If it’s a sickness to watch an entertaining Super Bowl and come away with a main conclusion directly related to the Vikings — who haven’t played in a Super Bowl since I was 2 months old — then so be it.
Your scorn is noted. But I’m still fascinated by the links and the questions because the very future of those Vikings is a dilemma represented so well by San Francisco and Kansas City.
So I need to write about it.
First off, the two teams playing Sunday have a strong connection to Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins.
Kansas City had a perfectly good quarterback (Alex Smith) who led them to a 50-26 record as a starting quarterback in parts of seven seasons before the Chiefs A) drafted young dynamic replacement Patrick Mahomes in 2017 and B) traded Smith to Washington early in the 2018 offseason, cementing that Kirk Cousins would leave Washington as a free agent.
Cousins, of course, wound up with the Vikings. But it could have been a much different story had New England not decided to trade Jimmy Garoppolo in the middle of the 2017 season to San Francisco. The 49ers and head coach Kyle Shanahan – Cousins’ offensive coordinator when he arrived in Washington – was fully prepared to make a run at Cousins in free agency before that happened. It’s not hard at all to imagine Cousins would have wound up there, if not for the Garoppolo trade.
That’s interesting enough (at least to me), but here’s where things turn fascinating (at least to me): The Vikings now find themselves at something of a crossroads with Cousins, much like Kansas City was with Smith. But they’re built differently than those Chiefs teams were – more so, in fact, like the 49ers.
The two paths the Vikings could take at quarterback in their ultimate quest to win a Super Bowl were distinctly defined and on display Sunday with each team:
*With Cousins signed for just one more season, the Vikings could try to identify their version of Mahomes in the 2020 draft in a swing-for-the-fences attempt to get younger, cheaper and more dynamic at the position — and then hand over the keys no later than 2021, as the Chiefs did with Mahomes by picking him in 2017 and having him take over in 2018. In his second year as a starter, he’s a Super Bowl champ.
*Or the Vikings could look at the way they are built, look at what Cousins produced in 2019 — a 10-5 record a starter and a playoff victory — and decide to build around Cousins with a long-term extension. They could rationally look at what San Francisco did with a similar quarterback and similar approach as the Vikings took in 2019 – play great defense and keep defenses guessing with a great running game and play action – and conclude that significant upgrades on the offensive line and in the secondary could produce a champion in tandem with steady play from Cousins.
So I was hoping for some clarity in the Super Bowl. Even if it was just one game, when matched against each other would one approach prove far superior to the other?
Nope. Sure, Kansas City won 31-20 thanks to some serious Mahomes magic. But San Francisco had a double-digit fourth quarter lead. The game was right there for the taking. If the 49ers make one more play on defense when the score is 20-10, they’re the champs.
So what do you do if you’re the Vikings?
Well, it’s obvious what approach is the safest. As already described, the Vikings and 49ers are actually quite similar in their balance and approach – the 49ers are just better at the things both do well, which played out in advanced metrics (49ers were No. 7 in offensive DVOA and No. 2 in defensive DVOA, while the Vikings were No. 10 and No. 7, respectively) and on the field, when San Francisco waxed the Vikings 27-10 in the playoffs. The Vikings could easily talk themselves into believing they could take the next step with some upgrades and stability, based on what San Francisco did. And they wouldn’t necessarily be wrong.
But while searching for a star quarterback in the draft is a huge risk (more on that in a minute), trying to win a Super Bowl without a star quarterback is also a risk. The last 17 Super Bowl winners are littered with elite quarterbacks like like Tom Brady (five times), Peyton Manning (the first time), Ben Roethlisberger, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson and now Mahomes.
Sometimes a less-heralded QB catches a hot streak (Eli Manning twice, Joe Flacco, Nick Foles) and occasionally a defense does it almost on its own (Peyton Manning the second time). But if you want to win a Super Bowl, and contend for one almost every year, you want a top-five (top-three?) quarterback. That’s not Cousins nor Garoppolo, nor is it likely ever to be.
But a team, of course, can’t just snap its fingers and draft the correct franchise quarterback. It requires skill and luck, neither of which have been in long supply for the Vikings when taking their shots at drafting quarterbacks under Rick Spielman. It also presumably requires a lot of draft capital that could be spent improving the Viking in other areas.
If they decided to draft a quarterback, they would do quite well to pick someone who is even as good as Cousins, let alone Mahomes.
When you have an above-average quarterback who just won a playoff game, is that really worth the gamble – even if he is expensive and a rookie would afford far more salary cap flexibility in the future?
Is good really the enemy of great? That’s probably getting right at the heart of the question.
Alas, the Super Bowl was fun, but it was of no help. Guess we’ll just have to wait and see.