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Zulgad: Can Kirk Cousins save Mike Zimmer and Rick Spielman’s jobs?

Years from now when Vikings fans reflect on the Mike Zimmer era there are two things that will immediately come to mind.

The first will be his love for defense. Zimmer will smile at this because his career was built on that side of the ball. The second will involve a player that had nothing to do with defense: Kirk Cousins. Will Zimmer smile at the mention of the quarterback’s name in 10 years? That remains to be seen.

What isn’t up for debate is that Zimmer and Cousins forever will be linked when it comes to coach-quarterback combinations. In some cases — Walsh-Montana, Brady-Belichick, Holmgren-Favre — that is a good thing. In this case, it’s a simple reality. That reality became even greater Monday morning when Cousins reportedly agreed to a two-year, $66 million contract extension that will run through the 2022 season and lowers the Vikings’ 2020 salary-cap hit by $10 million.

The remarkable thing is that if Cousins leaves Minnesota in three years, he will do so with what essentially will have been a five-year, fully guaranteed contract in a league in which teams simply don’t give out such contracts. Cousins now has three years and $96 million remaining on his deal. He reportedly will be guaranteed $61 million at signing with the additional $35 million guaranteed for injuries but converting to a full guarantee at the beginning of 2021.

Cousins is 19-13-1 in 33 starts with the Vikings. His first season in Minnesota was an 8-7-1 disappointment in which the Vikings failed to qualify for the playoffs, but Cousins led them to a 10-5 regular-season record in 2019, he did not start a meaningless season-ending loss to the Bears, and then helped orchestrate a first-round playoff upset in New Orleans before the Vikings lost at San Francisco in the divisional round.

Cousins’ resume is littered with impressive statistics but for those who have watched him on a weekly basis since his arrival in 2018 there is a real question about whether he can lead the Vikings to a Super Bowl. Especially when you consider what his price tag in a salary-cap league means to the rest of the roster.

But general manager Rick Spielman and Zimmer clearly don’t have the time to look elsewhere for a quarterback and the clock is ticking for them of them on a professional level. Unless things change in the coming weeks or months, ownership is going to let both the GM and head coach work in the final year of their contracts with an expectation that the Vikings’ success, or lack of it, in 2020 will determine who is running and coaching this franchise a year from now.

Spielman went all in on Cousins as Case Keenum’s replacement after the Vikings’ run to the NFC title game in 2017. Cousins signed a three-year, $84 million deal that temporarily made him the highest-paid player in the NFL. Spielman, and Zimmer, saw Cousins as the final piece of the Super Bowl puzzle in Minnesota. They were wrong but there isn’t now time to pivot elsewhere.

It’s no secret that Zimmer wanted to be linked to Teddy Bridgewater as his quarterback for his entire time in Minnesota but that possibility ended when his leg gave out during a preseason practice in 2016. Sam Bradford replace Bridgewater and couldn’t stay healthy. Keenum had a magical season, but Zimmer and Spielman knew that the career backup couldn’t repeat that success and so they turned to Cousins.

The Vikings released defensive tackle Linval Joseph and cornerback Xavier Rhodes last week and defensive end Everson Griffen opted out of his contract. That gives the Vikings some cap room with which to work — as did Cousins’ extension — but the decision to put the franchise tag on safety Anthony Harris will put a dent in some of that money.

One would hope the Vikings have a plan to improve elements of the offensive line in front of Cousins but that’s not going to be easy. The 31-year-old Cousins has shown that he needs better protection and his lack of instincts in the pocket make him prone to fumble at any moment. Spielman and Zimmer know all of these things and, yet, felt as if they had no choice but to give Cousins a rich extension.

If it works, that move will look very wise. If it doesn’t, the only thing that looks certain is that a year from now Cousins will be the Vikings’ quarterback but he will be working for a new general manager and coach.

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