Written By Sam Ekstrom (ZoneCoverage.com)
Photo Credit: Kyle Hansen
The Minnesota Vikings QB Conundrum of 2018 was a drama that could easily be likened to the hit series “Game of Thrones.”
There they were, three quarterbacks, all free agents, all with reasonable claim to wear the crown as the team’s choice at quarterback, all with red flags that prevented the Vikings from choosing them.
Teddy Bridgewater left a strong final impression in the 2016 preseason before severely injuring his knee. Could he ever be the same?
Sam Bradford left a strong final impression in the 2017 season opener before succumbing to apparent chronic knee damage. Could his health be trusted?
And then there’s Case Keenum, who had four working limbs along with a “horseshoe,” according to head coach Mike Zimmer. Aside from an NFC Championship Game dud — which shouldn’t be overlooked — Keenum arguably left the strongest final impression as he came out of nowhere to lead the Vikings to a 13-3 season and miraculous playoff victory.
“That was a unique year, and I give him a ton of credit,” said current offensive coordinator and Keenum’s former quarterbacks coach Kevin Stefanski. “He was competing for a spot on the roster all throughout training camp, and then he won that spot. He earned that spot, and then circumstances happened and Sam got injured, and he was thrust into that, so you can never predict it. But I think what you saw with him, he’s got a great mettle to him, son of a coach, grinder, a gym rat that everybody’s talked about.”
In the end, the Vikings paid a premium for stability by courting outsider Kirk Cousins. His $28 million per year salary encompassed a strong belief that Cousins could play all 16 games and produce at a more sustainable level than Keenum. Bridgewater and Bradford carried too much liability, and Keenum’s stock was simply too high (and unpredictable) to buy more shares.
But what if the Vikings had mimicked the Philadelphia Eagles’ path the offseason prior?
The quarterback that finally upended Keenum’s magic carpet ride, Nick Foles, had been in a similar position to Keenum in the 2017 offseason. He’d been traded by Chip Kelly’s Eagles team — for Sam Bradford, ironically — spent a disappointing season with the St. Louis Rams, then a quiet year as the Kansas City Chiefs backup. He was looking to rebuild his résumé.
The Eagles, knowing they had No. 2 overall pick Carson Wentz as their franchise quarterback, gave Foles a two-year, $11 million deal — a significant commitment to a backup, but remember, Foles had gone 14-4 with the Eagles from 2013-14, throwing 40 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. The organization knew what he could do, and he justified their faith in him by stepping up when Wentz got hurt two consecutive years. To Vikings fans’ chagrin, he won the Super Bowl MVP in Year 1 after drubbing Minnesota in the conference championship, then led the Eagles to a playoff upset over Chicago (and nearly against New Orleans) in his second year at the helm.
Philadelphia’s commitment to Foles worked out wonderfully. What if the Vikings had done the same with Keenum?
That’s not to say they should have signed Keenum to a two-year contract. At the time, the Vikings had Bradford as a starter and suspected Bridgewater could make a return to the active roster midseason. Plus, promising third-stringer Taylor Heinicke was still in the organization. A two-year deal wouldn’t have made much sense considering Keenum’s underwhelming past.
Just for the sake of the exercise, though, let’s entertain the thought. What if Keenum had been under contract for $2 million with the Vikings in 2018?
From a quarterback standpoint, it’s possible the Vikings may still have pursued Cousins. After all, Zimmer was fairly transparent with his skepticism about Keenum in 2017. For weeks, the head coach refused to give him a full endorsement as the team’s starter and typically fell back on vague intangibles that seemed to double as veiled criticisms (i.e., “He’s got a horseshoe” or “He’s got big balls”). Even when asked Tuesday about how Keenum managed to put together such a remarkable season in Minnesota, Zimmer said, “He got along with the guys in the locker room and we played to his strengths.” Hardly a rousing bit of nostalgia.
But would Cousins have wanted to co-exist with a division-winning quarterback when he had other suitors like the New York Jets willing to give him the keys to the franchise?
It’s almost a certainty that the Vikings would have kept a quarterback in 2018 to compete with Keenum, but having Keenum in their back pocket might’ve reduced their desire to give Cousins a then-league-record contract. Instead, retaining Bridgewater might’ve seemed more realistic.
Having gone two years without playing meaningful snaps in a regular season game, Bridgewater’s price wasn’t high. He signed a one-year, $6 million contract with the Jets before getting traded to the Saints, where he recently completed a 5-0 stretch as their starter while spelling the injured Drew Brees. Zimmer and Spielman, of course, didn’t have the foresight to know Bridgewater would one day start games for a Super Bowl contender, but Zimmer’s love of Bridgewater still oozes through when he gets an opportunity to discuss his former first-round pick.
Bridgewater might’ve pushed for a multi-year commitment to stay in Minnesota, even if 2018 became a preseason competition with Keenum, but the Vikings would have had ample resources to afford a two- or three-year pact without the weight of Cousins’ deal hanging over their salary cap. By keeping Bridgewater around, the Vikings had a logical Plan B if the clock struck midnight on Keenum’s Cinderella run.
If Bridgewater balked at staying with the Vikings, there was always the draft. Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson would have been available with the Vikings’ 30th pick — though that seems like an unrealistic decision for a team supposedly in Win Now Mode. As an alternative, veteran backups on the market included Chase Daniel, A.J. McCarron and Josh McCown … however, what was the likelihood of catching lightning in a bottle twice in a row with your No. 2 quarterback if Keenum went down?
But Bridgewater or no Bridgewater, draft or no draft, journeyman backup or no journeyman backup, the Vikings would have been able to supplement their offense with the money they weren’t giving Cousins. Jarius Wright could have been retained as the third wide receiver Minnesota sorely missed late in the season. Josh Kline, a free agent at the time, could have been signed two years earlier instead of trying to switch Mike Remmers to guard. Kyle Rudolph could’ve been paired with an athletic tight end like Trey Burton or Eric Ebron.
Naturally, it’s easy to look back at an 8-7-1 non-playoff season and envision ways it could’ve gone better with a different quarterback. But projecting Keenum or Bridgewater as a 2018 starter is a dangerous game, considering Keenum ended up going 6-10 with 18 touchdowns, 15 interceptions and 11 fumbles in Denver while Bridgewater was still getting reacclimated to full-speed football.
In reality, the Vikings made the safest and most expensive choice to sign Cousins and go all-in for a Super Bowl ring. Based on Cousins’ terrific last three games, the narrative around him could be changing.
The fact that the Vikings had so many avenues to choose from, though, opens the door for tantalizing revisionist history. And who doesn’t love a good what-if game?