation where we lost Teddy. We thought Teddy was going to be our guy,” Spielman said. In 2016, Bridgewater was the surefire starter, one of the best young quarterbacks in the league—and then he suffered a knee injury that kept him on the sideline for over a year. The alternate history of what the NFL would look like had this injury never happened is a wild path to go down. With Bridgewater out, the Vikings traded for Eagles quarterback Sam Bradford a week before the season started, leading to Philadelphia starting Carson Wentz and, the next year, signing Nick Foles as a backup. For the Vikings, Bridgewater’s injury hammered home just how valuable a starting quarterback is.

“Teddy went down eight days before the season,” Spielman said. “I knew what the cost was going to be. To get a quality guy [like Bradford], you knew you’d have to pay.” Spielman had to give up a first-round pick. But he knew then, as now, that “if you can get that position resolved, you can build around that.”

The hope is that Cousins finally does that, and the deal does make sense from a football standpoint. For starters, Cousins ranks third in the league since 2015 in passes longer than 20 yards.

“He has really, really good arm talent,” said DeFilippo, the team’s first-year offensive coordinator. “He throws it better than I thought he would, as far as velocity to the football. For a guy who has had as much success as he’s had, he’s very open to learning new things.”

He added that it’s beneficial for Cousins “to get around another staff where he’s forced to learn a new system. He’s forced to go back to basics, break himself down and build it back up.” DeFilippo, who was the Eagles’ quarterbacks coach when they dominated the Vikings in the NFC title game with run-pass options, also said Cousins has the traits necessary to run them—great hands, a quick release, and a quick mind.

I asked Spielman about the RPO game and he pointed out that his defense is trying to figure out how to kill it. He said that, fresh off that NFC title game defeat, Zimmer “is on a mission to catch up with the RPO because we didn’t play very well against Philly. That’s his main project with the defensive staff: how we get better on the RPOs.” Spielman thinks that given enough time, defenses will figure out ways to limit some of those plays’ effectiveness. “Then it goes onto the next thing. I am not calling it a fad, I’m calling it the shiny, new toy right now.”

Cousins, for his part, sees himself as ready for any trend—RPO or otherwise. He is also one of the best players in the NFL on play-action passes, another one of the top trends of 2017. Over the past three years he leads the NFL in passer rating when using a play fake.

“I think there are features of football that are always evolving and there are features that will never change,” Cousins said. “At the quarterback position, you’re always going to want a leader who can throw with accuracy, who can move and feel comfortable in the pocket, make quick decisions and manage the game well. No matter how offenses evolve you’re going to want that.”

NFL: Seattle Seahawks at Minnesota Vikings Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

“I’ve always struggled with it,” Cousins said.

He was, of course, talking about figuring out his favorite episode of The Office.

“I’ll watch an episode and I’ll say, ‘That one was my favorite,’ and then another one comes on and I’ll go, ‘No, that one!’ and I’ll do that over and over again.”

Currently, he’s obsessed with the Benjamin Franklin episode.

“The show has depth. It has humor that’s witty and creative and not easy to see. It drives home a point. It has good character development. I’m still waiting for them to make another one like it,” he said, before adding that Parks and Recreation comes closest. “It’s really the only other show I’ve been able to get into in the last 10 years. The Office and Parks and Rec.”

Cousins said that since The Office airs on cable so frequently, he’s set his DVR to record every episode.

“I’ve built a database and I’ll just go back and watch them when I have free time,” he said. Like with his favorite episodes, he’s struggled to figure out his favorite character. For a long time it was Dwight, then Jim, then Stanley and Oscar.

The ongoing search will continue in Minnesota, where Cousins said he feels like it’s his rookie year again—figuring out where to eat, where to go when he has free time. The moment he chose Minnesota, he received emails from friends in Michigan and Washington, D.C., recommending different churches. (He’ll probably just choose one close to his house.)

I asked Winston a simple question: Why are teams so hesitant to give out guaranteed deals?

“If you were them, why would you do it? It’s not an unbelievably complicated thing. If you’re a business owner and you don’t have to guarantee money, you won’t,” he said. “You want maximum control over your employees, you don’t want free agency. And [union leaders] want one year until free agency; we want no restrictions.”

There are plenty of tired reasons that teams do not give out guaranteed money. One of the things that prevents more of it is the so-called “funding rule” that states that teams must put any guaranteed money that hasn’t been paid out into escrow. Many times, when teams are dragging their feet at a big, guaranteed deal, it can be chalked up to someone being unwilling or unable to cut a massive check and set it aside.

Winston said that he’s not necessarily fighting for all-guaranteed contracts from a collective bargaining standpoint. “We can all live with players and agents in macro terms coming to their own deals,” he said. “I’m just trying to get as much money as I can on the players’ side.” He said the more money shifted to players in collective bargaining negotiations, the more likely lucrative deals can be struck on an individual basis.

“I give Kirk a lot of credit. They played it exactly the right way,” he said. “They framed it right. It’s going to start with the stars, with the quarterbacks. And maybe it’s not about fully guaranteed, maybe it’s 80 percent guaranteed. It’s about structuring it differently.”

From the agent’s perspective, McCartney said one part of Cousins’s personality stood out in negotiations: loyalty. “The easiest thing in the world would’ve been another agent trying to poach by saying ‘Mike can’t get a deal done,’” he said. “He empowered me to get it done. This kind of deal required someone with a lot of self-awareness and confidence. Kirk was the perfect player for that.”

McCartney said he thinks there are lessons to be drawn—notably, that “short contracts and the franchise tag can be your friend.”

For Cousins, next month brings about the start of one of the most exciting years he’ll have. He leads one of the best rosters in the NFL. He has stability, and the Vikings have stability. He’s got as good a shot as anybody at going to the Super Bowl in Atlanta. Now, if he could only meet those Office writers.