The Vikings could have played it safe at the quarterback position.
They could have decided to bring back Case Keenum as their starter, realizing he had reached folk hero status among many by going from career backup to the NFC title game in his first season in Minnesota.
They could have turned to Teddy Bridgewater, who after missing two seasons because of a catastrophic leg injury appeared on the road to recovery and remained a favorite of the coaching staff, players and fans alike.
Coming off a 13-3 season, if Keenum’s play had regressed or if Bridgewater struggled in 2018, general manager Rick Spielman could have shrugged his shoulders and claimed sometimes things go your way and sometimes they don’t. In either case, Spielman would have signed a quarterback for a very reasonable and safe price.
But the Vikings didn’t go the safe route. In fact, they did just the opposite.
On the same day that Keenum, Bridgewater and 2017 opening-night starter Sam Bradford reportedly agreed to or neared deals with the Broncos, Jets and Cardinals, respectively, the Vikings reportedly swung for the fences by reaching an agreement with Washington free agent Kirk Cousins on a three-year, fully guaranteed $84 million contract.
Is the 29-year-old Cousins worth that type of guaranteed money? That is up for debate. But quarterbacks of Cousins’ quality rarely, if ever, reach the free-agent market and by signing him the Vikings are sending a clear message that they are all in when it comes to winning a Super Bowl next season.
No matter how impressed some might have been by Keenum’s performance in 2017, or how much some hoped that Bridgewater would be able to return from injury and show the form he displayed in getting the Vikings to the playoffs in 2015, the Vikings clearly came to the conclusion that no quarterback on the 2017 roster was going to be able to help them take that next step.
Cousins, meanwhile, has spent the past three seasons as Washington’s starter, ranking fourth in passing yards, sixth in passer rating and eighth in touchdown tosses in that time. Last season, he surpassed the 4,000-yard mark for the third consecutive season, throwing for 4,093 yards with 27 touchdowns and 13 interceptions.
Cousins, a fourth-round pick of Washington in 2012, played under the franchise tag the past two years. The Redskins, though, have made a deal that will land them Kansas City’s Alex Smith when the new league year opens on Wednesday.
There likely were two selling points brought up by Spielman when he presented his plan to Zygi Wilf and Vikings ownership after the season-ending loss to the Eagles in the NFC championship game.
One would have been the attractiveness of finally finding a quarterback who will be expected to start for three seasons. Spielman has been with the Vikings since 2006 and in that time the Vikings have had the same starting quarterback on consecutive opening days only three times (Tarvaris Jackson, Brett Favre and Christian Ponder). The same QB has never started three consecutive openers.
Beyond stability, however, is the opportunity that the Vikings believe Cousins’ signing will present for them. Coach Mike Zimmer recently expressed disdain for the concept of “windows of opportunity” in the NFL, but there is no denying that in this league they exist and they are short.
The Vikings have such a window right now in which they possess one of the NFL’s top defensive units and an offense that took a major step last season under coordinator Pat Shurmur. Shurmur, who helped the Vikings jump from the 28th-ranked offense in the NFL in 2016 to 11th in 2017, is now the head coach of the New York Giants and has been replaced by former Eagles quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo.
Cousins will have plenty to work with in Minnesota, including standout wide receivers Stefon Diggs and Adam Theilen, running back Dalvin Cook and tight end Kyle Rudolph.
The concern among some is that Cousins’ salary will preclude the Vikings from retaining some of their own upcoming free agents — a list that includes Stefon Diggs, Danielle Hunter, Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr — or bringing in other potential key pieces off the open market.
Those salary-cap concerns are overshadowed by how long it has been since the Vikings had consistency at one of the most important positions in all of sports. Bridgewater, a first-round pick in 2014, was supposed to end the revolving door of QBs in Minnesota but his knee injury ruined that plan. Bradford came to the Vikings from the Eagles for a first-round pick after Bridgewater was injured in 2016, but his balky knee pretty much ended his season after one start in 2017.
The fact the Vikings decided to turn to Cousins isn’t a big surprise. Since Wilf bought the franchise, the Vikings have been extremely aggressive in trying to improve their team when they see the opportunity. This started with the massive free agent deal that guard Steve Hutchinson got in 2006 and continued with the blockbuster trade for defensive end Jared Allen in 2008 and the pursuit that landed them Brett Favre in 2009.
All of those moves came before the team had a new stadium and now a brand new practice facility that has or will increase revenues and also made the Vikings a more favorable destination for top free agents.
Will that be enough to get the Vikings the first Super Bowl trophy in franchise history? It will take months and perhaps a few years to answer that question. What is certain is that by adding Cousins the Vikings are willing to take a big-time swing at ending that drought.