The calendar changed to November, we set the clocks back and now the sky — like the leaves — is falling.
The Vikings in September were in panic mode. In October they were the best team ever — Super Bowl, homeboy. And now here we are again, with nothing in between, back to questioning everything after a frustrating (though not fatal) 26-23 loss at Kansas City.
This emotional roller coaster is part of the NFL’s secret formula, of course. When you play one-tenth as many games as MLB teams and one-eighth as many as NBA and NHL teams, individual outcomes are magnified and carry longer-lasting results. (Imagine, for instance, a single play determining 10 games in the baseball standings).
But these Vikings aren’t merely a symptom of the NFL’s cause. They are constructed in a way that creates particular urgency — and the urge to emotionally oscillate wildly from result to result.
It starts, as these things often do, with the quarterback.
When we look back later on the three-year, $84 million contract Kirk Cousins signed as a free agent before the 2018 season, we might come to this conclusion: The most important number wasn’t the 84, but the three.
The $84 million guaranteed stole the early headlines and remains the fixation of money-conscious Minnesota fans, but the length put Cousins on a timer almost from the get-go.
As our Ben Goessling wrote a week ago, as Cousins sat exactly at the midpoint of the deal heading into the Kansas City game, quarterbacks often enter contact extension talks with a year left in their deals — which for Cousins is already coming after this season. “That decision, for the Vikings, is closer than you’d think,” Goessling wrote, and he’s absolutely right.
Every game is more information on a quickly approaching major exam questions: Can Cousins get the Vikings to the next level, and is he a long-term solution?
The answer is especially tricky because Cousins’ play so often drives the “best ever” or “the sky is falling” narrative.
Here’s an interesting fact: Cousins in his career has the widest gap between passer rating in wins and losses of any comparable QB I could find, at least on a cursory glance.
His career passer rating is 114.7 in wins and 81.6 in losses — a gap of 33.1 passer rating points — with a career record now standing at exactly .500 (40-40-2 as a starter).
It stands to reason that QBs would have a better rating in team wins than losses, but the gap for Ben Roethlisberger (23.1), Matthew Stafford (24.1), Philip Rivers (25.7) Aaron Rodgers (26.0) and especially another career .500 QB Eli Manning (18.1) is a lot smaller.
The Cousins gap this year is even wider: 54.5 points better in wins than in losses.
But he’s not the only one driving the narrative. Reaching the NFC title game after the 2017 season put the Vikings in “win now” mode, and their personnel decisions since then have accentuated that mindset.
When a team signals that it has Super Bowl aspirations — particularly one that, um, hasn’t exactly had a great big-game playoff history — the byproduct is heightened game-by-game expectations for its fan base.
Those personnel and business decisions have put the Vikings in a spot where they can win relying on offense (as they did in a 42-30 win over Detroit) or defense (as they did in a 19-9 win over Washington), a rarity with a franchise that has tended to have its strength tilted on one side of the ball or the other.
But it also means that when both falter a lot — or just enough, as was the case Sunday — the shortcomings come into sharper focus. Will the defense, which isn’t get any younger, remain great or is it in danger of slipping into “good” or even “average” territory soon? Can the offense produce when it matters?
There is no in between. There are only twists, turns and another game next week.