When the Minnesota Vikings faced the Philadelphia Eagles in the 2017 NFC Championship game, they were two teams on a similar path. Each waded through a minefield during the regular season. Their starting quarterbacks suffered season-ending injuries, and their backups were in the middle of a miraculous run. And both teams were on the doorstep of the Super Bowl.
Viking fans don’t need to be reminded of what the score was that day. But what they should remember is how both teams have fared since.
The Vikings have been stuck in the NFL’s purgatory, turning in consecutive nine-loss seasons while the Eagles snuck into the playoffs last year. While both teams figure to be contenders for a playoff spot this season, the Eagles have a brighter trajectory thanks to their approach since the 2017 NFC Championship.
The Eagles got to the title game on the strength of a roster built over time. Philadelphia had worked the draft to select Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham, and Zach Ertz. They complemented that strategy with shrewd acquisitions such as Alshon Jeffery, LeGarrette Blount, and Malcolm Jenkins.
With Wentz’s contract in the middle of the rookie window, the Eagles took advantage and built the league’s fourth-ranked defense in points and yards allowed. And it happened while Wentz was playing at an MVP level, leading an offense that ranked third in points scored.
Meanwhile, a similar story was playing out in Minnesota. The Vikings had just landed Anthony Barr in the 2014 draft and backed it up with one of the greatest classes of all time in 2015. Mike Zimmer had a juggernaut with Stefon Diggs, Danielle Hunter, Eric Kendricks, and Trae Waynes, and the Vikings finished the year with the No. 10-ranked defense and similarly at 10th in points scored.
The Eagles got the upper hand in Philly, but their goals remained the same. Both teams saw an opportunity to build a dynasty, and teams believed that locking in a quarterback was the way to get there.
For the Vikings, that meant signing Kirk Cousins to a three-year, $84 million contract the following offseason. The Eagles made the same decision one year later, signing Wentz to a four-year, $128 million contract.
It looked like a brilliant strategy. If the Vikings and Eagles continued to conquer the draft, both teams could load up their roster while also replenishing as the salary cap caught up with them. The only problem? Nobody masters the draft.
The Vikings whiffed on several players in the years that followed. Mike Hughes tore his ACL midway through his rookie season. Garrett Bradbury wasn’t strong enough. Jeff Gladney ran into legal troubles, and Zimmer, uh, didn’t love the 2021 draft.
Minnesota also landed Brian O’Neill and Justin Jefferson during this stretch, but it wasn’t enough to overcome the shortcomings on the roster. When Linval Joseph, Xavier Rhodes, and others left, the Vikings tumbled to mediocrity.
The same thing happened to the Eagles. Father Time caught up with several players on their roster, leaving Wentz with a mediocre supporting cast. Wentz suffered injuries during the 2018 and 2019 seasons, and Philadelphia was no longer a contender.
But this is where the two teams diverged. In the 2020 offseason, the Vikings re-signed Cousins to a two-year, $66 million extension. The following season, Minnesota stumbled to a 1-5 start and ultimately forged ahead to a 7-9 record.
In 2021, the results were the same, and the Vikings finished 8-9. They fired Zimmer, but the Vikings signed Cousins to a one-year, $35 million extension. More financial gymnastics followed, and the Vikings are hoping for a wild card berth in 2022.
The Eagles saw a different path and took Jalen Hurts in the second round of the 2020 NFL Draft. The pick was ridiculed at the time, but it was an insurance policy in case Wentz faltered again. The bottom dropped out, and they traded Wentz in the following offseason, bringing the Eagles back into the rookie quarterback window.
Philadelphia was aggressive in the draft, trading down to accumulate draft capital. A deal with the Miami Dolphins netted them a first-round pick in 2022. It set up a situation where 2021 was supposed to be a tank year, but they made the playoffs anyway. That would be disastrous for a team that didn’t plan ahead, but with the Eagles’ draft capital, it set them up to do bigger things this offseason.
Using the No. 15=overall pick acquired in the Wentz trade, the Eagles moved up to select Jordan Davis. A second trade with the New Orleans Saints netted them a third first-round pick, but Philadelphia shipped that selection to the Tennessee Titans for A.J. Brown.
That looks like a strategy out of a Madden franchise, but it helped the Eagles begin to build their roster. After drafting DeVonta Smith and Landon Dickerson in 2020, the Eagles selected their long-term replacements for Cox and Jason Kelce in Davis and second-round pick Cam Jurgens.
In the short term, the Eagles could not only contend for a playoff spot but win a division title. In the long term, Philadelphia has acquired the draft capital that could place a better quarterback in the middle of a loaded roster. That could be a trade-up for a top prospect in the 2023 draft or finding the next disgruntled quarterback looking for a new home.
The latter sounds far-fetched, but nobody expected Tom Brady to sign with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Just like nobody expected Deshaun Watson to wind up with the Cleveland Browns. And nobody saw Russell Wilson ending up with the Denver Broncos. Whoever it is, the Eagles will be ready to strike.
The same can’t be said for the Vikings. They have Cousins locked in through the next two seasons, and Minnesota’s only way to upgrade is through the draft. If the Vikings slog through another season in the middle, they won’t have the draft capital to make a move nor the salary cap space to get the next disgruntled quarterback.
Kellen Mond could be that bridge, but he’s nowhere near ready to play. It leaves the Vikings in no man’s land, praying that Cousins can take the step fans have been hoping for since he arrived in Minnesota.
Maybe Cousins will thrive under Kevin O’Connell. Perhaps the Vikings will squeeze a couple more wins out of an easier schedule. That’s all great. But if the Eagles wind up marching toward a Super Bowl, it will be because of their chosen path coming out of the 2017 season.