Was Kirk Cousins the Right Choice?
After a disappointing end to the team’s best season since 2009, the Vikings had a big question to answer: who was going to be their next starting quarterback? The starter for the 2017 season, Sam Bradford, had injured his knee in the season opener against the New Orleans Saints and had shown little improvement despite being removed from IR in January of 2018. Bradford had the highest pass completion percentage in the league in 2016 but still finished with a 7-8 record that season. After another knee injury, the Vikings weren’t interested in keeping the then 30-year-old as their starter. That left two options, either re-signing backup-turned-starter Case Keenum to a new contract or finding another free agent quarterback.
No one in Minnesota ever dreamed that Keenum would become the starter that year and if he did that he would lead the team back to the NFC Conference Championship game for the first time since 2009. But he did, picking up an 11-3 record along the way with 22 touchdowns and finishing runner-up for the highest pass completion percentage in the league at 67.6%. Keenum was on fire, and with a miracle playoff win over the New Orleans Saints in the Divisional round, it looked like he’d lead the team back to the Super Bowl for the first time since 1976. Unfortunately, the Vikings remembered they were the Vikings and suffered a blowout loss to Philadelphia, killing their chance to be the first team to win a Super Bowl at home.
Keenum’s stellar performance certainly made him a top contender for the starting role in Minneapolis, but his career before this year was much more average. With the possibility that 2017 was a wonderful fluke, they considered an outside option: Kirk Cousins.
Cousins had been the starting quarterback for the Washington Redskins for the previous three years, and after being franchise tagged in 2016 and signing a one year contract in 2017, he was a free agent in the spring of 2018. Cousins was the most sought after quarterback in the league after Alex Smith. Smith had been with the Kansas City Chiefs since 2013, and in his last three years he had a 31-15 starting record, leading the team to the playoffs all three years including back-to-back division titles in 2016-17. Despite his prowess, the Chiefs wanted to shift the starting role to then-rookie Pat Mahomes, so Smith was traded for CB Kendall Fuller and a 2018 third-round draft pick and ended up signing a 4-year, $94 million deal with Cousins’ old team, the Redskins.
In that same period, 2015-17, Cousins went 24-23-1 as a starter and the Redskins only made the playoffs in 2015 when they won the NFC East division title. However, he had the highest average passer rating from 2015-17 when looking at players who had started at least half of those games and weren’t already under contract. He barely edged out Smith in passer rating but had more passing yards, a higher pass completion percentage, 20 more touchdowns, a higher TD%, almost 20 fewer sacks, and four more game-winning drives. Cousins was better on paper, but Smith’s recent accolades made him more attractive to Washington.
Ultimately the Vikings decided that money was no object, and signed Cousins to a 3-year, $84 million contract, fully guaranteed. At the time of signing, he was the highest paid player in the league. At the same time, Keenum would sign the dotted line with the Denver Broncos on a 2-year, $36 million deal. Last but not least, Minnesota would also sign a new backup quarterback, acquiring Denver’s old starter Trevor Siemian in a trade.
So…what happened? Who got the better deal? Here are the 2018 passing statistics for Cousins, Keenum, and Smith, and Siemian’s 2017 statistics (Siemian played zero regular season snaps for the Vikings in 2018).
Siemian’s numbers are far from great, but there’s nothing to indicate that he couldn’t finish a game if need be.
Smith’s season was tragically cut short due to an ankle injury in Week 11, but if he had started the entire season it’s possible that the purple and gold would have been competing against the Redskins rather than the Eagles for the final Wild Card spot in the playoffs. Despite that, the numbers don’t like. Kirk was better. He had a significantly higher TD% and yards/attempt and the 10th highest passer rating in the league. He was also one of only two quarterbacks to have a pass completion percentage over 70%, the other being Drew Brees.
While Keenum’s performance is partially due to other issues the Broncos faced in 2018 (which you can read about here on my personal blog!), he still produced fewer touchdowns and got picked significantly more than either Cousins or Smith. There’s more to the story than just 10 L’s, but everything else still indicates that Keenum isn’t at the same caliber as Cousins.
Ultimately, Minnesota came out on top by choosing Cousins. The team had a late comeback in the season but failed to make the playoffs, but with the promotion of Kevin Stefanski to offensive coordinator, replacing Mike Priefer as special teams coordinator, and hiring Super Bowl 50 winning Gary Kubiak as assistant head coach, the team should be a dominant force in the NFC next season with Captain Kirk at the helm.
As always, special thanks to ESPN and Pro-Football-Reference for all statistics. Please subscribe to our Patreon to get exclusive content and perks, and follow me on Twitter @somekidadam to stay up to date on all things Vikings! SKOL