EAGAN, Minn. -- The Minnesota Vikings' brain trust -- coach Mike Zimmer, offensive coordinator John DeFilippo, quarterbacks coach Kevin Stefanski, general manager Rick Spielman, assistant GM George Paton and VP of football operations Rob Brzezinski -- spent two days in February poring over film of all three Vikings quarterbacks from 2017 and several free-agent options.
They came to a unanimous decision: The Vikings would move on from Case Keenum, who led them to the NFC Championship Game, as well as Teddy Bridgewater and Sam Bradford, and try to land Kirk Cousins, a soon-to-be free agent who played his first six seasons with the Washington Redskins.
Perhaps no one understood what was at stake more than Zimmer, who has had a different starting quarterback each year since he arrived in Minnesota in 2014.
"If you go with the right one and he does like you anticipate, then everything is good," Zimmer said at the NFL combine. "If you pick the wrong one, it’s hard to win in this league without a quarterback. If you pick the wrong one, this whole thing can go downhill.
"It’s important for myself and Rick and the organization to pick the right guy that is going to help us continue to move forward. If we don’t do that, then I’ll probably be fired."
On March 15, Cousins signed a three-year, fully guaranteed deal worth $84 million, setting the Super Bowl-or-bust conversation in motion. And entering Week 14, those lofty expectations have been met with reality. Twelve games in, Cousins has a 6-5-1 record as the Vikings head to Seattle for Monday Night Football (ESPN, 8:15 p.m. ET).
Cousins has had to navigate through growing pains in the Vikings' offense while having his performance evaluated based on his price tag. The Vikings knew the decision would be dissected the second they went all-in on Cousins. Zimmer warned he didn’t want the Vikings to "go crazy" on spending on a quarterback, but that’s exactly what Minnesota did, in large part because the market demanded it.
Only twice since the salary-cap era began in 1994 had proven veteran quarterbacks nearing or in their prime hit the open market in free agency: Drew Brees in 2006 and Peyton Manning in 2012. Both went on to win Super Bowls with their new teams.
With four games remaining in the regular season and the playoffs still within reach, the Vikings would be hard-pressed to evaluate their decision based on less than a full season of Cousins. But eventually the Vikings will have to reflect and ask themselves, are they getting their money’s worth?
How Cousins stacks up
Based off guaranteed money, the $84 million Cousins will earn on his deal is the fifth most among quarterbacks. Only Matt Ryan ($100 million guaranteed), Aaron Rodgers ($98.2 million), Matthew Stafford ($92 million) and Andrew Luck ($87 million) are earning more guaranteed money.
Traditional stats, such as Cousins' 64.0 Total QBR, 23-9 TD-INT ratio and 3,490 passing yards, don’t tell the whole story about whether a quarterback is living up to his salary. A big reason the league’s highest-paid QBs have commanded those deals is because of their ability to perform in critical situations.
That applies in areas such as tight-window throws, where Luck leads the NFL in attempts (84), completions (32) and passing touchdowns (eight) going into Week 14. Comparatively, Cousins is 26-of-63 for four touchdowns on such throws, which is sixth among the 10 highest-paid QBs.
A big financial investment does not always result in wins. Five of the 10 highest-paid QBs are on teams with losing records. Eli Manning (457), Stafford (437), Derek Carr (402) and Ryan (378) lead the top-10 list in the number of snaps taken when trailing this season, one reason their passing numbers are so high but don’t correlate to wins. Cousins, who has thrown for 14 of his 23 touchdowns while his team has been playing from behind, ranks sixth (343) in this category.
However, Cousins leads the NFL in fumbles since 2015 and has committed six this season, which puts him No. 1 among the highest-paid QBs. And he has yet to lead a game-winning drive in 2018. The same goes for Ryan and the Redskins' Alex Smith ($71 million guaranteed) before he suffered a season-ending injury.
Cousins’ 1-3 record in prime-time games this season consists of a win over a nosediving Green Bay team at home and losses to the Rams, Saints and Bears. In Los Angeles and New Orleans, Cousins performed well, posting two of his five highest passer ratings, despite losing.
"I do think that we can point to some times throughout the year where we’ve underachieved, not because we weren’t giving effort or preparation, but we just haven’t been able to sustain the level of potential in this locker room, play in and play out," Cousins said.
Quarterbacks earning Cousins’ salary are expected to win critical games, but the Vikings have yet to beat a team with a winning record. They have the chance Monday night as Cousins aims to erase another blemish on his record as one of three QBs in NFL history to lose his first six starts on Monday Night Football.
Cousins vs. Keenum
Two days before Cousins signed in Minnesota, Keenum signed a two-year deal with Denver worth $36 million ($25 million guaranteed). It was a far cry from the money he made bouncing around the NFL as a career backup since entering the league in 2012, the same year as Cousins.
The most subjective part of the argument about whether Cousins is worth what Minnesota is paying him has to do with Keenum. This is where much of the fan base is divided, wondering if Minnesota would have the same record now if the QB who led them to a game shy of the Super Bowl was still around.
The Vikings believed an upgrade at quarterback was needed to take them to the next level. Zimmer voiced concerns over Keenum’s ability to sustain what he had done in 2017.
"Is he the guy when he was at Houston or the Rams or is he the guy who played for us?" Zimmer asked at the combine. "Is it because he had a good team around him? Bradford, his record wasn’t great, is it because he didn’t have a good team around him? Did he play with a good defense? All those things enter into it."
It’s the reason they decided not to put the franchise tag on Keenum, which would have come with a $23.189 million cap hit, about $1 million less than Cousins’ count against the cap in 2018. That move made it clear: The Vikings did not want to invest in Keenum in the short term, nor did they want to work out a long-term deal.
The magnitude of Cousins’ contract was questioned in relation to the Vikings' long-term roster health. Minnesota had more than $54 million in cap space this offseason and were able to sign Eric Kendricks, Danielle Hunter and Stefon Diggs to extensions.
But signing Cousins likely will limit how active they’ll be in free agency in the coming years. The boost Sheldon Richardson has given at defensive tackle could lead Minnesota to prioritize re-signing him in free agency. That might be as big of a splash as they make. The Vikings also have pending decisions with Anthony Barr and whether to pick up Trae Waynes' fifth-year option. A handful of contracts of current players (Kyle Rudolph and his $7.6 million cap hit, in particular) likely will have to be restructured regardless given the stress Cousins’ deal puts on the salary cap.
On paper, with near-identical records and similarities in several statistical categories, it’s difficult to differentiate between the two QBs. Looking at certain areas of their game provides a clearer perspective of what the Vikings have versus what they’re missing.
One area Keenum excelled in Minnesota was his ability to go off-script. That has allowed him to work around the issues he has with his offensive line in Denver, similar to what Cousins faces. Cousins has completed 66.1 percent of his passes under pressure this season, according to ESPN Stats & Information. That would be the highest rate by any player in a season in the past decade.
Going into Week 14, Keenum was completing 52 percent of his passes outside of the pocket this season for 411 yards and has a 4-0 TD-INT ratio. In that same category, Cousins is completing more of his passes (68 percent) for fewer yards (333), but has thrown two touchdowns and two interceptions.
Cousins' biggest validation lies ahead
The Vikings brought in Cousins to win a championship. How close they get to that goal will ultimately decide whether it was the right decision to sign him.
Cousins led Washington to the playoffs once during his three-year run as the starter, which resulted in a loss in the 2015 NFC wild-card round. Despite putting up some career numbers in 2016 with a strong supporting cast around him on offense, the Redskins' bottom-tier defense hindered his ability to get them back to the postseason. Washington finished 8-7-1 that year.
Quarterbacks are ultimately judged by what they do in the postseason. Eli Manning, who won eight of 11 playoff games from 2005-11, signed a four-year, $84 million extension days before the 2015 season. Since then, the Giants have had one trip to the playoffs: a loss to Green Bay in a wild-card game.
Among the list of highest-paid QBs (in terms of guaranteed money), Cousins is not alone in his quest for a first playoff victory. Neither Stafford nor Carr has won a playoff game.
The Vikings bestowed Cousins with a paradigm-shifting contract because they believe he’ll make them consistent postseason contenders. Putting expectations on Cousins to get Minnesota to the Super Bowl in Year 1 may be unrealistic, but a price tag like his suggests that anything less than a championship at some point during his tenure won’t cut it.
His biggest test is still ahead, and he’ll have to do more than just get Minnesota to the playoffs. He’ll have to win.