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Matthew Coller: Reflecting back on the Vikings' last QB decision

In 2018 the Vikings chose Cousins. How does that decision compare to this year's QB uncertainty?

LAS VEGAS — I’ve been on Radio Row at the Super Bowl two times in my career: 2018 when Minnesota hosted the Super Bowl and this year. In both instances the Vikings’ quarterback future was unclear and it felt like the organization was standing at a crossroads. It feels that way for different reasons now though.

Back in ‘18, the hunt was for a QB who could bring the Vikings back to the NFC Championship. Alex Smith was an option that seemed to make a lot of sense with Mike Zimmer, who wanted a play-it-safe game manager to ensure his defense wouldn’t have to deal with any short fields caused by senseless interceptions. Kirk Cousins was an option, though the competition for his services appeared to be stiff and the Jets looked like they were in the driver’s seat. Tyrod Taylor and Ryan Tannehill were the other discarded QBs on the lot and then there was the Bring Back Teddy and/or Bring Back Case movements, some of which were paired with the concept of drafting a quarterback with five QBs projected to go in the first round.

Teddy and Case folks were strong in their support. Zimmer had made it clear during the ‘17 season that he thought Case’s success was due to a lucky charm around his neck. Keenum had never produced a season anywhere close to his 11-3 record and 98.3 QB rating and didn’t have the physical tools to argue that he had taken another big leap forward.

Zimmer loved Bridgewater like you love your first puppy but the team’s medical staff told Zim that the odds of him returning to the field were low, much less him ever being the player he once was en route to an NFC North title in 2015. Still, making two possibly bad bets and drafting a QB seemed favorable. A QB camp battle and a QB of the future on the roster. Somebody has to work out, right?

Nobody liked the bridge Tannehill or Taylor ideas because the roster was so good that it felt like anything else other than swinging at a championship run wasn’t worth it and those guys were the 8-win types.

Unsurprisingly Sam Bradford returning basically never came up. Bradford had been brilliant to start the 2017 season and for one night it looked like he was going to completely change the narrative surrounding his career but another knee injury brought that hope to an end quickly. Spending any more money on those knees seemed like a very bad idea.

The Vikings reportedly called about Drew Brees. Why not?

Now that we know what happened, how would any of the other options outside of Cousins have worked out?

Alex Smith would have gotten them into the playoffs. He was 50-26 with good Kansas City teams and had the perfect mentality for Zim. Would they have gone farther than just an appearance? Smith’s history would suggest a deep run wasn’t likely.

Teddy stayed healthy and played OK over the following three seasons. He went 16-18 with 68% completion, 42 TD, 20 INT, 94.4 QB rating. He was 5-0 with the Saints and a 99.1 rating though. Would his numbers have been closer to that with the talented Vikings than they ended up with the lowly Panthers or sputtering Broncos?

It’s safe to say Keenum’s magic carpet ride was destined to come to an end, though future stints in Denver and Washington never included players like Diggs and Thielen. Would he have gotten to the postseason in 2018? Possibly but with Pat Shurmur leaving, it doesn’t seem likely.

Of course they could have paired either Teddy or Case or both with Lamar Jackson, who was available when the Vikings selected Mike Hughes with the 30th overall pick. He may have ended up as QB1 midway though the season like he did in Baltimore. Would they have known that they were going to be able to get Jackson when they made the decision? It wouldn’t seem that way considering the consensus board on Mock Draft Database had Jackson expected to be taken in the top 15.

Tannehill might have worked out. He did with the Titans in a similar system to what Zimmer wanted.

Of course, Brees led the NFL in QB rating in 2018 and would have had a great chance to win the Super Bowl if he was playing for the Vikings.

So all of the roads had their pitfalls and everything other than Lamar Jackson or Drew Brees would have probably put them in a similar position in the ‘18 and ‘19 seasons, the only difference between signing Cousins and keeping Teddy/Case was commitment. In the short term, the sheer amount of dollars committed would have been less and they could have moved on easier rather than continuing to extend Cousins because they had no better options.

Now the Vikings face a decision that is only similar because it’s the same position. There is different leadership and a roster that isn’t even in the ballpark of what they had in 2018. The club Cousins joined in ‘18 had seven Pro Bowl starters. The 2024 Vikings currently have seven starters under contract. The receivers are the same quality but prime Dalvin Cook is quite different than whatever they have in the backfield now. Cousins was also 30 years old.

Back then Vikings fans had all the hope in the world that they could win in their Kirk window. Now fans are looking for a longer term approach because delusional win-now strategies have mostly netted “in the hunt” graphic appearances outside of their 13-win season in which they did not outscore their opponents.

The options are just as flawed though. Is trading up for Jayden Daniels or Drake Maye just about as likely as it was to sign Brees? Or would it be worth it to trade three first-round picks if one of them magically makes it to the No. 5 pick? That doesn’t exactly help the changes of filling the defense with talent but a great rookie QB solves a lot of problems. The QBs projected to be available — JJ McCarthy, Bo Nix and Michael Penix Jr. — all have significant concerns. McCarthy needs development, Nix’s offense was too easy and Penix Jr.’s injuries are scary.

In theory taking a shot on one of them makes so much sense. But nobody does it that way. You need total buy in from the scouts and staff. Remember, it wasn’t that long ago that a QB-needy team picked a running back ahead of Patrick Mahomes and the entire league failed to identify Brock Purdy as a viable starter. In practice it’s much harder to see a coach on, “just give it a shot,” when the NFL stands for Not For Long.

Yet the outside options are much weaker than Alex Smith and the 2018 version of Kirk Cousins. Baker Mayfield? You can squint and make it work. Gardner Minshew? Only if you are really rebuilding. Can they really rebuild and have everyone keep their jobs?

Ownership would be wise to stay that course and trust that the operation that took the old roster apart can put together a new one, even if we don’t have any sample of that to work with in that regard yet.

The wrinkle that really makes 2018 and 2024 different is that Cousins simply might not choose Minnesota again. He came to the Vikings in part because they had a stacked roster that he expected to win with — and did more winning than losing overall. Could he reasonably look at this squad and believe that they are ready to go deep into the playoffs with the Lions, Packers and Bears all having executed their plans and fighting for the North? Or would it be more favorable to go to Pittsburgh, where they are always in the playoffs or to Atlanta with a ready-made roster in a division that deserves to be relegated? You have to assume winning is at the top of his list at this point and there’s no two-year plan following a major injury.

If Cousins does come back, the path becomes straight forward: Future be darned, it’s Full Rams mode ahead and everything becomes about playing for a championship in 2024.

If he doesn’t, this regime may be left to the whims of the draft, which gives and takes away.

That’s a very uncertain place to live but one Vikings fans are already to try. The safer play in 2018 ultimately led them to no home playoff wins. Maybe playing it safe again would be much riskier than having something go badly in the draft.

Maybe I’ll be back on Radio Row at the Super Bowl talking about being wrong about Cousins’ ability to get them there or how the QB they drafted was the turning point in the organization.

Hey, weren’t the Chiefs once in a spot like this? 

Kirk Cousins

Aug 18, 2018; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins (8) looks on during the second quarter against Jacksonville Jaguars at U.S. Bank Stadium.