Twenty-two years ago, Neil O'Donnell was the free agent on everybody's lips. He was 29 years old, coming off an AFC championship with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Even though free agency was a fairly new concept, everybody recognized it was unusual for a quality quarterback -- still in his prime -- to hit the open market.
O'Donnell was the Kirk Cousins of his era.
The money is bigger now than it was in 1996 -- a lot bigger -- and social media has ramped up the daily speculation, but there are parallels between O'Donnell and Cousins. The most obvious one is the New York Jets, who outbid the Steelers for O'Donnell and would love to steal Cousins from the other contenders when free agency opens next week.
O'Donnell's message to Cousins: Pick a team where you feel comfortable and can win a championship, and don't make it about the money.
"This isn't Kirk Cousins' first payday; he's been getting paid for a long time with the Redskins," O'Donnell said in a phone interview with ESPN on Wednesday. "It's easy for a lot of people to look at the money side of it and all, but I know a lot of people who have a lot of money who are miserable.
"You have to have the right mindset to enjoy the fruit from the tree," he continued. "You want to win when you're at his age. It's not like he's coming out of college or trying to get his so-called free-agency payday. That's not necessarily true with him because he's been making decent money for a long time."
Better than decent, actually. In two seasons as a franchise-tagged player with the Washington Redskins, Cousins made $44 million. Now he's on the verge of becoming a free agent at the age of 29 -- same age as O'Donnell in 1996 -- and he will score a contract that could approach $30 million per year.
"I think he's going to weigh all options," O'Donnell said. "Where does he have the best chance to win? I mean, let's be realistic: When you're that age, you have to ... as an athlete, the No. 1 thing you want to do is experience playing in a Super Bowl and, hopefully, winning a Super Bowl."
O'Donnell laughed when told his Jets contract (five years, $25 million) will be dwarfed by the Cousins deal. He said a friend was kidding him about that the other day.
"God bless him," he said of Cousins. "I look at some of these deals and I have to read them twice."
The prevailing theory is the Jets will make the most lucrative offer, but the Minnesota Vikings are considered the favorite because they're a championship-ready team. O'Donnell didn't want to offer his opinion on where Cousins should sign, saying it's a personal decision.
O'Donnell learned a hard lesson about free agency: Sometimes reality doesn't measure up to the vision. He picked the Jets because it was a chance to play near his home in Madison, New Jersey, and because he felt his winning pedigree could change the losing culture. Let's not be naive -- money was a factor as well. The Jets' contract exceeded the Steelers' offer by more than $1 million per year.
O'Donnell soon discovered the job was too big for one person.
"It was exciting, but the change was hard, I'll be honest with you," he said. "I mean the locker room change, the environment change. We were at Hofstra [University on Long Island], which was horrible. I never thought it would affect me, but every game was an away game. That's how it felt. It was a constant battle even to get to a so-called home game at Giants Stadium."
The Jets left their Long Island facility in 2008, settling in Florham Park, New Jersey. Players and coaches no longer have to worry about bridge traffic. The funny part is, Florham Park is adjacent to O'Donnell's hometown in Madison. He can laugh about that now.
Thanks to the Jets, O'Donnell became a wealthy man, but he lasted only two seasons. It wasn't fun. He went 8-12 as the starter, battled injuries and suffered through a 1-15 disaster in 1996. The next year, he got benched by the new sheriff in town, Bill Parcells, leading to a bitter divorce.
Even though it wasn't a storybook homecoming, O'Donnell said he has no regrets. He believes it might have turned out differently if Steelers patriarch Daniel Rooney had been involved in the negotiations, but he was ill at the time, according to O'Donnell. That, he said, was "very frustrating." He respected Rooney immensely.
"I was very comfortable there, I was there for six years," O'Donnell said of the Steelers. "I was Bill Cowher's first quarterback and I played under Chuck Noll, so I knew the history of the Steelers.
"Would I change it? Probably not, because of the fact that I was coming home. I grew up there, watching the Jets and the Giants. It was kind of like when I said, 'OK, let's try to change this environment here.' There was so much more that I didn't know."
A cautionary tale.