Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 1, 2018

More Of The Same For D.C. Football Fans

A NOTE TO READERS: The next post, covering the Super Bowl, will be on Monday. Thanks as always for reading.

If this story was about baseball teams rather than NFL franchises, it’s likely that the general managers in Washington and Kansas City would have just received sharp raps on the knuckles from league headquarters. MLB franchises are strongly discouraged from making major announcements while the World Series is underway. Unlike the Fall Classic the Super Bowl is just one game, but surely in the final run-up to Sunday’s showdown between the Patriots and Eagles commissioner Roger Goodell would have preferred all football-related news to be coming from Minneapolis. Instead two teams that haven’t played in weeks stole the headlines with a blockbuster trade.

In fairness to both Washington and Kansas City, the news that K.C. quarterback Alex Smith is being shipped to D.C. in exchange for cornerback Kendall Fuller and a third-round draft pick wasn’t actually announced by either team. The initial report by Terez Paylor simply cited unnamed sources. Because league rules prohibit any trades from being consummated until the new NFL year begins on March 14, neither franchise can offer public comment until then. Given that Paylor’s byline appears in the Kansas City Star it appears someone on that side of the deal wanted to be sure that with the structure of the trade in place neither front office would have second thoughts over the next six weeks.

When the trade does become official, Kansas City will begin the Patrick Mahomes era, with the 22-year old out of Texas Tech assuming the role of signal-caller in just his second year, and after a single start in K.C.’s meaningless Week 17 game last season. It’s a gamble that head coach Andy Reid was willing to take, largely because it relieves his team of the $17 million salary cap hit that Smith represented for next season. With Kansas City projected to be $9 million over next year’s cap prior to the trade, a more gradual transition from the 33-year old Smith to Mahomes and his cannon of an arm was probably never viable.

It’s the fourth time that Reid, as head coach at Philadelphia and Kansas City, has traded away a starting quarterback. A.J. Feeley stepped into the breach for the Eagles when Donovan McNabb was injured in 2002. A year later Reid shipped Feeley to the Dolphins for a second-round pick. In 2010 he traded McNabb to Washington for a second-round pick. Less than a year later he sent Kevin Kolb to the Cardinals for a draft pick and cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, after Kolb lost the starting job in Philadelphia to Michael Vick. Now as he did with McNabb, Reid has again found a trading partner in Washington. It’s worth noting neither Feeley, McNabb nor Kolb ever performed as well after Reid traded them as they did before; it’s a pattern that should alarm fans in Washington.

The initial reaction to the trade from most of those fans has been less than enthusiastic, because it signals that the long-running melodrama around incumbent Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins will end with him departing. Cousins was a fourth-round pick by Washington in the 2012 draft, a surprising choice at the time given that the team had mortgaged its draft future to obtain Robert Griffin III with that year’s second overall pick just two days earlier. Then head coach Mike Shanahan said he saw Cousins as an insurance policy in case RG3 was injured.

It didn’t take long for that policy to pay out. Cousins first saw action in Week 5 after Griffin was concussed, then again late in the season when Griffin went down with a knee injury that would wind up altering his career trajectory. Cousins, Griffin, Colt McCoy, and even the veteran Rex Grossman all took snaps for Washington over the next two seasons, until Cousins finally emerged as the team’s starter at the beginning of the 2015 season. In that role for the past three years, he has been a fan favorite who never received a lot of love from the front office.

In his first year as Washington’s unquestioned starter Cousins set an NFL record for completion percentage in home games and a team mark for passing yardage. Washington returned to the playoffs but was trampled by Green Bay in the Wild Card round. Unwilling to commit to a long-term contract for Cousins but not wanting him to leave as a free agent, the team’s management used the NFL’s franchise tag option, locking Cousins into a one-year contract at just under $20 million. Then after he made the Pro Bowl in 2016 while the team was missing the playoffs, Washington made Cousins the first quarterback in NFL history to be tagged two years in a row. The second franchise tag meant he played this past year for pocket change short of $24 million.

Now, after paying him almost $47 million since he was drafted, most of it in just the last two seasons, team president Bruce Allen and owner Daniel Snyder have decided that Cousins isn’t worth a long-term commitment that is likely to be in the range of five years and perhaps $120 to $130 million, with $75 to $80 million guaranteed. By itself that’s not surprising as the team has clearly demonstrated its reluctance to sign Cousins to an extended deal. But the solution revealed this week is to trade for Smith, a quarterback who is statistically quite similar but four years older, and then give him a four-year extension reportedly worth $94 million, $71 million of which is guaranteed. That’s less than they would have had to pay Cousins now, but not dramatically so in terms of guaranteed money and probably not less overall on an annual basis had they seriously bargained two seasons ago, factoring in the expense of the two franchise tags.

But while Allen and Snyder clearly never saw Cousins as the team’s long-term solution, neither did they have a Plan B. They didn’t trade for a promising understudy, and since Cousins and Griffin were drafted together in 2012 Washington has taken just one quarterback in the draft. That was Nate Sudfeld in 2016. He’s now in Minneapolis as Nick Foles backup for the Eagles on Sunday.

One shouldn’t feel bad for Kirk Cousins, who will soon ink a rich contract with the Jets or the Browns or the Vikings or the Broncos or the Bills, depending on which pundit one chooses to believe. But one should feel bad for Washington’s fans. Perhaps Alex Smith will thrive in D.C. and carry his new team to playoff glory. And perhaps Andy Reid’s gamble on Patrick Mahomes will go bust, so that in a season or two Allen and Snyder will be hailed for this trade. But the far more likely result for fans in D.C. is that their team has saved a few dollars by replacing one very good but not elite quarterback with another, who will now be paid handsomely as he enters his decline years, offering those who make the trek to FedEx Field more of Dan Snyder’s consistent mediocrity. The one certainty is that they shouldn’t expect those savings to be reflected in the price of their season tickets.


  1. It’s a shame that a mediocre product in the NFL pulls in almost as much revenue as a good one. I wonder if Alex Smith’s declining years will include declining stats due to the choices the front office makes with respect to players?

    • Thanks as always Allan. You’ve identified the problem, which is that every NFL franchise is a cash cow. You’re also right on your second point. Washington has many more roster issues than the identity of its quarterback. Fans in DC shouldn’t expect Alex Smith to make much of a difference all by himself.

      Be well,

      Michael Cornelius

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