Sam Bradford? Riding the bench in Arizona. Teddy Bridgewater? Cheering for Drew Brees in New Orleans. Case Keenum? Starting for a 3-4 team while throwing nine interceptions in seven games.
To many around the NFL, and to Minnesotans who fell for Keenum, the Vikings’ signing of Kirk Cousins to a massive three-year contract felt like a gamble. For anyone who was in MetLife Stadium five years ago, the prospect of signing an accomplished veteran quarterback felt like a prescription for persistent pain.
On Oct. 21, 2013, the Vikings reached their franchise nadir in quarterback play. (Spergon Wynn’s disaster doesn’t qualify. He wasn’t an NFL starter; he was just gifted a couple of starts at the end of a lost season.)
On Oct. 21, 2013, the Vikings chose to start the recently acquired Josh Freeman, who had been cut by the Bucs, over Christian Ponder and Matt Cassel in a Monday night game against the Giants at MetLife Stadium. They hoped that Freeman would become their franchise quarterback.
Freeman completed 20 of 53 passes for 190 yards and one interception in the Vikings’ 23-7 loss to a previously winless Giants team. Freeman produced one of the worst performances in Vikings history, but only because the franchise had lost faith in Ponder and Cassel.
Cousins has proven himself the right choice for the job while the Vikings’ other alternatives have either played poorly or not at all. Even if Cousins were merely competent, he’d be a calming presence at a position that just five years ago belonged in a New Jersey joke. It was a toxic landfill alongside a treeless turnpike.
Rick Spielman had selected Ponder with the 12th pick in the 2011 draft. In 2012, Adrian Peterson’s 2,097 rushing yards, a solid defense and Ponder’s only serviceable season brought the Vikings to the playoffs. With a young quarterback and a young roster, Spielman seemed to have set his franchise up for success.
Except the quarterback wasn’t any good, nor were his successors. Ponder earned a benching early the next season, leading to the Vikings signing Freeman after Tampa Bay gave up on him.
During a conference call with Freeman from the Vikings’ offices, Spielman could be heard coaching Freeman to speak in cliches — one of those moments in which the curtain is pulled back to reveal exactly what you thought you’d see.
Spielman signed Freeman to a one-year deal worth $3 million, using money he could have spent to bring Antoine Winfield back for one last run.
Given the botched quarterback decisions and general state of the franchise five years ago, it’s amazing the Wilfs stuck with Spielman.
At least Spielman learned from his many quarterback mistakes. He drafted Bridgewater in 2014, signed Keenum as a backup last season and splurged on Cousins last winter, and all three have delivered. If not for the timing — the Vikings playing in the same stadium exactly five years later — Freeman’s embarrassing game might have been forgotten.
But like memories of the clothes you wore in high school, that performance is burned into too many corneas.
Freeman wasn’t just inaccurate — he looked like he had never played the position before. He may have thrown more passes out of bounds than in. His intended receivers appeared to be ushers.
The Vikings deserve blame for so desperately throwing him into a game for which he was obviously not prepared. Freeman deserves even more for not performing like a professional.
The signing of Cousins means the Vikings can dwell on more positive aspects of this trip to the Meadowlands. The Jets will start rookie quarterback Sam Darnold because the Vikings beat the Jets in the Cousins sweepstakes, ending decades of desperation at the position.
Joe Webb. Tarvaris Jackson. Donovan McNabb. Ponder. Cassel. Freeman. Shaun Hill.
All of those quarterbacks started games for the Vikings this decade, yet Freeman’s Monday night performance was the most disappointing produced by that sad-sack bunch.
Today, Vikings fans can celebrate the Cousins signing or lament the Freeman chapter, knowing that the latter eventually led to the former.
Jim Souhan’s podcast can be heard at TalkNorth.com. On Twitter: @SouhanStrib