Sports

The Epitome of NFL Purgatory

Why the Vikings and Kirk Cousins are trapped.

Cousins grimaces as he pulls back to throw
Cousins before the Vikings’ NFC Wild Card playoff game against the New York Giants at U.S. Bank Stadium on Sunday, in Minneapolis. Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

The Minnesota Vikings did what was expected of them, both over the past few months and the past few years. Over the shorter term, the Vikings were supposed to bow out of the playoffs early because, while they won a bunch of games this season, they looked less than scary while doing it. Only two teams won more than their 13 games under first-year coach Kevin O’Connell, but eight had shorter betting market odds to win the Super Bowl entering the postseason. Over the longer term, the Vikings have also been projected to have roughly 12 teams finish ahead of them each year, going back several seasons. Across all time periods, the simplest reason for the Vikings’ expectations has a name, and that name is Kirk Cousins.

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Cousins collects the paycheck of a top quarterback. On-field officials protect him from harm like he is a top quarterback. He posts a couple of statistical totals most years that are reminiscent of a top quarterback’s. He isn’t one, and that’s a bit vapid to type, because it’s not as if there’s an enormous army of Kirk Cousins supporters who are out in the streets of the internet every day trying to convince the masses that Cousins is one of the NFL’s great passers. Almost nobody thinks that. The Vikings can’t possibly think that. But Cousins persists, and the team goes through the motions because it lacks a better option.

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Sunday’s wild card playoff loss to the New York Giants was microcosmic of Cousins’ place in football. He was quite serviceable and, for most of the game, even good. He threw 39 passes and completed 31 of them for a pair of touchdowns while remaining interception-free. A third touchdown came on a QB sneak after a video review nullified what would’ve been another passing score. The Vikings trailed by a touchdown late in the fourth quarter when the Giants’ absurd defensive tackle, Dexter Lawrence, broke into the backfield and tossed Cousins down as he threw an incomplete pass. The routine QB hit drew a roughing-the-passer penalty, the kind that exasperates TV audiences when it’s made for the benefit of Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers, much less Cousins. The drive continued for a few more plays. On a third down, Cousins threw just a hair behind a crossing receiver, allowing a Giants cornerback to break the play up. On fourth down, Cousins threw short of the first-down marker to tight end T.J. Hockenson, getting three yards when he needed eight. Sometimes, a QB’s receivers are all covered, and he has no choice but to check the ball down. It doesn’t appear that this was one of those times:

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The cruel irony of this particular loss is that Cousins had one of his best games. He was under frequent pressure and handled it well, even if he didn’t make wowing plays. The biggest fault on Sunday was with a Vikings defense that couldn’t stop the Giants’ run game. Cousins’ offensive line, often lousy over the years, did not help a lot. The point is not that Cousins is bad, but that he’s not what the Vikings have trapped themselves into requiring him to be: a star.

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Leaving meat on the bone is what Cousins does—so it is what the Vikings do. They will probably do it again for at least one more year, and for who knows how long after that? The specifics—whether the Vikings go 8–9 and miss the playoffs or go 13–4 again and lose early again—are immaterial. They are doomed to a continual run in the NFL’s middle class, the same place they’ve inhabited since they signed Cousins in 2018. He has never been the only reason (this year, their defense was not good), but he is the most consistent one. To start Kirk Cousins is to be two of the worst things you can be in the NFL. One is to be just fine, because it cuts off the path to drafting a better QB. The other is to be boring.

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A common bit of NFL skepticism is that a team “can’t win a Super Bowl” with [insert QB]. This line of commentary comes up a lot with Cousins (just Google it!), but it’s not true. One could win a Super Bowl with Cousins. Lesser QBs than him have pulled it off. Even short of winning the sport’s ultimate prize, there are plenty of QBs at any given time who do not have Cousins’ talent or long-range statistical production but who manage to scratch out more than you think they could with good coaching and year-over-year development. One of them, the Giants’ formerly disappointing but now promising Daniel Jones, took the other side of the decision against Cousins on Sunday. That Cousins played well and still got outdueled by Jones is a good illustrator of the Cousins experience.

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Cousins sticks out because he wastes resources. The Vikings have never had a complete juggernaut around him on all sides of the ball, but at various and sometimes overlapping points, they have had good defenses and some of the best skill-position talent in the league. His list of star receivers rivals anyone’s over the past five years: Stefon Diggs was around for two. Adam Thielen has been around the whole time. Justin Jefferson might be the best of the entire bunch and, through three years, is on an inside track to the Hall of Fame. Cousins has also had a high-end running back, Dalvin Cook.

With that cadre of stars, Cousins has finished 14th, 13th, 18th, 15th, and most recently 23rd in ESPN’s QBR, an efficiency metric that bakes in a QB’s passing and running contributions. Pro Football Focus’ game charters graded him 14th-best among QBs this year, though the game charters there have liked him a little more in recent seasons than previously. Cousins epitomizes mildly above-averageness, in part because he’s a nonfactor as a runner. But he can make the odd sparkling throw, and his traditional counting stats are great. Since he joined Minnesota, he is fifth in the NFL in raw passing yards and fourth in touchdowns. Viewed through the right lens, Cousins is the kind of QB who can hack it with the NFL’s elite. He cannot, but he exists in a world of QB scarcity. Football is a passing game, and 10-ish NFL teams each year have QBs who barely look like they should be on the field. Cousins is much better than them, and he offers glimpses of being among the best, so the Vikings have paid him and kept him around. Many teams would.

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That’s the story of how this exceptionally boring paragon of decency makes $155 million in five years in the Twin Cities. And good for him.

On some level, Cousins is a symptom of an environment where franchises will stake their futures on any quarterback who gives off even the faintest whiff of periodic greatness. He is not the only quarterback who has gotten a megadeal (or a series of big deals, in his case) without showing much indication he could consistently deliver on lofty promises. But he stands apart, again, in a couple ways. One is how long he’s been the exact same player: Since taking over as Washington’s starter in 2016, Cousins has thrown for between 7.1 and 8.3 yards per pass every season. In all five of his Viking seasons, his QBR has been between 50 and 60 out of 100. The top QBs are in the upper 60s, 70s, or occasionally 80s.

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Cousins is also special in that he was a driver of enhanced QB compensation, not just a beneficiary of the trend. Before 2018, the Vikings gave him a three-year, $84 million contract that stood out as the first multiyear fully guaranteed deal for any QB ever. The NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport called it “a record-setting, paradigm-shifting, tradition-exploding contract.” It was a masterful bit of agenting by Cousins’ representative Mike McCartney, who put his client into the ranks of the highest-paid (and certainly the most secure) NFL QBs despite said client, to reiterate the point, being Kirk Cousins. In Minnesota, Cousins has been roughly what he was in Washington, which is to say he’s been fine.

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The exhilarating news for Vikings fans is that they should get to ride this flat, mid-height rollercoaster for another year. Cousins got a contract extension before this past season that makes him impractical to cut next year, as doing so would mean sinking even more into the salary cap than the $30 million the Vikings will pay Cousins. Quarterback contracts have only gotten bigger since Cousins’ first pact with the Vikings, to the point that he’s now slated to have only the 10th-highest salary cap hit at his position next fall. Positional spending changes, but Cousins does not. The Vikings will keep paying him enough to be unable to consider other options, and he’ll keep being just fine enough to rule out either a deep playoff run or a crack at a top passer in the 2024 draft. He gets $30 million in 2023. Half is due in March.

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