There’s a good chance the Minnesota Vikings aren’t very popular with the other 31 National Football League franchises right about now. Not after they became the first club in league history to dole out a multi-year, fully guaranteed contract to a quarterback.
The three-year, $84 million deal that Kirk Cousins signed on Thursday — a figure that makes Cousins the highest-paid player in NFL history — almost certainly represents a shift in what quarterback contracts are going to look like going forward.
The Falcons want to retain Matt Ryan beyond the 2018 season? That will be no problem as long as Atlanta owner Arthur Blank makes sure every cent of Ryan’s deal is guaranteed. The Packers want to keep Aaron Rodgers after 2019? Same thing, every last dollar will have to be guaranteed. And we aren’t talking $84 million but something far closer to $100 million.
So how will Vikings owners Zygi and Mark Wilf sleep tonight knowing the Cousins contract will be considered a major step forward for players? The guess here is just fine.
The decision to give Cousins so much in real cash might have been a blow to the other owners, but for the Vikings it was deemed to be a necessary step for a franchise that is still looking for its first Super Bowl win since entering the NFL in 1961 and has a six-game losing streak in NFC championship games.
The Wilfs, who bought the Vikings in 2005, have been around for only two of those defeats, 2009 and 2017, but they have grown tired of watching other teams celebrate Super Bowl championships. This includes the Philadelphia Eagles, who not only beat the Vikings in the NFC title game in January but then came to U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis in February and celebrated their Super Bowl title on the Vikings’ home field.
“I know in the long arc we’re certainly a lot closer than we were 13 years ago,” Mark Wilf said after Cousins’ introductory press conference at the Vikings’ new facility in Eagan. “I do feel as an organization we’re really getting to that point where we can be a first-class, world-class franchise here. But we’re never tiring. We’re non-stop in our efforts to get those Super Bowl championships.
“It’s a very competitive league. The margin for winning and losing, a lot goes into it. There are some other circumstances we know can happen. We want to be in the situation where we have the kind of roster and team that can be competitive long haul.”
The Vikings felt they were close this past season, finishing 13-3 and possessing the NFL’s top-ranked defense in terms of yards given up and scoring in the regular season. The offense also took a significant step from 2016, although starting quarterback Sam Bradford was essentially lost for the season when his troublesome left knee began bothering him after an opening-night victory over New Orleans.
Case Keenum stepped in and played extremely well at quarterback, but the organization wasn’t sold that the veteran journeyman could repeat that performance in 2018. General manager Rick Spielman and coach Mike Zimmer also were unsure if 2014 first-round pick Teddy Bridgewater could ever return to form following a catastrophic leg injury suffered just before the 2016 season, and the feeling was Bradford’s knee issue made him unreliable.
So the Vikings set their sights on Cousins and made sure the Washington Redskins starter for the past three years couldn’t say no. According to NFL.com, Cousins will get a $3 million signing bonus, base salaries of $22.5 million for 2018, $27.5 million for 2019 and $29.5 million for 2020. He also gets $500,000 work out bonuses each year.
Cousins has Super Bowl-related incentives tied into his contract that could make it a three-year, $90 million deal. Oh yeah, there’s also a no-trade provision and no transition tag provision included, according to NFL.com.
Clearly the pressure will be on Cousins to produce and do something no other quarterback in franchise history has achieved. “All I can do is do what is right in front of me,” Cousins said when asked about the pressure. “I can’t win the Super Bowl today. I can do a press conference to talk about a contract and then go from there.”
That contract will be much discussed and criticized if Cousins departs Minnesota without a Super Bowl. If he wins one, there will be a statue of him in front of U.S. Bank Stadium. The Wilfs would gladly pay the bill to have that statue built, as long as it means a Lombardi Trophy is sitting in the case at the TCO Performance Center.
“We’re laser focused on just doing what we can to get better,” Mark Wilf said. “Our fans are the best fans in the world and every year there’s anticipation and excitement. Our goal every season is to win Super Bowls. But we’re not here for one and done, we want to be competitive and significant in the league for a long time and be one of those franchises that players want to come to, coaches want to come to and that can be a winning franchise.”
The Vikings need to start with one championship before they can add another and are banking on the fact that Cousins can be the guy to get them that title.
If that makes Zygi and Mark a little less popular with their fellow owners, well, that’s a risk they are willing to take.