Monday was a big day for the Minnesota Vikings. They fired Mike Zimmer and Rick Spielman after missing the playoffs in back-to-back seasons. The moves opened many possibilities as the team looks to go from “in the hunt” to a legitimate championship contender.
But it means nothing if they keep Kirk Cousins.
If success were purely measured in stats, the NFL would carve Cousins’ numbers into a bronze block and place it in Canton. But winning in the NFL is different than winning your fantasy football league. When it comes to what the Vikings need, Cousins comes up short.
It starts with Cousins’ contract. His $45 million cap hit is the third-largest in the NFL next season, but it was never meant to be played on. Instead, the Vikings inserted it as a deadline to decide whether to sign him to a new contract or move on.
Statistically, Cousins is worth every penny. His 2021 numbers are eerily similar to Brett Favre’s 2009 season — but there’s a fundamental difference on the books. That season, Favre’s $12 million salary represented 9.75% of the salary cap. Cousins’ $31 million cap hit represented 17% of this season’s salary cap.
His cap number was a factor when the Vikings needed to win to save the current regime. The team’s interest in Joe Thuney showed they intended to make some moves in free agency, but it was like a college kid trying to buy a case of beer with some quarters he found in the couch cushions.
Instead, the Vikings signed several one-year deals on the defensive end, and they sent Oli Udoh to protect Cousins.
The Vikings have two options to fix this problem. They could trade Cousins and free up $35 million in cap space or convince him to lower his number to help the team. Cousins hasn’t been open to the idea of taking pay cuts in the past, but his comments after Sunday’s game hinted that he would lower that number as part of an extension.
“It’s hard to have these conversations when I haven’t even given any thought to it,” Cousins said. “But I want to be a Viking, so that’s kind of the foundation of it all. From there, it’s pretty easy to make those conversations happen when you know you want to be a Minnesota Viking.”
Perhaps Cousins is willing to stay in Minnesota, but is the feeling mutual?
That will be a huge decision for the new regime, which will look to get the Vikings back on track as fast as possible. Co-owner Mark Wilf said in Monday’s press conference that the team is not looking to rebuild, but there is plenty of work to do to make them a contender.
The Vikings could lower Cousins’ cap number, but that just creates problems in the future. The Vikings would try to do what the New England Patriots did last offseason in a perfect world.
With nearly $20 million in salary-cap space, the Patriots hit free agency hard and drafted Mac Jones. Having a cheap quarterback allowed New England to cut Cam Newton and return to the playoffs after missing out last season.
One could argue that the Vikings would be in a better situation if they traded Cousins. Not only would they clear enough money to go wild in free agency, but they could also come away with several draft picks that could allow them to reload their defense or trade up for a franchise quarterback.
As Cousins enters his age-34 season, adding him could help them take the next step. But for the Vikings, it gets rid of Cousins’ impact on the team culture.
His unvaccinated status hung a cloud over the Vikings. The Athletic’s Chad Graff hinted that it may have also contributed to the team having the lowest vaccination rate in the NFL, saying some players opted against getting the shot “for fear of disagreeing of the team’s stars.”
Several players on the Vikings did not get vaccinated, but Cousins was the poster child. Although it is his decision not to receive the shot, Cousins made it a sideshow, saying he would entomb himself in plexiglass. After missing a game against the Green Bay Packers, Cousins didn’t show remorse, only mentioning he still would have contracted COVID-19 if he had been vaccinated.
There was also the teeth-gritting style that has become the embodiment of his time in Minnesota. When the Vikings were preparing to play the Los Angeles Rams with playoff implications on the line, the team lacked energy, and Cousins struggled until the Rams built a 14-point lead.
There were other instances, such as refusing to call a timeout against the Dallas Cowboys, lining up under the guard in San Francisco, and wincing through a cracked rib in Chicago that kept this team from reaching its potential. Even when Zimmer suggested Cousins “keep going for the jugular” after a win against the Packers, Cousins seemed hesitant and focused on limiting turnovers.
A lot of this contributed to his rocky relationship with Zimmer. But Cousins has worked with high-profile offensive coaches in the past. Sean McVay, Kyle Shanahan, Kevin Stefanski, and others have tried to get the best out of him, but none of them have pushed Cousins past the threshold of a 10-win season.
Cousins isn’t the entire problem in Minnesota, and that’s why the Vikings let Zimmer and Spielman go. But with an expensive contract and tons of questions, the Vikings need to move on from him if they truly want a fresh start.