Highly-drafted rookie quarterbacks rarely deliver championships, in their first seasons or at any time thereafter. Highly-compensated free-agent quarterbacks rarely accomplish that, either — although the sample size is much smaller.
In 2018, Kirk Cousins became the first healthy, accomplished quarterback on the right side of 30 to hit unrestricted free agency. The Vikings, apparently in competition with only the Jets, gave Cousins a three-year, fully-guaranteed contract worth $28 million per year, a record amount at the time.
The Vikings had big plans for the ongoing growth of the franchise under Cousins. In 2017, the Vikings went 13-3, with one start from Sam Bradford (a rousing Monday night win over the Saints) and 15 from Case Keenum, who lost his first start at Pittsburgh before going 12-2. Then came the Minneapolis Miracle, one of the greatest moments in franchise history.
Like the Immaculate Reception, the Minneapolis Miracle was followed not by a Super Bowl appearance but a loss the following week in the conference championship game. Like the Immaculate Reception, many believed (or at least wondered whether) the Minneapolis Miracle would serve as the front end of a sustained stretch of greatness.
Enter Cousins, objectively a much better quarterback Keenum (but subjectively not a great fit for a team with a periodically suspect offensive line). Throw in running back Dalvin Cook, whose rookie season of 2017 ended with a Week Four torn ACL, and Minnesota’s offense combined with Mike Zimmer’s defense supposedly was ready to take over the league.
It didn’t. In 2018, the Vikings scratched and clawed to 8-7-1. A Week 17 home game against the Bears, who had locked up the division title and were playing for nothing, resulted in a Minnesota loss — and a failure to make the playoffs. In 2019, the Vikings qualified for the postseason at 10-6 and upset the Saints in a wild-card game before being splattered by the 49ers in the divisional round. This year, Minnesota started 1-5, managed to get to 6-6, and promptly fell apart down the stretch. (It has gone eerily like Minnesota’s 1990 season, which saw the Vikings ping-pong from 1-6 to 6-6 to 6-10.)
With one game remaining in 2020, the Cousins-era Vikings have a record of 24-22-1. But for the fact that the Vikings extended his contract by two years in March (paying him now $33 million per year), the Vikings could have walked away from Cousins after next Sunday’s game.
Ownership may be inclined to ponder the possibilities, but the organization is handcuffed by the contract, cap hit, the guarantees, and the fact that (other than maybe the 49ers) no one will be clamoring for Cousins. Unless someone is looking for just good enough.
That’s become the Vikings way in recent years, frankly. Just good enough.
Just good enough to contend for a playoff spot every year, making it every other. Just good enough to maybe win a periodic postseason game before coming up against an elite team that smothers the Vikings. Just good enough to make the fans think the team is trying to finally deliver a championship but not good enough to ever truly get there.
Just good enough is very good for business. Although every team claims it wants to win the Super Bowl every year, any team (even the Patriots) that uses Super Bowl wins as a barometer for success sets itself up for consistent failure. Success flows from contention into December. From never having a lost season. From always being on the porch or at least in its vicinity, even if there’s never a chance to get close enough to try to kick the door in.
That’s the Vikings, or at least that’s what they’ve become over the past 20 years. Just good enough. But for going 3-13 in 2011, they’ve always been in position to make a December run for the postseason. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t.
The most prominent exception came in 2009, when the first season with Brett Favre created a very realistic expectation that the Vikings would get a chance to run their Super Bowl record to 0-5. But for multiple Adrian Peterson fumbles, a boneheaded “This is not Detroit!” Brett Favre interception late in regulation, and a certain scandal that had placed targets on Favre’s knees and ankles throughout the game, it would have happened.
Since landing on the wrong side of a 41-0 splattering against the Giants in the 2000 NFC title game, the day the Vikings outplayed the Saints and lost in early 2010 and the day the Vikings outplayed the Saints then blew the lead then pulled a rabbit out of their butts in early 2018 are the lone high-water marks of the last 20 years.
Just good enough. But never, ever truly great.
So here’s my first of many predictions for 2021. Unlike the many that will be wrong, this one is dead-on balls accurate: Next year, the Vikings once again will be just good enough.