Kirk Cousins has signed two massive contracts with the Vikings. He is making about $30 million this year. They can’t afford to cut him until after the 2021 season. And right now he might be the worst established starting quarterback in the NFL.
Late last week, NFL.com produced its comprehensive quarterback rankings. Cousins landed at No. 26, ahead of Jimmy Garoppolo, who went to the Super Bowl last year; Nick Foles, who has won a Super Bowl and is revitalizing the Bears; Drew Lock, who won at New England on Sunday; and Daniel Jones, a second-year player who won with the Giants on Sunday.
An updated ranking would probably place Cousins at No. 31, ahead of only the Jets’ Joe Flacco, who won a Super Bowl in a previous life and is playing because of an injury to starter Sam Darnold.
The Vikings invested heavily in Cousins to fix what ails them, and it turns out he is what ails them. It’s like having bad lungs and buying cigarettes.
Sunday, a Vikings team that had lost too many close games became markedly worse. The Vikings produced the kind of embarrassing no-show performance that gets coaches fired and quarterbacks benched.
They lost 40-23 to the previously winless Falcons as their expensive quarterback threw three interceptions in the first half against a team that had managed two interceptions in its previous five games.
There is no excuse for Cousins’ performance. There is also no alternative to him for the Vikings, not in the world of salary caps.
When the Vikings paid Cousins, they left themselves with no other options. They never want to see backup Sean Mannion in a game.
The most interesting thing that happened at U.S. Bank Stadium on Sunday was not a play or even a mistake but the tone of voice used by coach Mike Zimmer and Cousins afterward.
Zimmer called Cousins’ first interception, an unforced error that occurred on the Vikings’ first play, “strange.” He said it quietly, as if he had seen an alien outside of his house and didn’t know what to make of it.
Cousins said, without defiance: “You have to play well in this business. The reality is, if the pace I’m on in terms of interceptions, if that were to continue, I won’t finish the season. Know what I mean? So there’s a little bit of — you’ve got to improve. Whether it’s them telling me, ‘Hey, you’ve got to improve,’ or them pulling me …’’
We live in an era of unprecedented passing efficiency. This season, Cousins has thrown 11 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. He leads the league in interceptions thrown. The team he leads is 1-5.
Signing Cousins as a free agent made sense. The Vikings, internally, did not trust Case Keenum, and they felt like a solid quarterback could put them over the top.
The second contract? That’s the killer. Cousins would cost $41 million against the salary cap in 2021 if they cut him after this season. Cutting him doesn’t become affordable until 2022, when he would cause a $10 million dead-cap hit.
They’re stuck with him for at least another year, in part because of his contract, and in part because the Vikings have failed to develop their own quarterbacks since Teddy Bridgewater’s knee injury in 2016.
Zimmer bears responsibility for trusting Cousins, and for coaching a team that looked lost and apathetic on Sunday.
This felt like something more than a normal loss, something like the 31-3 loss to Green Bay at the Metrodome in 2010 that led to Brad Childress being fired.
Guess what? Zimmer, like Cousins, might be out of a job if not for his contract. In July, he signed an extension through 2023. Can ownership fire someone three months after giving him a long-term deal?
In two weeks, Cousins will start and Zimmer will coach at Green Bay. Both are likely, thanks to their contracts, to hold their positions for the foreseeable future. After Sunday, that future looks bleak.