The quarterback carousel in Minnesota officially came to an unceremonious end last Thursday when the Vikings signed former Washington Redskins all pro starter Kirk Cousins to a lucrative three-year, $84 million contract, providing the long-term stability the team has been lacking at the position for years now. The 29-year-old veteran will be joining an NFC North division that’s no stranger to elite quarterback talent, from Aaron Rodgers to Matthew Stafford to … well, give the Bears some more time to work out their situation.
A pressing question on most fans’ minds, however, is whether Cousins is enough of an upgrade from former breakout starter Case Keenum, now signed with Denver, to justify his inflated price tag. After leading the Vikings to a prestigious second seed in the postseason, their first playoff victory since 2010 and an NFC Championship game appearance all after the first two quarterbacks on the depth chart went down for the season with injuries (Teddy Bridgewater and Sam Bradford), many Minnesota faithfuls were pining to see Keenum back in the driver’s seat for a discounted price for seasons to come. It truly felt as if he discovered a home in U.S. Bank Stadium, and the money saved by keeping Keenum would have freed the Vikings up to fortify other areas of need, such as offensive line and cornerback.
Instead, they opted for a bigger, singular splash with Cousins rather than going for depth. What’s more, the multi-year commitment to the pro bowler could potentially hamstring the team’s spending for the next few seasons.
If one is comparing last season as the ultimate truth, then the move simply doesn’t make sense. Keenum, finally coming into his own after multiple disappointing seasons with the Rams and Texans, had the second highest QBR of any starter by the year’s end, touting an impressive 71.3. That’s most notably higher than perennial MVP candidates such as Tom Brady (70.2) and the 2016-17 MVP Matt Ryan (64.9 this year), and it all but eclipses Cousins’ pedestrian 50.5 total. Furthermore, though Cousins threw over 500 more yards than Keenum, the latter only committed seven interceptions compared to the former’s 13, the third lowest total in the league among all quarterbacks who started at least 14 games.
Though the lucrative contract nets the Vikings a more explosive presence under center, they sacrifice some consistency that Keenum produced last season – he wouldn’t win games with the deep ball, but he rarely made mistakes to put Minnesota at a significant disadvantage. For a team heavily reliant on a hard-nosed style of defense and rushing, safe quarterback play with minimal error was justifiable considering the relatively cheap price. Keenum put the Vikings in a position to win with their excellent defense, whereas Cousins’ inclusion is slightly more at odds with the team’s strengths.
What’s more, Minnesota is now at a stage where it’s ready to make deep playoff runs compete with the NFL’s best as the NFC North favorite for potentially years to come. Therefore, having a quarterback who has proven capable of winning on a bigger stage is essential moving forward. Keenum has won a postseason game as a starter. Cousins has not.
So then, what’s the logic in changing what wasn’t broken? Perhaps the knowledge that what previously worked may have been a fluke. Last season was the first one in Keenum’s journeyman career in which he played over 10 games and the only time his touchdown total surpassed double digits. Those two statistics may share a correlation – the more games you play, the more touchdowns you produce – but if that’s the case, then his 11 interceptions during his next most prominent season (2016, in 10 games with the Rams) is an even greater red flag. He made more mistakes in fewer games during the only other season he was given a significant starting role, a vastly unproven commodity for which a long-term contract commitment is a relatively large gamble.
Compared to his unproven contemporary, Cousins shines in long-term consistency, having thrown for 4,000 yards in each of his previous three seasons as the Washington starter, including an impressive 4,917 total in 2015. Considering the Redskins have been underwhelming for two years now, those numbers are no small feat. Having surrendered 27 sacks last season, Minnesota is no bastion for quarterback protection, but it’s certainly better than the 41 sacks Cousins was subjected to with the Redskins. More protection equals better results.
Replacing Keenum with Cousins may seem like an odd choice when examining the price disparity, but considering the proven value of both players, the move could be the final step in finally advancing the Vikings to the Super Bowl.