Ever since his arrival, fans have wondered what the Minnesota Vikings see in Kirk Cousins. At his best, Cousins can have spurts where he plays like an elite quarterback and has the stats to back it up. Other times, Cousins plays in a way that has Vikings fans longing for the days of Case Keenum and Teddy Bridgewater.
With Cousins locked into a contract that will probably call for an extension in two years, it’s confusing to the public why they would want to make a long-term commitment to the mercurial quarterback. But it may not be a matter of what Cousins is at the moment, but what the Vikings think he will become down the road.
This sounds preposterous for a player in his age-32 season but not something that’s unprecedented. One example is Rich Gannon, who underwhelmed in Minnesota but became an MVP winner during the later stages of his career.
To understand this comparison, look at the early years of Gannon’s career. Gannon was a fourth-round pick by the New England Patriots in the 1987 draft, and the Pats didn’t even want him to play quarterback. When Gannon scoffed at the idea of playing running back, he was traded to the Vikings where he spent three seasons on the bench before getting a chance to start in 1990.
The early years of Gannon’s career didn’t go well, but the Vikings wound up winning games with him under center. With Gannon more of a game manager, the Vikings opted to upgrade with Jim McMahon in 1993, which sent Gannon into the journeyman spiral and landed him in Kansas City.
After spending the next several years as a backup, Gannon got a chance to start for the Chiefs in 1998. In 12 starts for Kansas City, Gannon didn’t light it up, but he did enough to convince the Oakland Raiders to sign him to a four-year, $16 million contract to become their starter at age 34.
The move seemed risky, but it rejuvenated Gannon’s career. Operating with a Raiders team that ranked third (1999) and first (2000) in rushing, Gannon was able to air it out and earned a 46-28 record between his age 33 and 37 seasons. In 2002 he became the oldest MVP in NFL history.
|Gannon Age 33-37|
|Win-Loss Record (Win Pct.)||46-28 (.621)|
|Yards Per Game||238.0|
So what does this have to do with Cousins? He might be a late bloomer.
Cousins didn’t become a full-time starter in Washington until his age-26 season. While he put up better numbers than Gannon did in Minnesota, Cousins didn’t see success in the win-loss column, which made him expendable. Still, Cousins proved he was a quarterback who could put up gaudy stats when needed.
|Gannon Age 25-32||Cousins Age 25-32|
|Win-Loss Record (Win pct.)||26-22 (.541)||49-48-2 (.494)|
|Yards Per Game||136.6||258.4|
Although the stats looked good, Jay Gruden’s air raid offense didn’t bring out the most efficient side in Cousins but may have inflated his stats. Much like Gannon’s shift from a pass-heavy attack in Kansas City to a more efficient offense in Oakland, the Vikings have seen Cousins make strides the past couple of years with an offense that simplifies what Cousins needs to do to win games.
This also fits the philosophy of another old school coach, Gary Kubiak. His offense is based off the run, and it allows Cousins to pick and choose his spots when to attack downfield. Just like the Raiders were a proficient team on the ground during Gannon’s tenure, the Vikings currently rank sixth in rushing and 10th in rushing attempts.
Much like Gannon, Cousins’ primary job is to make the weapons around him better. That means giving the ball to Dalvin Cook, finding Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen when taking deep shots and finding a way to get Irv Smith Jr. into space.
But there’s another parallel that Vikings fans should be more concerned about. Despite his age, many fans treat Cousins as a developing quarterback. Much like Lamar Jackson or Josh Allen, Cousins is celebrated when he reaches a benchmark such as a win on Monday Night Football or completes a fourth-quarter comeback. It seems bizarre, but it’s something that is understandable given the context of Cousins’ career.
There’s also something to be said for the space that Gannon and Cousins took upon their team’s salary cap. The Raiders took the plunge at $4 million per season with Gannon, which took up nearly 7 percent of their cap space. Cousins occupies a little more with his $21 million owed in 2020 taking up 10.5 percent of the cap, but it leaves room to put people around him.
That makes things simple down the road for beefing up Cousins’ supporting cast. With Jefferson under a rookie deal for the next four years, the Vikings have created the space necessary to go get an offensive lineman or another area of need pending the impact of the pandemic on the 2021 salary cap. Much like how the Raiders added Jerry Rice prior to Gannon’s MVP campaign, the Vikings could make a splash move down the road to put them over the hump.
The comparison between Gannon and Cousins may not be flattering because no quarterback wants to come out of college saying, “My game is like Rich Gannon,” but it may be the best-case scenario the Vikings can hope for. If Cousins can keep improving, they may have found a late bloomer who has yet to play his best football.