Kirk Cousins was blessed with the perfect amount of talent.
He’s a good quarterback, but few will anoint him as being great. In his first four years as a full-time starter, Cousins finished each season within one game of a .500 record. He’s one of two active quarterbacks with multiple ties in his career. The other is Andy Dalton.
He’s been to the Pro Bowl twice and, believe it or not, has the second-highest career completion percentage in NFL history. Sure, other quarterbacks have more talent than Cousins, but that’s not the discussion.
If anything, Cousins is great at being good, but not too good. And that’s exactly how he became the highest-ranked NFL player on Forbes’ 2020 list of the highest-paid athletes in the world.
Cousins collected $28 million from the Vikings in 2019 salary. He then signed a two year, $66 million extension this offseason with a $30 million signing bonus due as soon as the ink dried on the contract. Adding in endorsements, Forbes estimates Cousins brought in $60.5 million in the last 12 months, the ninth-most of any athlete in the world, one slot behind a fella named Tiger Woods.
He benefits in these rankings by essentially getting paid for two seasons within the same 12-month period, but it’s more than just a fluke. He ranks so highly as a result of successfully betting on himself. If you’ll remember, Cousins took over for Robert Griffin III as the Redskins’ starter in 2015, the final year of his rookie contract.
Cousins led Washington to an NFC East division title and a playoff berth in his first year as the full-time starter, while also leading the league in completion percentage. The Redskins weren’t ready to commit long term, so they placed the franchise tag on him. He made the Pro Bowl in 2016, but the sides still couldn’t agree to a long-term deal, so the Redskins placed the franchise tag on him again, this time at 120 percent of his previous salary.
Finally, in 2017, Cousins’ ability to be good, but not great, shined. The team missed the playoffs with a 7-9 record. After three seasons, it was clear Cousins was good enough to have success, but not good enough to elevate a team to greatness without a talented supporting cast. A third consecutive franchise tag would have cost Washington more than $34 million for 2018 and made Cousins the highest-paid player in the league. The Redskins declined and a 29-year-old Cousins hit free agency for the first time.
A legitimate starting quarterback hitting the open market in recent memory is as common as Ben Simmons hitting a 3-pointer: it has happened twice. Peyton Manning went to the Broncos in 2012 and Drew Brees went to the Saints in 2006, but both of those guys were coming off injuries. Cousins was healthy and relatively young and had all the leverage in the world, which he used to his advantage.
In 2018, he signed a fully guaranteed three-year, $84 million contract with the Vikings, the first fully guaranteed contract in NFL history.
In the NBA and MLB, you don’t hear things like “a $90 million contract with $50 million guaranteed” because almost all of those contracts are fully guaranteed. The NBA is a star-driven league where the players have leverage. The NFL is different, with the exception of the quarterback, the most important position in all of sports. NFL teams need good quarterbacks to win (duh), so they’ll do whatever they need to do to get them.
It was thought Cousins’ contract could possibly start a trend, but no other players have signed a fully guaranteed deal since. If Patrick Mahomes or Russell Wilson or even Dak Prescott were to hit the open market, that would likely change. But if an NFL team has a great quarterback, it’s likely to do whatever it can to lock them into a long-term deal, and quarterbacks are likely to sign those deals thanks to the certainty and security they provide. Cousins had to risk playing in a contract year for three consecutive seasons, but he was rewarded.
In Washington, Cousins fell just shy of the threshold that made him impossible to lose for the Redskins. It turns out Cousins’ incredible ability to be a good-but-not-great quarterback might be a reason he’s the highest-compensated player in the NFL. If people out there are aiming to be great, then here’s a reminder that being good is OK, too. You might even end up as the ninth highest-paid athlete in the world.