On March 28, 2018, Mike Zimmer looked more anxious than excited as he took the podium to officially introduce Kirk Cousins as the Minnesota Vikings’ new franchise quarterback.
Zimmer, who would do as well as a salesman as he would NBA center, quickly went into his evaluation of Cousins as a player rather than trying to play hype man.
“I had the opportunity to play against or coach against him several times and he’s always been a very, very tough guy to play against – very accurate, excellent in play actions, terrific in the boots,” Zimmer said. “We’ve done our due diligence with really everything about him.”
At that moment, Zimmer probably realized the paradox of what the team had just done.
On one hand, the Vikings gave themselves the best possible chance to win the Super Bowl. On the other, the team’s brass also put themselves in the most likely position to lose their job.
In the NFL, high expectations can kill.
Just ask former Viking linebacker Jack Del Rio, who went 12-4 in 2016 with the Oakland Raiders, only to be fired after a down 2017 season and replaced by Jon Gruden. Or Jim Caldwell, the leader of a 9-7 Detroit Lions team in ‘17 who was fired by a team that has since fallen apart.
For Zimmer, a man who has always been quick to point out the unfair nature of head coach turnover in the NFL, it would have been impossible to miss the reality that if Cousins doesn’t work out, everyone smiling in the picture will pay the price. Signing Cousins loaded the expectations to a ridiculous level. The moment he held up a purple No. 8 jersey, the entire NFL media began calling the Vikings’ 2018 season “Super Bowl or bust.”
— NFL (@NFL) March 28, 2018
Proof of the high expectations came quickly. In fact, the words “Super Bowl” were uttered in the second question to Cousins on March 28.
At one point during the preseason, the veteran QB remarked that he’d been asked about “Super Bowl or bust” every week since signing.
Fast forward to Week 14.
The Vikings are heading to Seattle for a Monday Night Football matchup that could determine their playoff fate.
At this point in the season, the “Super Bowl or bust” folks would have to call the season’s results the latter. The Vikings are not in the conversation with the Rams and Saints as the NFC’s best team and they aren’t in first place in their division.
The expectation for this point in the season was that a playoff spot would have been mostly or completely locked up heading into the final stanza of the season, not that they would be heading to the Pacific Northwest to play a game in which a loss could drop their postseason odds significantly.
To see the offense rank 18th in points and 17th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA statistic would have also fallen under the “bust” category.
But the NFL media at large was too busy pumping up the Cousins storyline to realize a lot of the troubles were foreseeable.
It was predictable that things wouldn’t fall into place the way they did in 2017 when the Vikings saw Case Keenum lead a magical 13-3 season and literally have a miracle play send the team into the NFC Championship.
Nearly all of the possible pitfalls have been hit, including injuries on the defensive side, regression from key defensive players, offensive line struggles and lack of offensive threats past Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs.
The Vikings missed Everson Griffen for five weeks and have seen Trae Waynes, Xavier Rhodes, Anthony Barr and Dalvin Cook miss time due to injury and they lost Mike Hughes and Andrew Sendejo for the season.
When the offensive line saw Nick Easton suffer season-ending injuries and Pat Elflein make a slow recovery from offseason surgery, it was clear there would be protection issues for the Vikings’ $84 million quarterback.
And the fact of that matter is, it’s nearly impossible to go 13-3 two seasons in a row. The NFL is designed for parity. “Super Bowl or bust” was always kind of a shallow, 30-seconds-or-less, Reader’s Digest way of looking at what should happen in Minneapolis this year, not a realistic one.
Signing Cousins should have been looked at as a way to counteract the likely calamity in store for 2018 and the by-design tough schedule, not as some cure-all potion that would magically push them to 14-2.
That isn’t to say that Vikings fans should apologize for thinking their team would be just as competitive with a Pro Bowl quarterback who had gone for 4,000 yards in the previous three seasons. It’s only to say that upon further review, realistic expectations for the Vikings should have been making the playoffs and hoping/praying for the good version of Cousins and a mostly healthy top-ranked defense.
The other aspect of “bust” is that Cousins signed a three-year contract with a team that is famous for its brilliant handling of the salary cap with two elite receivers in their prime and young talent galore on the defensive side — which is anchored by young star Danielle Hunter.
It hardly seems like a “bust” type team that is ready to fall apart after this season. There’s no reason to think the Vikings would fall out of contention in 2019. In fact, with another opportunity to tweak the cap and add to the offensive line, there’s a good case to make that they could be stronger next year than in Year 1 for Cousins.
Now for the weird part.
It may feel like it, but the Super Bowl is not as far out of reach as you might think.
Football Outsiders ranks the Vikings’ defense eighth and Cousins has shown the ability to put together blazing hot stretches of play during his career.
In 2015, Cousins put together a six-game stretch in which he threw 14 touchdowns, one interception posted a 125.3 quarterback rating. The following year, a five-game run included 11 TDs, one pick and a 114.0 rating. Weeks 3-8 of 2017 saw Cousins score a 115.9 rating with 11 TDs, 2 INT. And to start this season, he managed an 11-2 TD:INT ratio with a 105.1 rating.
You may or may not believe in his “clutch” abilities. You may or may not believe in the offensive mind behind the 2018 Vikings John DeFilippo. You might think the Vikings’ defense isn’t quite as strong as the No. 1 version from last year, but the reality is: The Vikings still have enough talent to win three games in a row in January.
Last year the Eagles won with Nick Foles. In 2015 the Broncos won with half-a-Peyton and a great defense. The 2012 Ravens went 10-6, fired their offensive coordinator in December, ranked a mediocre 10th on offense and 12th on defense and then saw one of the hottest runs from any quarterback in playoff history with Joe Flacco posting a 117.2 rating in four games.
Overall there aren’t many arrows pointing toward a Vikings Super Bowl. It’s just that the NFL is unpredictable. Stretches of great play can seemingly come out of nowhere as can surprise losses like the Vikings’ bizarre L to the Bills in Week 3.
The takeaway here is that there never was a “Super Bowl or bust” season. The three-year body of work during Cousins’ contract will tell us whether the move was successful or went belly up. And for the Vikings and the history of the NFL and the Vikings is too strange for anyone to decide in Week 14 how this wild ride is going to end.