The Minnesota Vikings were one game away from the Super Bowl in 2017. But after missing the playoffs completely last season, what is next for the franchise?
The Minnesota Vikings were much too talented to miss the playoffs in 2018. A year removed from an NFC championship appearance, the team somehow managed to regress despite upgrading at multiple positions. The defense, which was top-five in all statistical categories in 2017, returned at full-strength. Dalvin Cook, the teams emerging young running back, recovered from injury. And of course, they won the Kirk Cousins sweepstakes, arguably the highest-profile quarterback to hit free agency since Peyton Manning.
After this past season, questions are beginning to emerge on the legitimacy of Cousins as a franchise quarterback. As a member of the Washington Redskins, he was given a pass on his inability to win big games. Excuses were made on his behalf because of the lack of talent around him. But even with a significantly improved supporting cast in Minnesota, Cousins still struggled in big games in 2018.
Struggles against good teams
At times last season, the Vikings looked dominant. In week 15, they hung 41 on the Miami Dolphins. The next week, they backed that up with a 24-9 victory over the Detroit Lions. But those types of performances came only against the NFL’s weakest teams. Against non-playoff teams last year the Vikings were a respectable 7-1-1. They looked the part of an NFC contender. But their 1-6 record against playoff teams spoke a different narrative. That included 2 critical loses to the Bears in the back-half of the season which cost them a spot in the playoffs. The Vikings even controlled their destiny as late as week 17; all they had to do was win. But as has happened his entire career, Kirk Cousins came up short.
The Vikings offered a 3-year fully-guaranteed contract to Cousins last spring with the expectation that he would produce wins, particularly against the league’s best teams. They took a gamble that a change of scenery would dispel his flaws. Through the first year of his contract, Cousins has proven them wrong.
The Kirk Cousins era in Minnesota is still young. But if he doesn’t show something within the next year, it will be short lived. Cousins is going into his 8th season. He’s no longer a young player. Whatever type of player he is now is likely who he will be for the remainder of his prime. If he can’t lead a team to playoff success now, he never will.
The Vikings are too good and have too high of expectations to waste time with an incompetent quarterback. Giving up on Cousins now would be premature. But if after two years he cannot guide this roster to the playoffs, it will be time to look elsewhere.
Talented young quarterbacks no longer hard to find
The influx of young quarterback talent to the NFL is at an all-time high. A decade or two ago, the Vikings would have done anything to keep Cousins. Finding a quarterback who was equally as talented would be almost impossible. But in the modern NFL, it’s much easier to find a franchise quarterback.
Just in the last 3 years Jared Goff, Carson Wentz, Dak Prescott, Mitchell Trubisky, Deshaun Watson, Patrick Mahomes, Baker Mayfield, and Sam Darnold have all proven to be franchise quarterbacks. That’s not even mentioning guys like Josh Allen, Josh Rosen, and Lamar Jackson who the verdict is still out on.
Committing to Cousins long-term despite a lack of playoff success would be an easy and conservative route for the Vikings. He is talented enough that the team will consistently be able to reach the .500 mark. But for Minnesota, they should ask their division rival Green Bay how conservativeness has benefited them.
Lessons from around the league
Since winning the Super Bowl in 2011, the Packers have refused to make any moves that would rock the boat. Despite having a legitimate chance at landing Khalil Mack last summer, they sat back and watched the Bears take advantage of the situation because Green Bay was too hesitant to pull the trigger. They have also been nonexistent in free agency. As a result, they have wasted prime years of arguably the most talented quarterback ever to play the game.
Green Bay made the mistake of assuming that just because they had Aaron Rodgers, they would be perennial Super Bowl contenders. Minnesota cannot make that same mistake. Just because they have a roster loaded with depth and talent does not mean they can play conservative and expect success. They need a quarterback that can put it all together.
The Vikings should look at the Kansas City Chiefs as a model to follow. In his 5 years under center in Kansas City, Alex Smith led the team to 4 playoff appearances. He was also named to 3 Pro Bowls, and many considered him the mid-season MVP of the 2017 season. Despite all of his success, however, the Chiefs drafted Patrick Mahomes in 2017 and traded away Smith in 2018.
Much like Kirk Cousins, Smith was very talented and at times made his Chiefs look like legitimate contenders. But in the most significant moments, he always came up short. Kansas City identified this and made a move before they were put in a vulnerable position. They are now reaping the benefits of that move, with Mahomes being named the 2018 league MVP.
The Minnesota Vikings must become comfortable with a bit of discomfort if they want to have success. If Cousins cannot at least lead them to the playoffs in 2019, he should not have a future with the team.