A few weeks ago I received a call from a high-ranking member of the Vikings’ organization. “Let me ask you something,” he said, right off the bat. “Who would you rather have: Case Keenum or Kirk Cousins?” After some deliberation, I said Cousins, assuming money is no object.
“That’s what I’M thinking,” the Vikings staffer said. He explained that they liked Keenum, and if he returned, they’d be comfortable. But Cousins has three years of quality starting experience to his name, while Keenum has one. You are a little more sure about what you will get from Cousins entering 2018.
The staffer went on: We realize we would not be getting a future Hall-of-Fame quarterback, and yes, we’d still have to make him the league’s highest-paid player [$28.5 million annually, it turns out]. We can live with that because, given our dominant defense, offensive supporting cast and coaching staff, we’re one QB away from being, in our minds, the NFC’s best team. If we’re not willing to overspend on the most important position when we’re THIS close to Super Bowl contention, then what are we doing any of this for?
The Vikings believe their offense can succeed by relying on scheme more than individual playmaking. Their new offensive coordinator, John DeFilippo, got the job not just for his work with Eagles QBs Carson Wentz and Nick Foles in 2016-17, but also for his ’15 season as Cleveland’s offensive coordinator. Those Browns were a measly 3–13 and ranked 30th in scoring, but football people could see that was because they had an unfit Johnny Manziel and their best receiving weapon was Gary Barnidge, an athletically clunky tight end. On film, it was evident that DeFilippo had a knack for calling plays that beat predicted coverages and for building plays off of previous play calls. The fact there was no one to execute the plays didn’t mean he wasn’t one of the game’s better young schemers.
DeFilippo’s offense in Minnesota will have players who can execute. Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs are two pristine route runners you can align anywhere in the formation. Second-year tailback Dalvin Cook makes for a dynamic base running game. Those three pieces open nearly your entire scheme … as long as there is a quarterback who will execute that scheme.
The challenge will be when Cousins goes off-schedule and outside the scheme. Some coaches—including, presumably, Washington’s—believe he does that too often. And though Cousins’s courage under duress can create some great highlights (remember the end of last year’s Seattle game?), his so-so arm and inconsistent mechanics can also lead to meltdowns.
Privately, the Vikings would almost surely admit they’ll need to call a few game-managing plays that discourage Cousins’s improvisation. But with Thielen, Diggs and Cooks, game management comes more naturally. A quality quarterback doesn’t go off schedule when his weapons consistently win on-schedule.
As the Vikings staffer put it, if Cousins just runs the scheme, with our skill players and behind our solid O-line, he’ll have over 4,000 yards and 30 touchdowns. Put that opposite our defense and we’re serious contenders.
And so it makes sense for Minnesota to splurge on Cousins. Counter that with the Jets, the other team strongly bidding for the 29-year-old QB. Had they paid Cousins $28.5 million annually, they’d be getting the quality system QB Minnesota got, only without the supporting cast to run a full system. Which means they’d eventually get the wild, off-schedule Cousins. That’s something you’d pay $28.5 million to NOT have.
Cousins is a proficient puzzle piece but a deficient building block. By choosing Minnesota, everyone wins. He becomes football’s highest-paid player. The Vikings have a complete, title-contending team. And the Jets still have the money, roster space and available practice reps to fill their overwhelming number of holes and develop a young QB who, maybe, can become good enough to run a full scheme but also be trusted to make plays when things break down.
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