Now in Min­ne­sota, Kirk Cousins tries to quiet doubters

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY ADAM KILGORE

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.”

Up-and-down per­for­mances

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.’ ”

BRUCE KLUCKHOHN/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Af­ter Kirk Cousins signed a con­tract worth $84 mil­lion guar­an­teed, Vik­ings fans ex­pect him to lead the team to its first Su­per Bowl ti­tle.

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