When Contracts Dictate Playing Time: Washington, Cousins, and RGIII

In all sports we know that contracts dictate playing. The more a player earns the more opportunity he will receive regardless of the the failures on the field. The money shapes the decision making process, often times for the worse. In Washington there is a unique situation where it’s the exact opposite. The player getting paid the most is sitting on the bench, not because he isn’t the best player but because there is the threat of having to pay him significantly more money next year. Washington is like a team that has a player very close to earning a large incentive where they are sitting the player to prevent him from earning it, except in those cases all you get is an upset player. The overall impact on a team isn’t tremendous since its usually just managing one game out of 16. With RGIII, however, the front office is impacting the overall results on the field because they refuse to even allow him to suit up to play football because of a potential $16.5 million cap charge looming over their head next season.Anyone who watched the Washington/Giants game last night likely came to the same conclusion- Kirk Cousins is not a starting quarterback in the NFL.  If you’ve paid any attention to the last few seasons you already knew that, but some just remember Cousins rookie season where a few fill in games began some crazy discussion about Cousins having first round trade value, which was just nonsense.

Cousins is a backup quarterback in the NFL and he played exactly like that last night. Occasionally a player like Cousins can put together an efficient game or two, but for the most part players like Cousins are somewhat careless with the football or simply don’t have the physical tools needed to make certain throws at this level which leads to turnovers.  He isn’t seasoned enough yet to really be labelled a journeyman starter ala a Ryan Fitzpatrick where he’s been through enough ups and downs to learn his limitations and understand the role of a game manager, where the mistakes are usually not as glaring or devastating.

There is nothing wrong with being a backup. Many players have very long and lucrative careers by simply holding a clipboard, such as a Charlie Whitehurst or Tarvaris Jackson being guys almost always on the outside looking in.  There is no issue in starting a backup when you are forced to do so. Usually you tailor your gameplan to work more in the limitations of the backup and sometimes you can catch lighting in a bottle for a few weeks as teams adjust to a new talent.

I’m sure the Bears are hoping to do that with Jimmy Clausen and the Cowboys with Brandon Weeden, two backups who are now starters because of injury. And each team will run their offense differently because neither of those players is as good as the starter. Each week the staff feels more comfortable they will expand on responsibilities and open up the offense more and more, but more likely than not it will always be controlled because of the limitations of the player compared to a NFL starting quarterback. They dont have a choice, though, because injury dictated the switch.

Washington has opted the make the change.  Not because RGIII has proven he can’t play in the NFL. Not because Cousins has proven to play well above his draft grade. They made the move simply because if Griffin gets seriously injured he collects $16.5 million in 2016, a contract they signed on their own just a few short months ago. They have decided that they want to run a very limited offense that is usually only a chosen offense if you have a rookie playing quarterback.  When the defense falters or the running game doesnt work and you have to throw the ball 40 some times like last night you get a disaster. And it didn’t need to be that way. It isn’t fair to the fans, it isn’t fair to Griffin, it isn’t fair to Cousins, and it isn’t fair to the other 51 players on the team that have to sit through this drama each week.

That isn’t to say that Griffin is innocent in all of this as his demeanor has rubbed coaches the wrong way since he finished his rookie year. Whether it was too much success too fast for him or too much success for the organization, who simply fed into the hype, to handle, I don’t know, but the team failed him and the fans in his second season. If ever there was a time to back up a head coach that was trying to get RGIII to adjust to a more pro oriented style that would give him a longer and more successful career it was then, but privately they backed the player who refused to change. The new coaching staff wanted nothing to do with him and treated him like a pariah from day 1. RGIII didnt do anything to help the situation which led to bizarre exchanges where the coach would rip apart his own QB’s play, even in practice, to anyone who would listen.

Why you would pick up a $16.5 million option on a player you clearly do not like and do not want to play is a question nobody can answer. The cost to franchise him after this season would have been just a few million more. Sure this might be a small discount but you are talking about an organization that valued this guy so highly they traded multiple first round picks for him in one of the most lopsided trades you will ever see. They would be happy to pay him an extra $4 million if they werent worried about his health anymore and he proved he was a franchise player.

If no option existed there is no question who would be the starting quarterback right now. If he was injured the team would be responsible for nothing except his 2015 salary, which they are responsible for now anyway, and heping him rehab. There is no risk involved for the team if that option was never picked up.  That is why it makes no sense to do what they did.  If you are so concerned about the injury guarantee associated with the option why use it? It is a clear limiting factor that has destroyed his trade value around the NFL and nobody else in the NFL would have done the same in a similar circumstance.

Ask yourself would the Saints, who are a salary cap disaster and may need to move on from their quarterback, just willingly guarantee next years salary for Drew Brees?  Did the Broncos just guarantee all of Peyton Manning’s salary the day he signed off a serious neck injury?  No. These are legendary quarterbacks and teams wouldn’t just hand over injury protection even if it meant paying a few more dollars overall. It is simply a failure by the organization to make the decision.

About the only logical conclusion I can make is that they picked up the option year for him as an out with ownership, who clearly loves him.  Pick up the option, let him get banged up in the preseason with a “concussion” of some sort, and then plead to the owner about how playing RGIII would devastate the teams salary cap in 2016 because one more bad hit might put them on the hook for $16.5 million. The team is just a few years removed from a disasterous contract with Albert Haynesworth whose dead money counted for millions upon millions and they could argue this would be the same. This way they dont look like the bad guys and get fired like the last coach did.

I have no idea what the end game in all of this is. RGIII has been relegated to the scout team to try to further prevent any QB controversy or the thought of having him in uniform on gameday. Every day he is in that role his value diminishes furter. The closest comparison to Griffin’s situation is probably Sam Bradford, a highly drafted prospect who was always injured. The Eagles were willing to trade for his $13 million salary, though that contained no skill guarantees (it was protected from football injury once the offseason program began) so maybe that is what Washington is hoping for. If that is the case the team needs to reverse course on burying Griffin. One of the reasons the Rams got some value in return was because they consistently indicated that he was their starter and they got a QB in return. Washington has made RGIII into a nobody and his contract containing the skill guarantee next year is even more prohibitive.

Either way the team is allowing a contract (or using a contract) to impact the decision making process for the team and creating an even worse product in the field. Thats not a winning formula for this year or next. The team has nobody to blame but themselves for this mess and someone really should be held accountable for allowing the process to be carried out the way it was.