A no-trade clause?
Everything else about the Minnesota Vikings’ decision to extend Kirk Cousins was foreseeable and made sense on some level.
With their cap situation ($15 million over the cap at the start of Sunday), the pseudo deadline of the NFL opening up its “legal tampering” period on Monday and the fact that the Vikings needed to get cap compliant by the start of the new league year on March 16, signing the veteran quarterback to a deal that would lower his cap hit and push out money into the future was always toward the top of the list of logical outcomes to the Cousins saga.
But when details of his new contract came out, it was stunning to see that a no-trade was included in the deal. That means that new general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and head coach Kevin O’Connell are fully committed to Cousins for the next two years unless he says otherwise. Had they simply extended him into 2023 with void years to follow, they would have still been leaving the door open to drafting a quarterback this year and moving on after the 2022 season. Now they are all-in.
The message that the Vikings’ brass is sending is that they believe they have answers that Mike Zimmer and Rick Spielman never found.
There will be no rebuild, only a redoing everything that the Vikings have already done in the past, except in Adofo-Mensah and O’Connell’s minds, those things will be different enough to take the Vikings to places that they have never approached over the last four seasons.
Per ESPN’s Adam Schefter, the exact details of the contract go like this: Cousins is extended through 2023 with a $35 million guaranteed for the 2023 season and then two voidable years are tacked on to lower his cap hit by about $14 million this year, per Tom Pelissero of NFL Network. Almost enough to get them under the cap. There’s still more work to be done on a roster that has needs abound.
NFL Network also reported that the Vikings had been receiving trade calls in recent days and elected instead to stick with their QB. One person with knowledge of the situation suggested that the offers may not have satisfied ownership’s requirements for a deal.
Without the presence of the no-trade clause, the decision to hang with Cousins would have come across as the new brass giving itself time to evaluate the quarterback position and still having flexibility down the road to move on if needed. It would have allowed them some space to get the salary cap in order, study the younger players on the team and make long-term plays with the roster while still remaining competitive.
If they evaluated the upcoming draft class and free agent crop of quarterbacks and found that they weren’t happy with any of the options, they could have gone the same direction as a team like the Broncos: Keep a solid quarterback for one year, fight for a playoff spot and then see what comes available the following season. What came available for the Broncos turned out to be Russell Wilson.
A number of teams in similar situations have been rewarded in recent years for not locking themselves into an expensive veteran quarterback and drafting a successor. The Baltimore Ravens took at shot at Lamar Jackson while Super Bowl winner Joe Flacco was still the team’s quarterback and landed the NFL MVP. The Buffalo Bills drafted Josh Allen rather than stay with Tyrod Taylor, who had gone 22-20 as a starter from 2015-2017. The Los Angeles Chargers let Philip Rivers walk to pick Justin Herbert. And most famously the Kansas City Chiefs traded away Alex Smith to pick Patrick Mahomes.
The Vikings can’t follow the Alex Smith model now — not unless Cousins approves a trade. Cousins has again proven to be the master of leverage. His agent belongs in the Hall of Fame.
For the Vikings’ leadership, they have to show — and not tell — Vikings fans why this will be different.
Over the years, the fan base has been told that they were only a few pieces away from being a legitimate Super Bowl contender. The team made win-now draft picks and trades to desperately plug holes that sprung up because of Cousins’ bulbus cap hit. By locking into Cousins for the next two years, Adofo-Mensah and O’Connell are saying that won’t happen to them as they rebuild a squad that needs at least defensive end, linebacker, corner, safety and interior offensive line help.
The onus is on them to prove that a new way of thinking about the offensive philosophy or new analytics-driven approaches to free agency or the draft or a new trainer who understands sports science or a new organizational philosophy of “collaboration” is going to make the difference between averaging eight wins per season and the 12-plus that is usually the threshold to compete for the Super Bowl.
Signing Cousins to a contract that carries cap hits of $31 and $36 million in the next two years, per OverTheCap, means that there is no transition period for expectations. Keeping an older quarterback at a higher cap hit than the Rams paid Matthew Stafford last year can only be evaluated as a play to compete for a deep playoff run in 2022. For Adofo-Mensah and O’Connell, it’s win right away or be booed off the field in the same way as their predecessors.
It feels like the depth of failure of the 2018-2021 seasons isn’t being taken much into account with this decision. While Cousins had strong runs of playing well, the team won fewer games against teams with winning records than the New York Jets during the same period of time. They made the playoffs as often as the Washington Football Team. The Bears had a better win percentage and more playoff appearances from ‘18-’21 with Mitch Trubisky, Andy Dalton and Justin Fields at QB. The Vikings only ranked 14th in points scored in the last four years, three spots ahead of the Atlanta Falcons and 347 points behind the NFL’s leader.
These things can’t all be pinned on Cousins — again, he often played at a high level — but the NFL isn’t a quarterback rating or PFF grade contest. The Vikings have had no team success, just as Washington before them with an expensive Cousins at the helm.
There isn’t much evidence to suggest that teams with expensive mid-pack quarterbacks can win the Super Bowl. Since 2012 there has only been one Super Bowl in which one of the quarterbacks hasn’t been on a rookie deal. The Seattle Seahawks had a better QB in Wilson and traded him away after seeing their roster fade around his contract. The Cowboys just had to trade away Amari Cooper. Veteran deals are hard to justify outside of the top few QBs but the Vikings, as they often did under Zimmer/Spielman, are flying in the face of that history and saying: We are different.
It has to be said: Which Wall Street stock trading secret or data algorithm came up with this being the right move when history so strongly says otherwise.
Had they gone in another direction i.e. trading Cousins and drafting one of the available quarterbacks with the 12th overall selection, there would have been plenty of patience from fans. It would have been considered a complete reset and a fully fresh direction. Leadership would have been given time to shape the roster in their eyes. Now O’Connell has to be so much better at clock management than Zimmer, so much better at play calling than Kevin Stefanski and Gary Kubiak and Adofo-Mensah’s draft classes have to provide so many more hits to keep fans from asking: How is this different?
If there weren’t a no-trade clause that locked Cousins into his spot as the franchise QB, you could look down the road and see a succession plan. It would have given Adofo-Mensah and O’Connell the space to make a future decision. Instead your crystal ball only sees No. 8 at QB until the end of the 2023 season — and then you can still see his remaining cap hit from the void years in 2024 and 2025.
It’s possible that Cousins could still be moved if things don’t work out in 2022 but trading him got vastly more difficult. Not only can he veto any deal but this year had an inordinate number of teams with strong rosters looking for a proven quarterback. ESPN reported on Sunday that the Colts showed interest in Cousins, for example.
The road from here is foggy. In the short term, things still need to happen for the Vikings to create any space for movement in free agency. Is that in the form of restructures? Cuts? Trades? How will those spots be filled?
For the long-term, how will they get closer to the Super Bowl with Cousins’ contract still constricting roster building? Are they planning on drafting a successor after 2023? Or are they destined to repeat history again if he shows just enough flash to make them believe they will be different.
Elite quarterbacks in the NFL are king. Always and forever. But the next best thing is cap space and flexibility at the QB position. The Vikings gave themselves neither with another extension and no-trade clause.
So it better be different. Very different. Not the No. 7 seed vs. No. 9 seed different. Or Adofo-Mensah and O’Connell will end up being viewed as younger, taller, more buzz-wordy versions of the same people the Vikings just fired.