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Matthew Coller: A new hope for the Vikings

Big changes came last week, bringing in a new vibe from Vikings fans that has been missing for some time

Isn’t it ironic that Kirk Cousins arriving and leaving caused the same type of fervor around the Minnesota Vikings?

When Cousins signed a three-year, $84 million deal on March 15, 2018, he represented much more than the next quarterback in line for a franchise that has lacked a true superstar at the position over an extended period since Daunte Culpepper. Cousins was supposed to be the final piece to a puzzle that had reached the NFC Championship the year before.

Theoretically it made sense. The roster from the 2017 season’s No. 1 overall defense in yards and scoring was returning along with elite receivers Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen. The offense had been well above average despite being operated by a journeyman backup Case Keenum and without star running back Dalvin Cook. Place Cousins, who went for nearly 5,000 yards passing in 2016 with Washington, into the mix and you have a ready-made Super Bowl squad.

It turned out that the “final piece” concept is a tough needle to thread. In 2018 the defense was good rather than great and offensive coordinator John DeFilippo struggled to fit with Cousins and head coach Mike Zimmer. Things that helped the Vikings the year before like a manageable schedule and remarkable turnover luck went the other direction in 2018.

By the end of the Super Bowl-or-bust season, Cousins and Adam Thielen were yelling at each on the on the sidelines in a meltdown against the Bears and six other NFC teams went to the playoffs instead of the Vikings.

After that year there was no belief that the Vikings could compete for a championship. That’s not an opinion, rather a fact of the betting market. They went into the 2019 season with the 13th best odds to win a title, then 13th again in 2020, 17th in 2021, 17th in 2022 and 23rd in 2023 (per FanDuel).

Vegas represented the feelings of a large percentage of the fan base as well. There were moments of hope, like when they beat the Saints in the Wild Card round in 2019, but as the seasons went along of the Cousins era a malaise set in. In 2021 Aaron Rodgers mentioned US Bank Stadium not being as loud as it once was.

The last frontier of the Cousins dream was 2022 when the Vikings started 8-1. Maybe Kevin O’Connell’s culture was the secret sauce. After the Vikings beat the Bills in an all-time entertaining game, buzz surrounding the purple reached its highest point since Cousins’ fade pass to Kyle Rudolph to beat the Saints. Many declared them legitimate contenders at that moment. But over the remainder of the season they went 5-4, including a loss to the Giants via a miserable defensive performance and memorable checkdown on fourth-and-8.

Even heading into the Giants game most Vikings faithful had already heard about the team’s negative point differential and watched Mike White throw all over their defense. It wasn’t a team that felt close to playing for the Lombardi Trophy, even if their final regular season record hinted that they were.

When Cousins elected to dive into a pool of Atlanta’s gold like Scrooge McDuck on Monday, the idea of building a championship team looked closer than any point since Case Keenum walked off the field in Philadelphia. Not immediately, of course. The Vikings’ Super Bowl odds went down from bad to worse after he left but the QB’s exit opened a new door that has the potential to go somewhere someday. That door has been closed for years with only a crack here and there to speak of.

What happened in the subsequent days breathed life into the view that they had gotten closer and not farther away with Cousins’ enormous cap charges soon to be off the books. They acquired three defensive players who were among the best at their craft last year rather than reaching for third-wave free agents with limited dollars to spend. They traded for the Houston Texans’ first-round pick, presumably with the plan to move up to the top of the draft and pick an elite quarterback prospect.

The fervor returned.

Everyone knows draft pick quarterbacks might not work. You don’t have to tell anyone that, especially after most of the 2021 draft class was traded away over the last two offseasons. But when it works, it really works.

If we look at recent top draft picks there are plenty of success stories. CJ Stroud took the Texans to the playoffs in Year 1, Trevor Lawrence went to the playoffs in Year 2, the first five quarterbacks taken from the 2020 draft have reached the playoffs and two of them have made the Super Bowl, Patrick Mahomes needs no description, DeShaun Watson turned around the Texans, Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson are top-five QBs and Jared Goff and Carson Wentz’s teams both made Super Bowls on their rookie contracts.

Even when it doesn’t work it sometimes works. Mitch Trubisky’s 2018 Bears were so talented around him that they win 13 games. Kyler Murray and Baker Mayfield had 11-win seasons on their rookie deals.

The fact that the Vikings can give a rookie QB the best possible chance to succeed with Justin Jefferson, Jordan Addison, TJ Hockenson, two good offensive tackles and a former QB head coach who worked well with Cousins adds to the wave of excitement over the fanbase. Taking a swing at a star quarterback at the top of the draft is the thing they never do — literally.

You don’t have to look any farther than what’s happening in Pittsburgh for comparison to what it would have felt like to go down the usual path. Does anyone think Russell Wilson and/or Justin Fields are taking that team anywhere? Sure, they are pretending in the Steel City that it’s a big upgrade and TV talking heads will tell you it was brilliant economics by the Steelers but FanDuel has them ranked 21st in Super Bowl odds. Sixteen of the 21 teams ahead of the Steelers have a first-round quarterback at the helm.

It’s not that the Vikings could never have won with Cousins or that every season wasn’t entertaining or that he didn’t play well, it’s just that it was always a day late and a dollar short of the teams who picked quarterbacks in the draft and built behemoth teams around them. Robert Mays of The Athletic pointed out that 11 of the last 12 Super Bowls have featured a QB on his rookie contract. The fact that Vikings fans learned the hard way about the disadvantage of an expensive veteran QB (who isn’t elite) is part of the new energy injected into the scene.

That doesn’t mean anyone’s crowning them. Tearing down is easier than building. Letting a good QB walk is easier than finding a franchise QB. They don’t give out trophies for getting fans talking in March.

The Vikings’ brass has to complete the “competitive rebuild” circle by trading up to the top five and picking a quarterback. It seems inevitable at this point, otherwise why make the move with the Texans?

Even if they make it up to the top five the Vikings still have to get a left guard, WR3 (after KJ Osborn left for New England), another cornerback and maybe some depth just about anywhere on the roster. They have to develop picks from the past two drafts and hit on more guys who can grow into quality players over the next two seasons.

They have to coach their quarterback to his strengths and be patient as he develops. They have to run the football better, block better, pressure quarterbacks better and manage games better.

It’s a long list to get back to where the 2017 team once was. But for the first time in a long time you can see the path to true competitiveness, not hopes and prayers as a strategy. The new hope that has washed over a fan base that has had its dreams dashed so many teams is rooted in a strategy that has a track record of working. At least it feels like swinging big rather than playing it safe.

They needed to aim somewhere better than 13th-17th on the Super Bowl odds list. They needed fans to see the possibilities rather than talking themselves into the same thing again. The first week of free agency did that. What happens next will decide whether it works.

Kevin O'Connell

Quick updated list of the remaining free agents who might be a fit for the Vikings….


  • Hunter Renfrow
  • DJ Chark
  • Michael Gallup
  • Josh Reynolds
  • Quez Watkins


  • Kevin Zeitler
  • Greg Van Roten
  • Connor Williams
  • Halapoulivaati Vaitai

Defensive tackle / edge depth

  • Sebastian Joseph-Day
  • Teair Tart
  • Mario Edwards
  • Mike Danna
  • Kyle Van Noy


  • Steven Nelson
  • Ahkello Witherspoon
  • Myles Bryant
  • Xavien Howard
  • Levi Wallace