As the sun shone bright over the Vikings' state-of-the-art practice facility July 28 — the day a roster with 11 former Pro Bowl players assembled for the first full-squad practice of training camp — Mike Zimmer took on 2018's dizzying expectations with something of a mission statement, offset by bits of self-deprecating humor. "I don't think it's [the players'] job to try and keep the expectations down. I think it's their job to come out here and perform well enough so we exceed expectations," he said. "It's probably my job to talk about how bad we are going to be as opposed to them. Having good players and having high expectations is a good thing. It's bad for coaches, but it's good for fans and everybody else."
There's no real point in downplaying it: This Vikings team is supposed to be really good. The shrinking violet routine probably won't work for a team that won 13 games and reached the NFC title game a year ago, before adding the biggest prize of free agency and a Pro Bowl defensive tackle in the same week in March.
There will likely be no Super Bowl-or-bust proclamations, no showy statements from a team that takes its cues from its indefatigable coach and its studious quarterback. But after years spent curating a top-ranked defense and upgrading skill position talent on offense, the Vikings gave Kirk Cousins a three-year, $84 million deal, making him the first quarterback in the free-agency era to land a fully guaranteed deal. The Vikings' actions suggest they know their time to win is now, and their response will be to prepare, not to preen or panic.
"I don't go out on third down and think about the pressure," Cousins said. "I'm thinking about coverage, blitzes, setting the protection the right way, making the reads and my footwork. It just doesn't end up affecting the actual operation of the job. Is there pressure to play in this league? Yes. There always has been. I felt a great deal of pressure as a rookie, just fighting to make the team. There's pressure for every guy that's out there. You've got to recognize the pressure for what it is, put it on the shelf and go to work."
And yet, while the Vikings appear to have a sensibility about them as they approach the opportunity in front of them, there's no guarantee things will work out. Recent history would suggest, in fact, that it's more likely they won't.
No NFC team has won the Super Bowl the year after it lost the conference championship game since the 1996 Green Bay Packers. The 2012 San Francisco 49ers were the last NFC team even to reach the Super Bowl after losing the conference title game. And though four teams — all in the AFC — have followed a conference championship game loss with a Super Bowl title since 2000, the same number of teams have lost 10 or more games the year after they were a conference runner-up, including the 2001 and 2010 Vikings.
This year's Vikings team faces a thorny schedule that includes two sets (each of them involving a Super Bowl participant) of back-to-back road games on opposite coasts. The rest of the NFC North has regrouped, with new head coaches in Chicago and Detroit and a new GM (to go with a healthy Aaron Rodgers) in Green Bay. And a team that had defensive starters miss a total of three games because of injury last year might not be as fortunate in 2018.
"It's a great opportunity," Cousins said. "But I look at it as, 'Any year could be the year.' I have to look back and say, 'What if everybody in Washington last year had stayed healthy? How good could we have been?' I don't know. I think about, 'What if we lose [Stefon] Diggs, [Adam] Thielen, Riley Reiff in the first game?' Are the expectations now exactly the same as they were with them? I don't know. I just think that it's a fluid situation. We're going to do the best we can, and give it everything we've got."
Cousins the hot commodity
If Cousins' contract makes him a source of national intrigue for the 2018 season, so does the uniqueness of his situation. Since 2000, only three teams — the 2001 Ravens, the 2008 Packers and 2016 Broncos — made offseason switches to new quarterbacks the year after reaching the conference title game.
Two of those three changes, in Green Bay and Denver, were triggered by Brett Favre's and Peyton Manning's departures, as the teams shifted to young QBs: Aaron Rodgers and Trevor Siemian, who now backs up Cousins in Minnesota.
The only two quarterbacks since 2000 to sign as free agents and become new starters for teams that made it to at least the conference title game the year before are Elvis Grbac with the Ravens and Cousins with the Vikings.
A handful of other playoff teams have switched quarterbacks the following year; Favre and Manning, of course, made the final stops of their careers by signing with defending division champions in Minnesota and Denver. On balance, though, Cousins' situation is rare in the recent NFL.
It means, fair or not, he will be perceived as the missing piece — just as Favre was when he came to the Vikings in 2009, a year in which the quarterback joined a team coming off an NFC North championship. Favre was in Minnesota in part to prove to the Packers he could still play, but he carried the hopes of Vikings players who believed he could take them to the promised land.
2009, Favre said, was different from any other year in his career.
"For many obvious reasons, it was pressure like I had never felt before," he said.
Asked what advice he would give the quarterback who will now step into the spotlight he once occupied, Favre said: "Do what got you there, because it was good enough, obviously. And most importantly, remember you can never do it alone."
The 30-year-old Cousins sounds like he understands.
"It's a team game, you know?" he said this summer at his football camp in his hometown of Holland, Mich. "Some of my best games in Washington, I walked off the field like, 'Man, I'm getting better — I am playing at a high level,' and we lost. And other games, we would win, and I'd go off the field and throw my helmet in my locker and be like, 'I didn't have it today.' And so to say that, 'Oh, he better get it done,' it's like — well, we've all got to step up.
"And frankly, if we win the Super Bowl, and I play like crap, everybody's patting me on the back, it's like, 'OK, but it wasn't because I showed up.' We're all working together, we all have individual roles and that's why it's so fun to follow, because there's so many angles and story lines and components that come together to create the final product."
Built to last
That's where the Vikings' 2018 roster should put them in better position for success than perhaps any team Cousins played on in Washington.
The Vikings upgraded at defensive tackle by signing Sheldon Richardson a day after Cousins. They are counting on the development of Laquon Treadwell and production from Kendall Wright to round out their group of receivers behind Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs. They added another athletic cornerback in first-round pick Mike Hughes, bolstered their secondary with a Zimmer disciple in George Iloka and locked up two more defensive stalwarts — Eric Kendricks and Danielle Hunter — to long-term deals before signing Diggs last month.
"The ultimate goal is to keep [the window for winning] open every year," General Manager Rick Spielman said. "And eventually, these guys are going to get old, and we've got to continue to draft. These coaches do an unbelievable job of developing this talent, and we've got some guys coming up through the ranks."
Nine of the Vikings' 11 defensive starters are signed through at least 2019, and there remains the possibility the team could still fit a long-term deal for Richardson or Anthony Barr into its framework. It's part of why no one with the Vikings will call 2018 an all-in year — because the group is set up to stay together for a while.
"You can't keep everybody," Spielman said. "As long as we keep our philosophy in place and continue to bring in the right type of players — and I'm the first one to admit I'm never going to be 100 percent, but we're sure as heck going to try as hard as we can to put this thing together the right way."
And while Redskins management seemed at odds with Cousins at various points during his contract saga there, the quarterback has said several times how refreshing he has found the Vikings' no-frills culture to be.
"When I talked to Eric Kendricks and congratulated him on signing his extension, he said: 'Kirk, really, I decided to sign and I wanted to be here because it's all about winning here. There's no other agendas. Let's just win football games,' " Cousins said this summer. "He looked at me and said: 'You'll see. You'll see when we get there in the season and you'll know.' "
Each NFL season brings its unforeseen challenges, though, and Cousins has talked recently about his practice of seeking counsel from QBs who have consistently been able to rise above them.
Cousins adopted a strict diet similar to Tom Brady's — apart from the occasional cheat day at Portillo's or the State Fair — after conversations with health professionals in west Michigan and a closer look at Brady's routine. And as Cousins talked last week about common traits of great quarterbacks, he fixated on their consistent ability to avoid sacks.
"You know that when you have a body of work — even a decade for some of these guys — and you can see they're taking only 25 sacks a year, I'm sure, in one of those years, there were injuries, there were issues, and yet, it didn't cause their sack total to jump," he said. "That says something about their ability to play with a quick mind, quick arm, get the ball out, make quick decisions, get to the right place."
It's a salient point, given what's going on in front of Cousins: He has yet to log a snap with center Pat Elflein, who missed the entire offseason and training camp while rehabbing shoulder and ankle injuries. The Vikings will have a new left guard in Tom Compton, and they will make Mike Remmers a full-time guard after shifting him there during the playoffs last year, with Rashod Hill becoming the right tackle.
After taking only 49 sacks in his first two seasons as a starter in Washington, Cousins went down 41 times last year while playing behind a line decimated by injuries. And yet, in Cousins' mind, it's imperative that quarterbacks avoid sacks even in times when their line lacks continuity.
"Many of those sacks are, the clock goes off for the quarterback," he said. "Even if the linemen are good at protecting, they can only protect for so long. So if it's long enough, it's not the O-line's fault. Two, many times, if you're bringing a free runner — a guy blitzes and there's nobody for him — either someone screwed up the protection mentally, not knowing where to go, or the quarterback screwed it up, not knowing he was [throwing] hot or didn't set the protection right.
"Are there times where the offensive lineman falls over and a guy's quickly sacked? Yeah, that's probably the fault of the line. But the number of times that that happens and a guy is just beat like a drum is not as much as you might think."
Will instability on the line be the issue the Vikings have to overcome? Will it be something else? Whether it's clear now or not, it will likely arise eventually.
And the tale of a team that begins with lofty expectations — as well as a quarterback who is being paid to be great — will likely be told there.