Now in Minnesota, Kirk Cousins tries to quiet doubters
Playing for the Minnesota 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 several 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 in 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 a little more than 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 (8-3) for another crucial game that will clarify the relationship between Cousins and his new home, another data point in the quarterback’s new reality.
When Cousins declined lowball contract offers from Washington and played consecutive
seasons on the franchise tag, he put 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 before 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, amid a stretch that will define his first season in the Twin Cities, Cousins has given fodder to both devotees and doubters. In a Sunday primetime, 25-20 loss at the Chicago 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 and three touchdowns — his best performance of the season and perhaps the best of his career.
The results left the Vikings in the playoff race and their fans still waiting to pass judgment. Dan Barreiro, a sports talk host at KFAN 100.3 in Minneapolis, said the fan base remains “guarded.” Even after Cousins’s brilliance against Green Bay, Barreiro was surprised by how many fans he heard crediting teammates for propping up their 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. “The position Cousins is in, if they don’t at least get to the [Super Bowl], he’ll probably be held responsible for it, regardless of how he plays.”
Cousins defies easy evaluation. Pro Football Focus and ESPN’s QBR metric rate him the 12thbest quarterback in the NFL. He ranks fifth in passing yards and ninth in passer rating. He makes throws that are peerless, such as the corner route he feathered into Adam Thielen’s hands in the first quarter last Sunday night with a defender perfectly positioned. He makes plays that aggravate, such as his seven interceptions and 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 having 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 under pressure. Is he having a great season or a flawed one? Yes.
Even Cousins’s past two weeks — a disaster and a masterpiece, on the surface — were viewed internally as not drastically different.
“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, because he has some God-given talent. The answer is always in the middle when it comes to quarterback play and quarterback evaluation.”
Cousins’s contract places more scrutiny on him. He says he ignores it, doesn’t even know what is being written or said about him. 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 connected to his salary.
“He doesn’t spend anything, so money is not important,” said Tim Lont, Cousins’s high school coach at Holland Christian in Michigan. “Truthfully, he’s donating all his money to charities. He’s got no desire to have anything worldly at all. It’s crazy.”
Since the start of his career, Cousins had been an underdog. He was lightly recruited out of Holland Christian; Lont hoped Cousins would play at nearby Hope College, a Division III school. He was a fourth-round draft pick out of Michigan State whom the Redskins cast as a backup to Robert Griffin III, chosen second overall the same year.
Cousins continued to improve by understanding his weaknesses and attacking them. He would make Lont open the school’s weight room an hour early and drive to Grand Rapids to work at Neurocore, a mind-training facility. Even now, he brings his own detailed notes and schedule to meetings.
But Cousins’s 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 and made wealthy to perform as one of the NFL’s best quarterbacks and deliver a Super Bowl. He’s not an underdog in their eyes. He’s a savior for a team that, despite advancing to at least the conference title game 10 times, has never won the Super Bowl.
Those perceptions have kept the quarterback and the fan base at arm’s length. After his poor performance against the Bears, Cousins attempted to find a positive glimmer for the future. “It certainly humbles you,” he said, “And I think that’s a positive.”
Cousins was offering an honest insight. He really did believe he would cull improvement from the loss, the way he had sought improvement at every turn of his ascent. But Vikings fans expect their $84 million quarterback not to require midseason humbling against their first-place divisional rival. Cousins is always thinking about how he can get better and naturally expresses the sentiment. Minnesota fans demand a finished product capable of making the Vikings a powerhouse. At this stage of his tenure, Cousins and Vikings fans are talking past each other.
“The exterior maybe affects him, but you can’t tell,” Stefanski said. “It’s not something he talks about. It’s not something we talk about it . . . . He’s got the right demeanor for this thing. Across his life, whether you go back from high school or college, his pro career, he’s had to deal with a lot of adversity. I think that’s made him who he is today.”
Big contract, big expectations
The situation Cousins stepped into set him up for an apprehensive relationship. Last season, despite ending with a blowout loss in the NFC title game, was a joyride for the Vikings. Case Keenum relieved the injured Sam Bradford with expectations reset to zero, and he carried the team to the season’s penultimate weekend with a freewheeling style, culminating in a last-second, answered-prayer touchdown in the divisional round — the Minnesota Miracle. Even Vikings fans who recognized Keenum’s limitations as a franchise centerpiece adored him.
Last year, Keenum, a Texan unfamiliar with the Minnesota ritual of snow removal, admitted to his neighbors after one storm that 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 a means of comparison: How many inches of snow would you be willing to shovel off Cousins’s 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. “They viewed [Keenum] as the underdog story. What’s complicated for Kirk here is, once you signed that contract, it’s always going to be, ‘Kirk Cousins, comma, who signed an $84 million contract, comma . . .’ The overall sense watching him is, we like some things, but we’re still not convinced he’s franchise material.”
Cousins, though, has an easier time winning over those on the team than those outside it. Diggs said of Cousins last week, “We got 100 percent faith in the guy.”
Cousins joined an established contender and replaced a likable quarterback, but teammates embraced him quickly.
“You’re the franchise quarterback, so whether you like it or not, you’re going to be in charge with leading the team,” Stefanski said. “That’s something that obviously comes very natural to him, and it has throughout the course of his life. I would say the transition maybe took a couple days, and the guys started to get to know him, and then it’s kind of been, he’s the unquestioned leader.”
Cousins could convince the fans, too, in the next two weeks. After New England, the Vikings will play at Seattle, an opponent also vying for an NFC playoff spot.
Before he finished a phone conversation with a reporter this week, Lont insisted on viewing a speech that Cousins gave at a Big Ten luncheon before his senior season. Watch it, Lont said, and “you’ll know exactly who Kirk Cousins is.” And it is a remarkable speech. At its climax, Cousins warns peers of how privilege — in their case, the privilege of playing Big Ten football — can lead to entitlement. His words from that portion resonate in a different way for him now.
“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.’ ”
After Kirk Cousins signed a contract worth $84 million guaranteed, Vikings fans expect him to lead the team to its first Super Bowl title.