Upon taking over the Minnesota Vikings, first-year general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah opted to not tear it down and see what he could get from the existing roster under a new coaching staff.
It’s worked wonders so far with the Vikings boasting a league-best 8-1 record amid their best start to a season since 2009.
The biggest bet in what Adofo-Mensah has called a “competitive rebuild” was seeing what an offensive-minded coach in Kevin O’Connell could get out of Kirk Cousins. After watching the last regime flounder with Cousins at quarterback, Adofo-Mensah signed on to a two-year run with the veteran quarterback, giving him a one-year, $35 million contract extension in the offseason that locks the veteran quarterback in Minnesota through the 2023 season.
However, Cousins, who has made a career of swinging vine to vine on short-term deals, won’t want to play out the final year of his contract as a lame duck. The most demanding position in sports should come with some security for those who have proven to bring their team success.
That’s become a recent development for Cousins, who entering the 2022 season had a middling 59-59-2 career regular-season record and just one playoff win under his belt. He had brought the Vikings to the playoffs just once in the past four seasons after Minnesota signed him in 2018 as the final piece of a roster coming off an appearance in the NFC Championship game.
One analyst weighed in on Cousins’ longevity in Minnesota given his recent string of success under the guidance of first-year coach Kevin O’Connell — saying there’s still more that needs to be seen.
Vikings’ Kirk Cousins ‘Experiment’ Approaching a Crossroads
On a November 17 edition of the SKOR North podcast, Phil Mackey questioned the prospects of Cousins seeing another contract extension come the offseason.
“Part of it is going to depend mightily on how this looks at the end. The whole thing seems like a quarterback experiment on O’Connell’s part to see how far he can get this guy [Cousins],” Judd Zulgad said. “He has, to his credit, changed him a lot. I don’t think your question can be answered until we see the playoffs and how those look.”
During the offseason, O’Connell made his expectations of Cousins clear, expecting Cousins, whose reputation entering the season wasn’t remotely close to a clutch quarterback, to make throws in late-game situations.
“Make no mistake about it, there’s going to be times where you’ve got to trust Justin Jefferson to go get the football in a contested situation,” O’Connell said on a July 11 appearance on the Purple Daily podcast. I expect Kirk when it’s all said and done this year to stand in there have an extreme comfort and ownership of our offense and ultimately make those plays to help us win football games.”
Over halfway through the season, Cousins has met the challenge. He’s led a career-high five game-winning drives this season and delivered numerous game-tilting throws to Jefferson. While his passer rating (87.0) this season is a career-low as a starter, Cousins is playing his best when nobody has expected it. His passer rating while trailing with under four minutes left in the game is 102.8, per Pro Football Reference.
While Cousins hasn’t led the Vikings to a place where they can coast with a comfortable lead through the fourth quarter, he’s answered the bell for a comeback frequently.
But whether that’s enough for the new regime to wed themselves to Cousins beyond 2023 remains to be seen.
“If Kirk gets there and does what O’Connell wants, the opportunity of an extension goes up,” Zulgad added. If it flames out at some point… O’Connell’s eventually going to want to get his own guy — younger player, rookie contract — it depends on how this thing looks at the end of this season.”
Vikings Could Take a Page From 49ers at Quarterback
With the playoffs being the ultimate measuring stick for Cousins, his prospects in Minnesota is similar to the San Francisco 49ers‘ quarterback situation.
Jimmy Garoppolo led the 49ers to a Super Bowl in 2019 but saw his limitations, throwing two interceptions and tallying a 69.2 passer rating. San Francisco missed the playoffs the following seasons after Garoppolo went down with an injury, prompting the 49ers to go all-in at quarterback to maximize opportunities and Super Bowl window.
The 49ers traded up in the 2021 draft to select Trey Lance third overall. Lance was afforded a redshirt year while Garoppolo led the 49ers back to the NFC Championship game last season. They lost 20-17.
San Francisco was ready to supplant Garoppolo with Lance this season but an ankle injury that forced season-ending surgery for the young quarterback derailed those plans. But, it appears to be Lance’s team when he’s ready for his return in 2023.
Minnesota could follow a similar path with Cousins eventually, allowing him to play out his contract while the new regime develops their pick of an early-round quarterback that season.
And considering the penchant Adofo-Mensah has for making trades, don’t be surprised to see Minnesota take a big swing at its future at the position.