The Minnesota Vikings were supposedly a quarterback away from winning a Super Bowl following a highly successful 2017 season.
In the moment, of course, it’s easy to believe it, and nobody should fault the Vikings for it. Minnesota was a single win away from playing in the Super Bowl at U.S. Bank Stadium, and that was with Case Keenum at quarterback. Imagine what this team could be with an upgrade at the most important position in football!
So Minnesota shelled out an $84 million, fully-guaranteed contract to Kirk Cousins, pushing all the chips forward in hopes of a Super Bowl run.
Needless to say, a Super Bowl run has not exactly panned out. The Vikings missed the playoffs entirely in two of three seasons during the Cousins era and won a road playoff game during the 2019 playoffs before being soundly defeated the following week.
It turns out that the Vikings were much more than “a quarterback away” from a Super Bowl run. It was a mirage. Several parts magically worked together perfectly during the 2017 season — almost too perfectly. The defense stayed overwhelmingly healthy and performed at a level that hadn’t been seen in decades in the NFL. Meanwhile, with the help of a surprisingly decent offensive line, journeyman backup quarterback Keenum was putting together a career season, dramatically exceeding the previous standard set for him.
And here’s the kicker: a legitimate miracle was required for this team to win a home playoff game.
It’s understandable for fans to gloss over how unsustainable all of these factors were. That’s what fandom is — seeing the optimistic perspective on the outlook of your team.
However, with the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear that the Vikings’ front office made the same mistake. General manager Rick Spielman didn’t see the regression that was bound to happen from the defense or the offensive line. He took the “quarterback away” bait. And it was costly.
Three years later, the Vikings are in a remarkably different position. A claustrophobic salary cap situation forced key contributors from Zimmer’s defense to leave before the 2020 season, leaving the depth chart a shell of itself. The result? One of the worst defenses in the league.
Meanwhile, superstar wide receiver Stefon Diggs wanted out and got his wish, since citing that the old school, run-heavy Vikings offense was not in the best interest of his career. It’s worth noting that Diggs promptly led the NFL in both receptions and receiving yards, in addition to earning All-Pro honors, as soon as he left Minnesota for a modern offense.
Each of Spielman, Zimmer and Cousins received contract extensions between the 2019 and 2020 seasons, signaling what appears to be one last chance for this trio to make that Super Bowl run. However, for as close as this team appeared to be after the 2017 season, the Vikings are exponentially farther away from that Super Bowl run heading into the 2021 offseason.
Minnesota has a unique opportunity in what should be a robust trade market this offseason to move on from Cousins and his large contract. He’s set to make $31 million in the 2021 season. But the key is that Cousins’ 2022 earnings of $45 million become guaranteed once the 2021 league year begins in March.
So, in other words, it’s now or never. And with established starting quarterbacks seemingly in high demand across the league, it’s the perfect opportunity for the Vikings to pounce.
But they won’t.
Dealing Cousins would mean admitting to making a mistake in signing him following the 2017 season. It would mean admitting that the salary cap casualties over the past couple of years are all at least partially due to the expensive quarterback experiment.
But it’s not just about Cousins. It would also mean admitting that Zimmer, for as talented and brilliant as he is on the defensive side of the ball, holds the wrong offensive philosophies for today’s NFL.
And, of course, Spielman would be at fault for overseeing the whole thing. The massive contract handout to Cousins. The quick regression of the roster. The contract extension to both Cousins and Zimmer. And the failure to build an adequate roster that does not have to rely on rookies all over the depth chart in 2020.
Objectively, Spielman and the Vikings’ front office should be eager to trade Cousins. It’s all coming together perfectly for the Vikings to make the most bang for their buck in a blockbuster deal. Minnesota could get an excellent haul and begin rebuilding for the future.
But instead, the Vikings will continue to grasp at the Zimmer and Cousins straws, hoping that another miracle comes along, bailing them out of being held responsible for the costly mistake made in March of 2018.