Kirk Cousins echoed the refrain “all in” after he signed the richest guaranteed contract in NFL history Thursday to become the Vikings’ franchise quarterback.
By signing a three-year, $84 million contract, Cousins became the league’s highest-paid quarterback for the meantime. Shortly after the ink dries, another quarterback likely will sign a more lucrative deal.
But a different staying power lured the Vikings and Cousins to each other — the potential to win.
“We’d be here a long time if I was able to read off the grocery list of reasons why this is the right fit,” Cousins said. “For the sake of time, I’ll just say winning is what I said it’d be all about and it’s true. I came here because of a chance to win. I felt it was probably the best chance.”
After a crushing loss in the NFC Championship Game in Philadelphia, the Vikings sent a resounding message they are aiming for the franchise’s first Super Bowl title. General Manager Rick Spielman added Cousins’ record-breaking contract to the resources he has devoted to a championship pursuit, including spending two first-round picks — through the draft and via trade — to land quarterbacks since hiring coach Mike Zimmer in 2014.
The bar couldn’t be set any higher for Cousins, who takes over last year’s 13-win team that fell just short of the franchise’s first Super Bowl berth since the 1976 season.
Spielman viewed Cousins, who turns 30 in August, as a “unique opportunity” to sign a franchise quarterback entering his prime. He was the Vikings’ target while three of the team’s former starting quarterbacks — Case Keenum, Sam Bradford and Teddy Bridgewater — left for new deals with the Broncos, Cardinals and Jets, respectively.
The Vikings went “all in” on Cousins, according to Spielman.
“Once you make that decision, then there’s no turning back,” Spielman said. “We’re going to go all in and we’re going to go as hard as we can with the blessing from the ownership.”
Cousins had at least one more lucrative offer on the table, according to his agent, Mike McCartney. There were discussions of a second visit elsewhere, McCartney said, but negotiations moved quickly once the two sides agreed on $84 million guaranteed over three seasons. The number allows Cousins to reset the quarterback market at $28 million per season and become the first high-profile free agent to sign a fully guaranteed deal.
It became real when Vikings owners Zygi and Mark Wilf gave their approval to pursue Cousins at that cost.
“If anyone in this city or state has any question about their commitment, I think this contract shows they’re all in,” Cousins said. “It’s a tremendous amount of belief in me as a person and player.”
The offseason’s pecking order for free-agent quarterbacks was clear: Cousins was on top. He strung together three consecutive seasons of passing for 4,000 or more yards with at least 25 touchdowns in each for the Washington Redskins. In 57 NFL seasons, the Vikings franchise has had three such performances: Warren Moon in 1995, Daunte Culpepper in 2004 and Brett Favre in 2009.
Cousins also has started 49 consecutive games, perhaps the most important statistic in these negotiations. The Vikings have started four quarterbacks since Cousins took the reins for a tumultuous Redskins organization in 2015.
His success facing Zimmer’s defense was another attraction for the Vikings. Cousins’ Redskins scored 26 and 30 points playing the Vikings during the past two seasons.
“He’s always been a very, very tough guy to play against,” Zimmer said. “Very accurate. Excellent in play-actions, terrific in the [bootlegs]. We’ve done our due diligence with really everything about him. One of the other things I like about him is he’s always a guy who had to be proving himself.”
Now Cousins faces the pressure of proving himself to be a Super Bowl-caliber quarterback.
The Vikings brain trust sold him on not only a strong roster in place, but a commitment Cousins did not get from the Redskins front office. Washington kept Cousins on one-year deals with two consecutive franchise tags before letting him walk this offseason. Dysfunction among Washington’s decisionmakers also was widely reported, manifesting in the failure of Robert Griffin III, drafted exactly 100 picks ahead of Cousins in 2012.
“Ownership, general manager, head coach and quarterback all have to be on the same page,” Cousins said. “I feel really good about that dynamic here.”
The talent already in the Vikings locker room should also help ease Cousins’ transition. During three seasons with the Redskins, he endured mediocre defenses and injuries all around him. The Vikings field last year’s No. 1 defense and some of the league’s best skill talent, from receiver Adam Thielen to running back Dalvin Cook.
“Now the work begins,” Cousins said.
He arrives in Minnesota with a history of NFL production, but not yet accomplishment. The former Michigan State star fumbled 34 times (12 lost) in three seasons. His one playoff start was a 35-18 loss to the Packers in the 2015 NFC wild-card round.
Cousins seeks his first NFL playoff victory with the Vikings, which would go a long way toward the organization’s vision for this move. Spielman told Cousins during Wednesday night’s visit, including dinner at the Capital Grille in downtown Minneapolis, that the Vikings envision multiple contracts with him.
“This is a lifetime deal,” Cousins said. “That’s the goal. Yes, it’s a three-year deal, but the expectation is from both sides we raise our kids here and if everything goes as planned, we’ll be here a long, long time.”