Kirk Cousins’ Contract Won’t Change the NFL

Guaranteed money will remain in short supply until the players’ union cuts a better deal with ownership.

Kirk Cousins during the game between the Washington football team and the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday, Dec. 10.
Kirk Cousins during the game between Washington’s football team and the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday, Dec. 10.
Toni L. Sandys/the Washington Post via Getty Images

On this week’s episode of Slate’s sports podcast Hang Up and Listen, Stefan Fatsis and Josh Levin spoke with Deadspin’s Dom Cosentino about Kirk Cousins’ guaranteed contract with the Minnesota Vikings—and what it might portend. A transcript of that discussion is below. The conversation has been condensed and edited.

Stefan Fatsis: Quarterback Kirk Cousins finally got the hell out of Washington—good for him. Also good for him is that he just signed a guaranteed contract, one that ensures he will receive every one of the 84-or-so million dollars that the Minnesota Vikings have agreed to pay him over the next three seasons. That is a very big deal in the National Football League, which does not like to make contractual promises on which it cannot renege. On Twitter, Seattle wide receiver Doug Baldwin called Cousins a hero for all the young players that will follow after him. Is this fully guaranteed contract precedent-setting?

Dom Cosentino: I think it’s hard to say at this point because quarterbacks in the league, especially those in the top 10 or top 12, get effective guarantees for their deals anyway. Teams typically don’t let their quarterbacks get away if they’re pretty good, Washington being the obvious exception here.

So if the precedent is going to be set, it will take an Aaron Rodgers type or another star quarterback to insist on that. The reason quarterbacks can do that is because there’s a scarcity of quality quarterbacks. They’re not as replaceable as players of other positions. The way the game is played now, they’re not taking the kinds of hits that they did in the past that put their bodies at risk, so we’re seeing guys playing into their late 30s, even 40s, now.

We’re still waiting to see a defensive player or a player in another position have this kind of leverage. I’d still like to see one of those types of players get a deal like this before I could say a precedent had been set.

Josh Levin: I find that totally convincing. And yet, I still think that it expands the Overton window in the NFL, although there is a Matt Overton who’s a long snapper who will clearly not benefit from the fact that Kirk Cousins is getting guaranteed money. The thing that’s so interesting about the lack of guaranteed contracts in the NFL—and you wrote about this in a really great piece last year, Dom—is that it’s as much a cultural thing as it is a product of the league rules. People often ask the question, Why aren’t NFL contracts guaranteed like they are in baseball and in other sports? The answer, as you wrote, is just because they aren’t.

Cosentino: Right, they never have been—the owners have never been pressured into doing it. But there’s nothing to prevent anyone from bargaining for a guaranteed contract. It’s not in the rules that they can’t happen, it’s just that the players have never had the leverage to insist on them. The owners are not willing to do that, at least across a five-year deal, where the way the collective bargaining agreement is written the owner would have to eat a significant portion of that money if a player sustained a devastating injury. That’s why I think it’s not as precedent setting for other positions yet, because the risk is still placed on ownership if they were to give a fully guaranteed deal across a longer contract to a player at a position other than quarterback.

Fatsis: Management has leveraged this advantage, the built-in cultural advantage in which these players for their whole lives really have been yelled at by coaches and told what to do every second of their professional lives. Management then takes that and grafts it onto the collective bargaining agreement. The 2011 CBA gave management enormous leverage and management has pushed that leverage. They’ve created new contract styles and stipulations, injury splits where players are denied their full pay if they get injured. There are other anti-player clauses in contracts now like per-game bonuses, where you don’t get paid the full amount unless you’re rostered and on the sidelines for a certain number of games. So it’s not just that this is always the way it’s been. It’s that management has recognized that and then pushed its advantage even further.

Cosentino: Drew Brees just signed a deal with the Saints last week for below market value—he signed for two years at $50 million. He really could have had them over a barrel if he wanted at this point in his career, but he gave them some help. You still have players willing to do that because of the way they’re programmed to a degree.

Levin: It’s really fascinating how the reported value of a contract is always fake, and it’s always typically exaggerated because it makes the agent look better. We need to step back and realize as fans and as consumers of the game how much the collective bargaining agreement and the salary cap rules have created these contract structures. When guys get five- or six-year deals and the back half isn’t guaranteed, it’s entirely because of salary cap gymnastics, because you can spread out the value of the contract and have a lower cap hit each year. The money assigned to the individual players just isn’t real.

Cosentino: That’s what’s significant about the Cousins deal. There’s something called the funding rule in the NFL, which mandates that any fully guaranteed money in a contract has to be placed into escrow by the team upfront. This rule has a purpose 30, 40, or 50 years ago when owners were digging through the couch cushions to pay players. That’s not the case anymore, but they still use it as an excuse to avoid paying guaranteed money.

Levin: So does all of Cousins’ $84 million have to be in escrow now?

Cosentino: Yes, that’s what’s significant about this. Owners would typically say that they couldn’t do that. Clearly they can. That’s what this has exposed.

Fatsis: It’s incumbent on the players’ union to change this entire system, to lobby aggressively to change some of these archaic rules in the next collective bargaining agreement. I think that the culture of the NFL doesn’t change until some of those rules get changed. What’s really remarkable to me, Dom, is that you see people that are closely affiliated to the NFL—former players—and say guaranteed contracts would be bad. Matt Birk, the former lineman with the Vikings, was quoted in the Minneapolis Star Tribune last week saying, “I don’t think our game would be as great as it is because it’s just human nature. If you know you’re getting paid, no matter what, I think some guys won’t put forth the effort. There’s only so much money to go around.” This guy went to Harvard?

Levin: That guy needs to be launched into the sun.

Fatsis: Mike Florio, the lawyer who runs Pro Football Talk, has said having guaranteed contracts would change the NFL—it wouldn’t be a meritocracy anymore. And here’s Ross Tucker, another former player: “What would be the financial motivation for any player that knows he is on his last contract to play with a serious injury?” Well, he shouldn’t be playing with a serious injury anyway.

Cosentino: I love this idea that the NFL is some kind of meritocracy when the entire coaching and front-office ranks are populated by failsons. Brian Schottenheimer just got another job. How does that happen in a true meritocracy, you know?

Levin: How stupid do you have to be to not understand that the NFL is not a meritocracy. The rookie deal, wherein guys are massively underpaid based on the value that they give teams, is a linchpin of roster construction. That is why teams don’t want to give veteran players guaranteed money. If a guy gets hurt or if his production drops, they want to be able to get rid of him and take on no risk.

Fatsis: They also want to maintain the culture of insecurity that dominates in NFL locker rooms—the idea that you be cut at any moment.

Cosentino: That rookie pay scale is low enough too that it incentivizes teams: Why pay a veteran when the draft’s coming up and you can draft a guy seven, eight, nine years younger and pay him a slotted salary? The argument was that we need the rookie wage scale so Sam Bradford’s not crushing the team’s salary cap with a $50 million contract before he’s played a snap. But the flip side of that is the way it’s affecting veterans down the road and making them much more expendable and replaceable.