Matthew Coller is an experienced football writer who covered the Vikings for 1500ESPN and Skor North for four years. He is now writing a weekly Vikings column for Bring Me The News, and you can find more of his work at Purple Insider.
Credit where it’s due: The Philadelphia 76ers made tanking cool.
They branded, “The Process,” brilliantly and created a movement out of a strategy that has worked in pro sports for a very, very long time. Once upon a time the Pittsburgh Penguins sunk to the bottom of the NHL for Mario Lemieux. The “Suck for Luck,” campaign took over several NFL cities in 2011.
Not all tanking works -- ahem, Timberwolves -- but the 76ers went to an Eastern Conference Final with their top picks, Lemieux became a phenom and Andrew Luck nearly picked up where Peyton Manning left off.
So when Minnesota Vikings fans talk about tanking for Clemson superstar Trevor Lawrence or Ohio State’s dynamic Justin Fields, you can see where they are coming from. After all, the Vikings haven’t drafted a quarterback in the top five at any point in team history. Perhaps the most exciting non-Fran Tarkenton quarterback in Vikings history was their highest QB pick in Daunte Culpepper at 11th overall.
The Vikings were so close to getting Luck but a victory against Washington on December 24 gave them a fateful third win. They ended up with Matt Kalil instead.
With Kirk Cousins struggling to an 0-2 start, it makes sense to start thinking about the future and asking whether he is good enough to take the team to a Super Bowl. As a Viking, Cousins is now 19-15-1 with a very strong 101.1 regular season quarterback rating but a 2-11 record against teams with a winning record.
The Vikings’ offensive problems against the Green Bay Packers and Indianapolis Colts have shined a light on Cousins’s need for a strong supporting cast around him in order to contend. What makes that challenging is that he’s expensive, costing more on the salary cap in the next two seasons than Patrick Mahomes.
Sprinkle in the fact that every team to reach the Super Bowl since 2016 has ranked top five in offensive scoring and you have the argument for the Vikings to lean into their problems and play the 2020 season with the goal of picking No. 1 or No. 2 overall.
On Madden that might work. Put the punter in at quarterback and lose every game. But in the real Vikings world, Tank for Trevor is not an approach that is feasible for the Vikings.
It starts with the fact that Cousins has been here before and his team came nowhere close to drafting No. 1 overall. In 2017 Washington saw a number of its talented players leave, including his two top weapons Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson, leaving him Jamison Crowder as his lone quality receiver. His offensive line suffered injuries and ranked 26th by Pro Football Focus in pass blocking and the Washington defense finished the year 21st in points allowed. But they ended the year at 7-9.
Two games in, the Vikings may seem far away from a 7-9 team that spends its December looking at “In The Hunt” graphics but with the remaining talent on offense and Cousins’s talent, that’s a more likely outcome than going 1-15 or 2-14, which might be required for the top selection considering teams like the Jets and Giants appear completely incompetent.
Think of it this way: Cousins’s worst season as a starter saw him rank 18th by PFF and post 7.6 yards per attempt, 27 touchdowns, 13 interceptions and a 93.9 rating.
The past five teams to draft No. 1 overall had the following team QB ratings the previous year:
2019 -- Cincinnati: 76.2 (29th)
2018 -- Arizona: 69.0 (30th)
2017 -- Cleveland: 61.4 (32nd)
2016 -- Cleveland: 77.4 (27th)
2015 -- Los Angeles: 74.1 (32nd)
Unless the Vikings bench Cousins, they are very, very unlikely to finish in the bottom five in QB rating. And they are not benching a player that they just signed to a mega contract extension through 2022 in March.
They won’t be benching Dalvin Cook, who they also extended, or Adam Thielen or Irv Smith Jr. or Justin Jefferson either. Two weeks in, none of them have put the Vikings on their back and led them to victory but based on their track records (or pure talent in the case of Smith Jr. and Jefferson) it’s pretty likely to happen at least a few times.
The only tank-y thing the Vikings could do is trade off everything that isn’t nailed down. The problem: There isn’t much that falls into that category. They could move safety Anthony Harris or tight end Kyle Rudolph or maybe even tackle Riley Reiff but otherwise they will want to keep the quality players they have for 2021 and beyond.
But that’s assuming the Vikings do not get back into the race. This year’s playoff format that allows seven teams from each conference into the postseason leaves the door open longer for clubs that have early-season struggles. There aren’t many signs that the Vikings will bounce back considering their issues on defense and the offensive line but the bar isn’t very high to be in the chase. A 7-9 team might very well make the playoffs. Back in 2018 the Vikings would have been in at 8-7-1 with the current format.
With the head coach and general manager given contract extensions for three years, they do have the luxury of playing the long game and viewing 2020 as a rebuild year -- even if they didn’t enter the season with that in mind. But it’s not an easy sell to suggest they would do everything in their power to land Lawrence and Fields like some other teams might. The Vikings showed confidence in Cousins when they extended his deal. If they somehow did land a top pick, they could very well trade out of that position in order to stock picks and build around Cousins.
Think that’s a crazy notion? Well, in 2018 the 49ers traded out of a top pick with the Chicago Bears because they had just acquired Jimmy Garoppolo.
Cousins’s contract makes it nearly impossible for the Vikings to release him without a gargantuan dead cap hit and if he struggles this year there won’t be teams lining up to trade for a QB coming off his worst season.
So you can root to Yield for Fields or Tank for Trevor but the odds are not high in Minnesota. It’s more realistic to look for either a complete turnaround and shot at the playoffs or progress with young players like Jefferson, Jeff Gladney, Cam Dantzler, Smith Jr., Garrett Bradbury etc. who will be a part -- along with Kirk Cousins -- of the future.