QB-Needy Teams, Listen Up: Beware the Next Kirk Cousins

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterDecember 13, 2018

Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins is sacked by Green Bay Packers nose tackle Kenny Clark, left, during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 25, 2018, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Bruce Kluckhohn)
Bruce Kluckhohn/Associated Press

The Vikings, Broncos and Redskins held a three-way swap meet with their quarterbacks this offseason.

Not happy with your mid-tier starter, they asked each other? Take ours! Don't want your journeyman? Send him our way!

The Vikings signed Kirk Cousins as a premium-priced upgrade over Case Keenum after the Redskins traded for Alex Smith to replace the social-climbing, commitment-phobic Cousins. Then the Broncos scooped up Keenum because they were tired of fooling around with fresh-outta-college types and wanted someone more responsible and mature.

As often happens with swap meets, everyone ended up with regrets.

Smith fractured his leg, sending Washington into a tailspin. Keenum has been little more than a pricey placeholder in Denver. And Cousins, the free-agent flop of the year, has the Vikings firing coordinators in a flailing attempt to stay in the playoff chase.

The Broncos and Washington are 6-7, the Vikings 6-6-1. None are mathematically eliminated from the playoffs just yet. But only the Vikings have a legitimate shot, and their inability to beat quality opponents makes them certain one-and-done Wild Card fodder.

Everyone should have seen this coming, especially the three participants bartering.

Cousins is notorious for coming up short in big games; it's natural that he is struggling through a whole season of them. Keenum was a career third stringer coming off a hot streak; of course, he would decline. Counting on Smith, a 34-year-old scrambler, to master a new system and stay healthy, with no Plan B if something went wrong, was somewhere between over-optimistic and silly.

Decent quarterbacks don't become great ones just because you pay them more money. Good quarterbacks are rarely on the open market unless there's something wrong with them.

Case Keenum has been sacked 30 times and thrown for 15 touchdowns this season.
Case Keenum has been sacked 30 times and thrown for 15 touchdowns this season.Michael Zagaris/Getty Images

The Vikings, Broncos and Redskins all whiffed during the tragic 2018 quarterback swap meet because they made all-too-common mistakes. Teams looking for quarterback solutions in 2019 and beyond would be wise to study what went wrong and learn from those mistakes.


Marginal improvements at premium prices

The Vikings didn't pay Cousins $84 million over three years to make the team significantly better, only slightly better, so they could advance from the NFC championship game to the Super Bowl.

The Broncos, similarly, were only seeking a professional game-manager type that would allow them to win with defense when they signed Keenum to $36 million over two years. It's not clear what Washington expected when trading Smith except someone who didn't cause as many accounting-department headaches as Cousins.

All of these deals baked the ordinariness right into the decision making. Paying top dollar for an incremental gain is equivalent to using a high first-round pick on a second-round talent just to fill a need. Successful teams don't squander massive resources on acquiring low-ceiling players who left their last employers wanting more, especially at quarterback.

But that won't prevent offseason Derek Carr trade rumors or speculation about whether Eli Manning or Joe Flacco could thrive in a new location, especially with teams like the Jaguars and Broncos (again) on the market and thinking that above-average quarterbacking will somehow make them great.


The "All we need is the QB" fallacy

If an organization convinces itself that it's just a quarterback away from winning a Super Bowl, there's a good chance that (a) they are wrong and (b) they will take a big swing and a miss on the quarterback.  

Alex Smith had Washington in the playoff hunt at 6-4 when a leg injury ended his season in November.
Alex Smith had Washington in the playoff hunt at 6-4 when a leg injury ended his season in November.Mark Tenally/Associated Press

The Vikings can be forgiven for falling into this trap, since they really were one game from the Super Bowl when they chose Cousins and the deluxe detailing/undercoating package over Keenum. They just overlooked the fact that their offensive line wasn't very good and their defense bore much of the blame for the championship-game collapse, and then tied their entire improvement plan to a quarterback whose career record against winning teams entering this year was 4-19.

The Broncos fooled themselves into thinking they still had their 2015 defense when they opted for Keenum. Washington wasn't so much trying to reach the Super Bowl by trading for Smith as kicking a hole in the wall after painting itself into a corner.

A team that thinks it can plug in any competent quarterback and compete for a Super Bowl is probably deluding itself, ignoring other roster problems or erroneously assuming it can replicate some recent peak season when everything broke right for them.

Yes, we're looking at you again, Jaguars: The quick-fix quarterback who restores the magic of 2017 won't be on the market next year, or any year.


The comfort bias

The Vikings had the offseason option of keeping Teddy Bridgewater, perhaps adding a low-cost veteran or early-round rookie as injury insurance. But that plan would be risky, and there's nothing NFL general managers and coaches like more than playing it safe.

The Broncos were in position to draft a rookie quarterback this season, but coming off Paxton Lynch's permanent gestation cycle and Chad Kelly's endless adolescence, they craved stability and professionalism. The Redskins, with a front office that dithered over Cousins for years and a coaching staff that couldn't afford a collapse after four years of going nowhere, favored finding a company man instead taking any chances that might backfire and embarrass them. (Oops.)

Mediocrity-by-design is the NFL's gravity. Coaches prefer decisions that all but guarantee a record between 7-9 and 9-7 (everyone keeps their jobs) over gambles that risk a 3-13 disaster but hold 13-3 potential. Risk aversion is the force that keeps unimpressive coaches and their buddy assistants employed, ensures that outdated and inefficient schemes remain in use, and makes "proven" quarterbacks with firm handshakes and tucked-in shirts who are just good enough to lose playoff games filthy rich.

This year's best teams are helmed by living legends or recent top draft picks, as are the top contenders most years. If you don't have one, you had better get the other. The in-between route is almost always a dead end.


The failure to plan

The biggest winner in the quarterback swap meet is the team that didn't really participate: the Chiefs. They drafted Patrick Mahomes a year before they needed him, groomed him under Smith, set the whole cycle in motion and now get to spend their mid-weeks talking about no-look passes instead of firing coordinators.

Eli Manning may not be in the future plans for the Giants, but it's likely some NFL team will think he is the key to its future.
Eli Manning may not be in the future plans for the Giants, but it's likely some NFL team will think he is the key to its future.Sarah Stier/Getty Images

The biggest loser was Washington. They played franchise tag with Cousins for years but never thought to draft a potential replacement. Now they're at ground zero at quarterback, with a potential franchise-wide shakeup looming.

The Broncos at least tried to find a quarterback of the future. They just tired of the quest a little too quickly. They also have nothing at quarterback except a career backup with no hope of getting better.

The biggest lesson of the sad 2018 quarterback grab is that teams should always have quarterback solutions. Unless you just drafted your Mahomes, you should be looking for your next one: trading for a Bridgewater, drafting Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett types in middle rounds, kicking tires on late-rounders a year before you need them instead of the year after.

Playing musical chairs with the likes of Flacco and Eli won't make any team a contender. Swapping out Carr and Ryan Tannehill types for similar models will just leave franchises spinning their wheels. And teams that wait a year too long to find replacements for their veterans (hello, Bengals and Lions) risk ending up like the Redskins and Broncos, who will be back on the market next year to find solutions to the problems caused by this year's solutions.

The best organizations will plan ahead and think outside the box. The worst will end up disappointed because they looked for their quarterbacks in all the wrong places.


Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier.  


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