Cousins stays in crucible after move
As with Redskins, fans stay lukewarm on QB’s performance
Playing for the Vikings on a fully guaranteed contract, Kirk Cousins enjoys professional security and personal stability while chasing a Super Bowl for a steady franchise. Playing for the Washington Redskins on a series of one-year deals, Cousins wondered about his job status and place of residence while attempting to tame ever-present chaos and overcome ingrained mediocrity. His new employer coveted him and embraces him. His old one mispronounced his name.
For all the polarity Cousins experienced between this season and last, the way his team’s fan base thinks about him has remained static. For years with Washington, he existed as both a promising quarterback and a source of regional queasiness: Is he worth the big contract the team could give him? For half a season in Minnesota, he has existed as both a franchise quarterback and a source of regional queasiness: Is he worth the big contract the team gave him?
Late Sunday afternoon, Cousins will take his latest crack at putting Minnesotans at peace about their 30-year-old, $84-million quarterback. In the thick of the NFC playoff picture at 6-4-1, the Vikings will travel to New England for another crucial game that will clarify the relationship between Cousins and his new home, another data point in Cousins’ new reality.
When Cousins declined lowball contract offers from Washington and played consecutive seasons on the franchise tag, he applied pressure on himself. When he signed a three-year guaranteed contract to lead a Super Bowl contender, he invited pressure from external forces.
“I know that as an NFL quarterback, you’re going to get scrutinized,” Cousins said prior to the Vikings beating Green Bay last week. “I was making the league minimum my fourth year in Washington, and I was pretty scrutinized that year, too. When you’re an NFL quarterback, it goes without saying you’re going to be judged inside the building, outside the building, and you understand that’s what you signed up for.”
Over the past two weeks, Cousins has given fodder to both devotees and doubters. In a Sunday prime-time loss to the Bears two weeks ago, he threw two interceptions and finished with 262 yards, most of them cosmetic. Last week, in the same time slot, he led the Vikings to a 24-17 victory over the Green Bay Packers, throwing for 342 yards with three touchdowns — his best performance of the season, perhaps the best of his career.
The results left the Vikings in a playoff race and their fans still waiting to making a judgment. Dan Barreiro, a sports talk host at KFAM 100.3 in Minneapolis, said the fan base remains “guarded.” Even after Cousins’ brilliance against Green Bay, Barreiro was surprised at how many fans he heard crediting teammates for propping up the quarterback.
“If they’re not willing to give him a good grade on that game, then people are very nervous on what the Vikings have invested in,” Barreiro said.
Cousins defies easy evaluation. Pro Football Focus and ESPN’s QBR metric rate him the 12th-best quarterback in the NFL. He ranks fifth in passing yards and ninth in quarterback rating. He makes throws that are peerless. He makes plays that aggravate, such as his seven interceptions and league-high eight fumbles. He’s precise, but sometimes robotic — coach Mike Zimmer met with him last week multiple times to remind him he needed to scramble more often to steal first downs.
Cousins has the benefit of Thielen and Stefon Diggs, perhaps the NFL’s best wideout combination. But his pass blocking ranks 31st, according to Pro Football Focus, and Cousins has been one of the NFL’s best passers against pressure. Is he having a great season or a flawed one? Yes.
“It’s always complicated,” Vikings quarterbacks coach Kevin Stefanski said. “There’s always things in every game where you say he can do better. And there’s always plays where you say, ‘That’s uncoachable.’ He does some special things.”
Cousins’ contract places more scrutiny on him. He says he ignores it. He craved order and competence more than top dollar in free agency, so those who know Cousins, a deeply faithful man, believe he’s unfazed by expectations attendant to his salary.
“He doesn’t spend anything, so money is not important,” said Tim Lont, Cousins’ high school coach at Holland Christian in Michigan. “Truthfully, he’s donating all his money to charities.”
But Cousins’ self-image of a hard-working overachiever is at odds with how Vikings fans view him. To them, he is a franchise quarterback brought to Minnesota made wealthy to perform like one of the NFL’s best quarterbacks and deliver a Super Bowl.
By contrast, last season, despite ending with a blowout loss in the NFC title game, was a joyride. Case Keenum relieved the injured Sam Bradford with expectations reset to zero, and he carried to the season’s penultimate weekend with a freewheeling style, culminating in a last-second, answeredprayer touchdown in a divisional round — the Minnesota Miracle.
Last year, Keenum, a Texan unfamiliar with the Minnesotan ritual of snow removal, admitted to his neighbors after one storm he had no clue what he was doing with a shovel. A tradition began: After a snowfall, Keenum’s neighbors would clear his driveway, and the photos spread on social media.
On Monday, Barreiro asked listeners a question as means of comparison: How many inches of snow would you be willing to shovel off Kirk Cousins’ driveway? The prevailing sentiment, Barreiro said, was, I’m not going to shovel his driveway. He can hire his own service. The man’s making $84 million.
“He’s tethered to the contract in a way that on that level fans are going to view him differently than they did Keenum,” Barreiro said.
Cousins doesn’t shy away from his role.
“I’ve been raised to believe privilege should lead to responsibility — in fact, to greater responsibility,” Cousins says. “The Bible says in Luke 12:48, from everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded. And from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.”
Kirk Cousins is sacked by Chicago’s Akiem Hicks two weeks ago during the Bears’ win over the Minnesota Vikings in November at Soldier Field.