NFL

Kirk Cousins showed his true value in Washington's loss to the Panthers

Kirk Cousins is one of the highest-paid quarterbacks in the NFL this year, making $19.9 million -- a byproduct of the one-year franchise tag Washington placed on him in March.

And Cousins wants to remain one of the highest-paid quarterbacks in the NFL next year and beyond -- according to an NFL Network report, the starting point for contract negotiations with the soon-to-be free agent is $23.9 million annually, a salary that would make him the third-highest-paid quarterback in the NFL, behind Andrew Luck and Drew Brees.

This season, Cousins has negotiated his new deal through his play, and that was going well -- he has put up better-than-decent stats and had Washington controlling its own playoff destiny going into Monday night's game against the Carolina Panthers.

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There's no question that Cousins is a starting quarterback in the NFL -- he's proven that over the last two years -- but Monday night was Washington's first do-or-die game this season.

It was a chance for Cousins to prove to a national television audience that he's an elite quarterback and worthy of being paid like one.

After a 26-15 loss, it's fair to say that his pitch fell flat.

There are plenty of reasons why Washington lost Monday night -- a terrible defensive performance being chief among them -- but Cousins did nothing to help his team win.

When his team needed him the most -- with its playoff hopes effectively on the line -- Cousins did nothing to transcend the circumstances. He looked pedestrian.

That, of course, is not what franchise quarterbacks in the NFL do.

Paying quarterbacks -- or any player, for that matter -- massive money is a risky proposition because the NFL is a salary cap league. If each player on an active roster was divvied an equal share of the pie, they'd receive roughly $3 million.

You can see how giving one player $24 million annually is a big deal -- that player better be as valuable as seven or eight men.

They better be transcendent -- it doesn't matter how many injuries a team has or how poor they're playing, if that big-money player is on the field, the team has a chance to win.

After Monday night, no one in their right mind could claim that Cousins is transcendent.

That isn't to say that he was poor -- 32-of-47 for 315 yards isn't bad -- but, again, he did nothing to help Washington win the game.

Quarterbacks are hard to find in the NFL, of course, but Cousins looked marginally better than a replacement player Monday night.

He certainly wasn't in the class of Brees, Luck, or Stafford (I'm not even going to mention Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady, out of respect to the greats) and having Cam Newton, a truly transcendent, franchise-level quarterback, on the other side of the field only highlighted how far from the top rung Cousins really is.

Some team might be willing to pay Cousins what he's looking for this offseason, but after Monday night's performance, Washington would be foolish to be that team.

It might seem harsh to go all-in on Cousins after one pedestrian game, but Monday night's loss should be considered the defining moment of Cousins' 2016 season.

Consider the circumstances:

Washington, in control of their own playoff destiny, had to win that game. Except their rushing game was completely shut down and it was clear from the early goings that the defense didn't have it.

The game was on Cousins' shoulders -- Washington needed him to be the kind of player that could carry a team to a victory.

The box score might say that he had a nice performance, but make no mistake, Cousins was a bystander -- he couldn't get the job done when Washington really needed him.

The entire game was a clutch circumstance, but in the contest's toughest situations, Cousins was overwhelmed: Washington was 2-for-12 on 3rd down and 1-for-3 in the red zone in the game.

The most telling moment of Monday's contest -- the moment that defined Cousins as good, but not great -- was when Carolina, holding an 11-point lead, gave the ball back to Washington with 5:37 remaining in the fourth quarter and dropped into soft zone coverage, trading yardage for time coming off the clock.

Cousins, working a K-Gun offense, was able to get Washington into field-goal range with ease. Then Carolina tightened up and Cousins (with some help from Vernon Davis, to be fair) was shut down. Washington settled for the field goal.

With 3:44 left in the contest and Washington's defense as pliable as it was, the contest was over.

Washington hasn't been effectively eliminated from the playoffs, but with their loss Monday, their postseason chances dropped 20 points -- they no longer control their own destiny and must win out and get plenty of help to sneak in as a sixth seed.

In essence, Monday night was the team's first playoff game this year.

That was Cousins' shift.

Was that anything that Colt McCoy couldn't do?

Washington won't have significant salary cap problems going into next year, but they will have significant needs, particularly on the defensive side of the ball, that should be addressed in the free-agent market.

Is giving Cousins half of the team's available cap space the most prudent move?

That's the debate the Washington front office will have once the team's season ends, most likely on New Year's Day.

And if they are really torn by the question, they should just put on Monday's tape.

Dieter Kurtenbach is a senior writer at Fox Sports. He can be reached @dkurtenbach or Dieter.Kurtenbach@fox.com