Four years ago, the Baltimore Ravens made a terrible mistake. An unquestionable, franchise-changing mistake that was obvious the moment it was made and has had extreme repercussions during the years that have followed.
I'm writing about it four years later so it serves as a cautionary tale for the Washington Redskins and their fans, as that franchise may be on the cusp of making the exact same mistake this offseason. I cannot express how significant this mistake was and how drastically it has hurt the Ravens' organization. In fact, four years later, the decision still haunts the Ravens to the point where they have to publicly attempt to defend themselves, even when they aren't asked about the mistake.
I think you know exactly what mistake I'm talking about. It's the one where the Ravens traded away their best receiver for a sixth-round pick because they wanted him to take a $2 million pay cut.
What? Did you think I was referring to something else?
Oh right, the quarterback thing. Yeah, the Ravens didn't screw that one up at all. They did what they had to do. Then-Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco was a free agent, so they needed to get him signed. Their options were to franchise him (thus setting a base for any future salary negotiations at $20 million a year), sign him long term for a similar deal or let him walk, as they go back into the wilderness of the quarterback unknown. On behalf of all survivors of Baltimore's Kyle Boller era, we're glad they didn't choose the third option. There was no fourth option where they could sign Flacco to a deal worth something like $12 million a year, which would have been nice. The Ravens took the only realistic option they had.
The Redskins do have a pending free agent under center, so I can see why you'd think maybe I was suggesting something about his contract. Kirk Cousins was paid roughly $20 million in 2016 due to the franchise tag. Because of that, Washington has already established the lowest end of his market. It's willing to pay him that much to be its quarterback, so his agents know not to seek a deal that starts at anything less. The team will ultimately have to pay him a similarly absurd figure to be its quarterback, or it can wander back into the Jason Campbell/Donovan McNabb/Rex Grossman/John Beck/Robert Griffin III wilderness. If it could pay Cousins $15 million a year, that would be great. Instead, the options are pay him or enjoy trying to give up enough draft picks to trade up for North Carolina quarterback Mitch Trubisky, I guess.
You can, however, still avoid the actual mistake the Ravens made that offseason.
Ravens fans remember it well. The team wanted wide receiver Anquan Boldin -- fresh off a dominant performance during the 2012 postseason to help lead the team to their Super Bowl XLVII victory -- to drop his cap figure from $6 million to (reportedly) $4 million. Reasonably, the three-time Pro Bowler declined. He was then dealt to the San Francisco 49ers for (next to) nothing.
Boldin went on to have 85 catches for 1,179 yards and seven touchdowns the following season. (And has remained a solid-to-spectacular player even to this year, when he caught eight touchdowns for the Detroit Lions.) The Ravens have spent the last four years largely struggling offensively and searching for options at receiver in the draft and in free agency.
How much does the Boldin decision still haunt them? Majority owner Steve Bisciotti was still addressing it four years later at the end-of-season news conference Jan. 10.
"I love being part of those decisions -- making tough decisions. The toughest one we have had in the last few years was Anquan," Bisciotti said. "But we knew if he did not take the deal that we could improve on other sides of the ball. If he had taken the reduction, we would have been free to spend a little money. When he did not take the reduction, we had a lot of money, and that got us [former linebacker] Daryl Smith and [linebacker Elvis] Dumervil. I do not think that we were a worse team without Boldin and with Dumervil and Daryl."
Bisciotti is referencing two of the players the Ravens signed that offseason. Smith was a solid contributor during his three years in Baltimore, and Dumervil had a very good 2014 season. Of course, neither signed at such a price that they couldn't have made other decisions to free up similar money, and neither were available at the time the Ravens decided to part ways with Boldin. The Ravens have also made the playoffs once with either of those two players on the team. They never missed the playoffs with Boldin on the roster.
More importantly, Bisciotti didn't address Boldin because he was asked about him. Instead, Boldin continues to haunt the organization so much that the question that led to this was, "Have you ever just sat down and thought how many more years you want to do this and own this team? Is that something that goes through your mind, especially when you have a long season?"
Four years later -- they're still not over it.
So, back to that mistake the Redskins can avoid. After Cousins inevitably gets his contract, there are going to be tougher cap decisions to make. Players will be lost. But none of these decisions can be made with the belief that suddenly getting a contract will change who Cousins is as a quarterback.
If the Ravens thought Boldin could be expendable because they were paying Flacco to make other receivers better, they wildly misjudged what they had. Nothing about Flacco during his first five seasons suggested he was Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers or Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. Paying the market rate for quarterbacks doesn't suddenly mean you can change their nature. It just means they have to buy nicer Christmas presents. Flacco has been essentially the same quarterback he was before. He just hasn't had the same type of offense around him because the Ravens made other mistakes, including the Boldin trade.
So when the Redskins pay Cousins, they can't suddenly think he'll be wildly different. They have to continue to surround him with talent. Wide receiver Jamison Crowder is excellent, but trying to keep one of their top free-agent wideouts (DeSean Jackson or Pierre Garcon) would also be wise.
Or you can hope to draft someone in the seventh round and think the quarterback should just make them better because he got paid. There's no chance you'll regret that four years later.