How Do We Know If Minnesota's Front Office Is All-In Or Just Trying To Survive?

Photo Credit: Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan uttered an infamous phrase on Peter Shraeger’s Flying Coach podcast. “There’s only about five teams in the league that are actually, really trying to win,” Shananhan told Schraeger. “And that’s all that matters is winning. Other people are just trying to survive.”

Shraeger hosted the podcast with Shanahan and Los Angeles Rams head coach Sean McVay in the summer of 2021. Shanahan’s 49ers have reached three-straight NFC Championship games, and McVay’s Rams won the Super Bowl a few months after this episode aired. As two of the best coaches in football, they’re both well past the point of being in survival mode.

To be perfectly clear, Kevin O’Connell and Kwesi Adofo-Mensah aren’t on the hot seat entering Year 3. Yet the franchise-altering fork in the road that free agency and the draft presents is an interesting case study in self-preservation for the two men leading this current regime.

It should go without saying, but free agency in professional sports is a two-way street. Both player and team must have mutual interest and come to an agreement. O’Connell and Adofo-Mensah are saying all the right things publicly about Kirk Cousins‘ upcoming free agency. The consensus appears to be that the Vikings would welcome Cousins back with open arms — but at a particular price point that provides the proper amount of long-term flexibility.

If we’re talking strictly about the 2024 season, Cousins is hands-down the best option Minnesota has to quarterback their team. He’s still a fringe top-10 signal caller, and O’Connell’s pass-centric offense is at its best with a proven commodity like Cousins, who can make all the throws. Furthermore, Cousins gives this team a higher ceiling in 2024 than any other quarterback available on the open market. That’s important for O’Connell and Adofo-Mensah as they enter the back half of their four-year contracts that expire following the 2025 season.

But does Cousins give the Vikings a realistic shot at capturing this franchise’s first-ever Lombardi trophy? After six seasons with Cousins at the helm, Minnesota has one playoff win to show for it. While Minnesota’s ineptitude in the postseason doesn’t fall entirely on Cousins’ shoulders, there’s enough of a sample size that warrants the question.

If the Vikings and Cousins can’t come to an agreement over these next few weeks, who will lead this critical Year 3 of the O’Connell/Adofo-Mensah era? Russell Wilson on a veteran-minimum contract? Baker Mayfield? Sam Darnold? Justin Fields?

Will Adofo-Mensah have to pay a steeper price to trade up in the draft for a premier rookie signal caller like Drake Maye, Jayden Daniels, or J.J. McCarthy?

What happens if all that comes out of Day 1 of the draft are reports about how badly the Vikings tried to trade up, but to no avail? Like last year, or in 2021 when the Chicago Bears beat Rick Spielman to the punch for Fields.

If the Vikings embark on 2024 with anyone other than Cousins leading their offense, there’s a higher probability of this team flirting with double-digit losses for the second consecutive season than that of a team competing for wins in mid-January. With the Detroit Lions getting Ben Johnson back as offensive coordinator and the Green Bay Packers expected to take a jump in Jordan Love‘s second season as the starter, the Vikings face an uphill climb in 2024 — regardless of who their quarterback is. And in the scenario where the Vikings struggle next season, it’s more than fair to presume that the seats for both O’Connell and Adofo-Mensah get considerably warmer heading into the final year of their contracts in 2025.

Is this sort of environment conducive to a rookie quarterback? On the surface, absolutely. Any quarterback would be lucky to have Justin Jefferson, Jordan Addison, T.J. Hockenson (when he returns from his ACL injury), Christian Darrisaw, and Brian O’Neill. But is inserting a rookie signal caller and expecting immediate results in 2024 a likely way to avoid the organizational pressure that comes in Year 2 for this particular quarterback, much less provide a pathway to sustainable success?

Have the Wilfs seen enough from O’Connell and/or Adofo-Mensah and given them additional runway to overcome the usual peaks and valleys that come with developing a new (rookie?) franchise quarterback?

Is this the latest chapter of Damned If You Do, Damned If You Don’t for this franchise?

Acquiescing to Cousins and his contract demands is clearly the safe move for O’Connell and Adofo-Mensah. It would give them a clearer path to reaching the playoffs and accumulating enough success to have their respective contracts renewed. That’s the only logical route if the two men are driven by their own self-preservation — exactly what Shanahan was referring to in that quote back in the summer of 2021.

But considering that the Vikings don’t appear to be bending the knee to Cousins on the dawn of free agency, watching this organization sort out its future in real time in advance of a pivotal Year 3 for O’Connell and Adofo-Mensah should make for tremendous theatre.

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Photo Credit: Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

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