Just over nine months ago, the Minnesota Vikings fan base was on cloud nine.
After limping to the No. 6 seed in the NFC playoffs, the Vikings were forced to travel to the vaunted Mercedes-Benz Superdome to play the New Orleans Saints, who had finished the season 13-3. The Saints were heavy favorites and were being advertised as the best No. 3 seed ever.
Minnesota, meanwhile, was entering a potentially franchise-altering playoff run. The core of the Vikings roster was on the brink of collapse because their salary cap situation would require some bandaging in the offseason. Rumors swirled about head coach Mike Zimmer’s job security even after earning a playoff berth for the third time in six seasons.
Plus, quarterback Kirk Cousins was playing for a contract extension of his own. The 2019 season represented the second year of a three-year, $84M contract he signed in 2018. He was brought in to be the missing piece to the Super Bowl puzzle that was so close to completion in 2017.
Of course, Cousins hit Adam Thielen on a perfect pass for a 43-yard completion in overtime that set up the walk-off touchdown pass to Kyle Rudolph. Minnesota pulled off the improbable upset and advanced to the divisional round — only to get smoked by the San Francisco 49ers.
At the moment, obviously, the win was a huge one for the franchise. It was easy to think that maybe, just maybe, that win could spark a Super Bowl run. Finally, Cousins had displayed the clutch gene that so many doubted he had. Finally, Zimmer coached his team to a hard-nosed playoff victory without the need for a miracle final play. And finally, Minnesota had earned that respect in the NFC.
Fast forward nine months, and that win has been more detrimental than anything. Due to Minnesota’s horrendous salary cap outlook for the 2020 season, a mini roster overhaul took place to begin the offseason. Everson Griffen, Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes, Linval Joseph and Josh Kline were all key contributors who signed elsewhere as the Vikings attempted to clear space. Additionally, star receiver Stefon Diggs was traded to Buffalo for a collection of draft picks.
These departures left the Vikings weak at many key positions — cornerback, defensive line and offensive line. The roster was disintegrating quickly, and they would be forced to rely heavily on newcomers and rookies in a season filled with doubt and adaptation amidst a pandemic.
Despite all of this, they went all-in on Cousins, Zimmer and Spielman. Most pertinently, they handed Cousins a three-year extension with almost no flexibility to get out of it.
Safe to say, the gamble has not paid off.
Minnesota is off to dreadful start to the season, winning just one of its first six games before the bye week. Cousins is turning the ball over at an exceptionally high rate, throwing a league-leading 10 interceptions and fumbling twice. Meanwhile, Zimmer’s defense is 30th in the NFL against the pass and 28th overall. When it comes to points allowed, the Vikings are 31st in the NFL.
According to virtually any measurement, the Vikings are just a bad football team. And thanks to the contract extensions given to Cousins, Zimmer and Spielman, it doesn’t appear as if that will change any time soon. The Cousins contract is especially harmful. He is due to make $45 million in 2022, and the Vikings have almost no way out of the deal unless they can find a team willing to trade for him.
Without the playoff win over the Saints, does Cousins receive an extension? If Minnesota doesn’t win that game in overtime, it would have been yet another season without a playoff win for Cousins. He would have shown no glimpse of that ability to make the clutch throw in the big moment.
Perhaps the Vikings would have instead let Cousins play out the final year of the three-year contract he signed in 2018 before agreeing to an extension, which would have provided the Vikings with the flexibility necessary for the situation they’re currently in six games into the 2020 season.
Perhaps the same can be said for Zimmer, who the Vikings have now committed to for the future. Of course, it’s much easier to get rid of Zimmer as head coach than it is to find a way out of the Cousins’ contract. But it is not a great look for the franchise to extend a defensive-minded coach and watch the team’s defense fall to the bottom of the NFL ranks.
We’ll never know exactly what went into the decisions for each of these extensions. Perhaps the playoff win over the Saints didn’t have anything to do with them. But it seems more likely that the Vikings front office watched their team get a big playoff win and convinced themselves that the team is right there on the brink of a Super Bowl. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case.
That thrilling win, for all the excitement, energy and joy that it brought at the time, may be what handicaps the Vikings for the next few years.