Can Kirk Cousins be the catalyst for a successful playoff team or is the three-time Pro Bowl quarterback the anchor that continues to drag the Minnesota Vikings’ vessel off its course?
Now that both the general manager and head coach have been replaced, Cousins is the biggest remaining question mark for the future of the Vikings’ organization. It was obvious that Washington didn’t want to pay Cousins as one of the highest-paid QBs in the league even after making the Pro Bowl in 2016. This was a clear indication that they didn’t view him as a franchise quarterback despite applying the franchise tag on Cousins twice.
But the Vikings were happy to sign Cousins after the 2017 season with a fully guaranteed three-year contract worth $84 million in free agency. He’s since made two Pro Bowls with the team but has only led the Vikes to the playoffs once. Does that make his four-year tenure a failure so far?
Perhaps, his shortcomings were the results of internal dysfunction. Whether it be play-calling, schemes or just bad technique overall, these are only a few of the questions the new regime hopes to find answers to. With Kevin O’Connell aiming to bring a fresh approach, Cousins has an offensive-minded head coach for the first time since moving to the North Star State. Will it make a difference?
It’s obvious that general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and O’Connell are putting their full support behind Cousins — signing the 33-year-old QB to a one-year, $35 million extension this offseason, but that’s only one more season of security. It doesn’t prevent them from hitting the reset button right away next offseason.
For his part, Cousins wants no part of playing elsewhere. As the quarterback said when he signed in 2018 and has since reaffirmed, he wants to make Minnesota his home despite being born in Illinois and growing up in Michigan.
But he also knows he needs to earn the ability to continue choosing his destiny. As they say, nothing is given. Cousins is fully aware of what’s at stake.
“My mindset was really to be a Viking,” Kirk Cousins after signing his contract extension. “I would like to retire as a Viking, and so I would like to play my way into that if you will. I know I’ve got to earn the right to do that.”
For now, there are zero questions. Cousins is fully entrenched as the starting quarterback heading into the season for the eighth time in his 11-year NFL career. It’s where he wants to be, but some Vikings fans have yet to make up their minds on whether that feeling is mutual. After four up-and-down seasons in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, it’s do or die.
The development of Kirk Cousins over the years
Here’s the thing about Kirk Cousins. He was never supposed to be who we see today. In most cases, Cousins would have fallen off the face of the earth by now. But not him.
Cousins entered the NFL in the strangest of ways. It’s been 10 years, so let’s travel down memory lane a bit.
Back in the 2012 NFL Draft, Washington was desperate to find a franchise quarterback. They traded the sixth pick, along with their next two first-round picks to the Los Angeles Rams for the right to select second. They had their eyes on the reigning Heisman winner, Robert Griffin III, who immediately had the keys to the offense from the moment he was drafted.
Strangely enough, Washington wasn’t done selecting quarterbacks, which is uncommon after trading so many assets to move up and take a QB already. They later drafted Cousins in the fourth round with the 102nd pick.
Needless to say, this is not at all how Cousins wanted to enter the NFL after a mildly successful career at Michigan State where led his team to a share of the Big Ten Championship as a junior and threw for over 9,000 yards in his three years as a starter.
Cousins was in his first season as a pro, and RGIII won Offensive Rookie of the Year — leading Washington to a playoff berth in his first season.
How did Cousins respond to being stuck on the bench behind the NFL’s new favorite player? Better than most.
While his new mentor Kevin O’Connell eventually wound up as a coach after entering the NFL as a third-round pick in 2008, backing up Tom Brady, Cousins didn’t bounce around the league. Instead, Cousins continued to battle, continued to develop and grow, waiting for his chance.
Little did he know, that chance would come in 2015, three years after being drafted when RGIII suffered yet another injury. This enabled Cousins to become a full-time starter for the first time in his NFL career.
It was the year of the “you like that!” moment that went viral, which was spawned from Cousins leading Washington to its largest comeback win in franchise history.
He ended up leading the NFL in completion percentage (69.8%), bringing the team to a 9-7 record while throwing for 29 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. Unable to agree to a long-term contract, Washington placed the franchise tag on Cousins, earning him $19.9 million in 2016.
The next season he made the Pro Bowl team and was franchise tagged again, earning a salary of $23.94 million in 2017. Despite three seasons throwing for more than 4,000 yards, Washington wasn’t able to find common ground with Cousins on a long-term deal. This allowed him to hit free agency as a highly sought-after free agent at 29 years old when he landed with the Vikings in 2018.
Never supposed to reach starter status, let alone be a franchise QB, for Cousins to be considered either 10 years later is a major accomplishment. But that’s not enough. Not for Cousins, not for his fans, and certainly not for any team he’s played for. They still want more, and who can blame them?
Narrative surrounding Kirk Cousins doesn’t always fit
Everyone has formed an opinion on Kirk Cousins after seven years as a starting quarterback.
“I think this is a quarterback who manages the game well. We talk about quarterbacks who are quietly efficient, there’s a lot of quarterbacks that do a good job that don’t really get a lot of credit, are not flashing out there, I think he falls under that category,” Crissy Froyd of Sportsnaut says. “Always solid in the stat sheet, both with basic and advanced stats. Taking care of the football, doing his job, 66.3% percent completion percentage last season, 4,221 passing yards, 33 touchdowns and seven interceptions, those are nice numbers.”
Here are a few of the more common takes that have been used to describe Cousins over the years.
- Kirk Cousins isn’t mobile enough
- Kirk Cousins lacks pocket awareness
- Kirk Cousins is a game manager
- Captain Kirk? More like Captain Checkdown
- Kirk Cousins is not a winner
- Kirk Cousins isn’t a team player
- Kirk Cousins can’t elevate your team
- Kirk Cousins only puts up garbage-time stats
- Kirk Cousins is a liability in primetime
- Kirk Cousins can’t win the big game
- Kirk Cousins isn’t elite
Despite all of these preconceived notions, Cousins doesn’t exactly fit the narrative of many of these common rephrasings. Let’s get into his strengths and break down some of the knocks among the NFL community on Cousins.
“He’s consistent as heck. No matter what season you’re entering in, you’re going to get 4,000 passing yards, 30 touchdowns from him, and usually about 10 interceptions. He’s always the same guy. He never gets hurt. He’s durable and contrary to popular belief, he actually has a very good arm,” Dustin Baker of Vikings Territory tells Sportsnaut.
“Since the start of 2015 when he became a full-time starter, he leads the NFL in touchdowns of 40+ yards or more. Somehow he gets fingered as a dink-and-dunk guy, which for the life of me I can never understand. He’s accurate, he’s got a big arm.”
Mobility will never be a strong suit for Cousins, and Vikings fans basically like to compare him to Case Keenum’s magic in the pocket during the 2017 season, but Cousins has frequently shown at least an above-average amount of athletic ability when given a clear lane. Sure, pocket awareness is always a work in progress and more consistent offensive line play can help, but Cousins isn’t exactly oblivious to pressure.
“He doesn’t have the type of pocket presence that Russell Wilson or Patrick Mahomes do, where you’re watching him and it’s like, how did he wiggle out of that? When Cousins wiggles out of something we consider it a mini-miracle. When he first got to Minnesota he was almost like a turtle in the pocket, if things got bad, he would just kinda collapse. Thankfully he’s gotten better, but he’ll never be quite as innovative in the pocket as the titans of the industry,” Baker says.
Another knock over the years has been his part in quarterbacking a conservative offense, throwing a few more check-downs to tailbacks and tight ends than fans would like. But a recent Pro Football Focus study showed Cousins wasn’t even in the top-10 of most frequent check-down passers during the past two seasons.
The garbage-time passer suggestion isn’t exactly fair either, as fewer than 10% of his yards and touchdowns have come when trailing by two or more possessions.
OK, how about Cousins being a winner?
|Kirk Cousins’ career win-loss record as a starter||Regular season||Playoffs|
|Win-loss record with Washington||26-30-1||0-1|
|Win-loss record with Minnesota||33-29-1||1-1|
Now we might have something. Cousins never had a strong talent base to work with in Washington with Jordan Reed, DeSean Jackson, and Pierre Garcon as his top skill position players, and never having a 1,000-yard rusher.
But that hasn’t been the case since he’s gotten to Minnesota, benefiting from a star-studded cast featuring Stefon Diggs, Justin Jefferson, Adam Thielen, and Dalvin Cook, yet the seven-win difference since he jumped ship isn’t a large gap. How much of this mediocrity falls on Cousins, and how much falls on the organizations he’s a part of?
Is it because Cousins can’t win the big game? Is he holding the team back? Does he fold when the lights come on in primetime?
Out of his 120 regular season starts, Cousins has 14 fourth-quarter comebacks and 20 game-winning drives plus one postseason game-winner. So it’s not like he doesn’t have some clutch play in him, but sometimes it depends on who the opponent is too.
“Kirk Cousins is very accurate, he’s one of the more accurate passers in the NFL,” says Chris Tomasson. “His weaknesses, a lot of people question, can he finish games? Can he lead comeback victories? That’s how many great quarterbacks are measured. Sure, Kirk has had some comebacks in recent years, but he probably hasn’t had enough of them.”
Not counting the playoffs, Cousins is 10-41 all-time against teams who finished with a winning record at the end of the season. At the same time, even the reigning Super Bowl winner, Matthew Stafford has just an 11-71 record against teams with a winning record. Basically, despite the record being ugly, it’s more common than one would expect.
Consider that prior to the start of the 2021 season, only six quarterbacks in the NFL had a winning record against winning teams in their careers, and one realizes just how tough this feat is to accomplish.
If Stafford can go from never winning a playoff game in his 12-year career to winning a Super Bowl in his first year under the tutelage of coach O’Connell and Sean McVay, who’s to say Cousins can’t still win more big games too?
Where Kirk Cousins can take the next step in 2022
As is, few would rank Kirk Cousins as a top-10 quarterback. He might crack a few top-15 NFL QB lists, but even that is not a guarantee. I have him ranked at #14, and a case could easily be made for him to slide down or up a couple spots, but he’s not getting into the top 10. Why not?
There are a lot of ‘elite’ quarterbacks in the NFL right now, we’ve reached a golden era, but by the standard set above, Cousins would appear to be somewhere near a slightly above-average quarterback, not quite elite status.
What makes Cousins a good, but not great player? He can make every throw on the field, no one would say he has a noodle arm, and he’s proven to be one of the more accurate throwers in the league, so why isn’t he considered among the elite? And can he get there?
“The play-action passing game, he’s always been rated as one of the best. He has the tendency to get frazzled when things go south, doesn’t make a lot of plays on the move. When things go bad, they snowball and get worse,” says Christopher Gates.
The Vikings haven’t exactly supplied Cousins with strong offensive line play. Pro Football Focus graded them with the 10th-worst line from the 2021 season. But is that a poor excuse for lackluster performances?
Joe Burrow led the Cincinnati Bengals to the Super Bowl behind a line that ranked just three spots above the Vikings. We can’t put this one entirely on the line.
The 2021 Vikings were famous for games coming down to the last possession with an NFL record-tying 14 of their 17 contests being just a one-score outcome.
If we’re pointing blame, a bigger share should fall on the shoulders of Mike Zimmer and the 24th-ranked defense from a year ago.
There are several things that have hindered Cousins during his Twin Cities tenure, with a lack of experienced play-callers, poor offensive line play, and a defense that fell apart the past two seasons, but the best players find a way to win, no matter what hits the fan.
What does Captain Kirk need to do to lead the Vikings’ ship back to the playoffs? It’s fairly simple, he needs to continue taking strides with pocket awareness, while becoming a more aggressive passer, finding the big plays, without increasing his turnover ratio.
Of course, that’s much easier said than done, but if Stafford can enjoy career-best numbers in the Rams’ offense, why can’t Cousins do the same with a similar scheme, boosted by an even stronger supporting cast of offensive players?
Sticking with Kirk Cousins was the right call in 2022
The Vikings are headed into the year with all their eggs in one basket. Sure, Kellen Mond and Sean Mannion are lingering in some capacity, but no one expects Mond to be the heir apparent in Minnesota. He was the last regime’s draft pick, meaning the current decision-makers don’t have any ties to Mond.
Anything Mond gives the Vikings from here should be considered a bonus, but I don’t want to discount his skillset, which is exciting. For the 22-year-old Mond, it’s all about development at this point.
In a perfect world, Cousins will start all 17 regular-season games for the Vikings in 2022, but was it a mistake to go all-in on the 33-year-old QB this year? Or were the Vikings wise to stick with who they have, with Cousins?
“Yes, I think so,” Chris Tomasson tells Sportsnaut. “Kirk had Kevin O’Connell as his quarterbacks coach when he was in Washington, so he knows Kirk, has a good rapport with him. The relationship Cousins had with Zimmer was kind of up-and-down. I think it was a good move to keep him because there was nobody else. Sean Mannion certainly wasn’t going to be a starting-caliber quarterback. It was a weak year for the draft, so they were definitely wise to keep him around for 2022.”
As others have noted, if the Vikings wanted to part with Cousins, what other options did the front office reasonably have over the offseason? Russell Wilson was traded for two first-round picks, two second-round picks, a defensive starter, a developmental QB, and a starting tight end who has the potential to become a Pro Bowl player. That’s a haul, not to mention the $10M salary cap hit the Vikings would have incurred from dealing Cousins to the Seahawks or another destination.
The other alternatives would have been to sign either Mitchell Trubisky or Marcus Mariota, or head into the draft with zero established QBs on the roster. Maybe Kenny Pickett would have been a fine first-round selection, but no one in Minnesota is ready for another reset year that ends without a playoff berth thanks to rookie growing pains. They already have a proven commodity, a player Pickett could only dream of someday becoming.
“It’s not easy to find a quarterback like Cousins who throws those 30 touchdowns per year. I have a feeling that if they threw in the towel this offseason and drafted Kenny Pickett or something, we might look back in two or three years and be like ‘ah we just need a consistent quarterback! But we had that in Cousins”, Dustin Baker tells Sportsnaut.
This is all to say, the Vikings didn’t have a better option than sticking with who they already had, and extending Cousins for another year only allowed for more spending this offseason, which saw the additions of Za’Darius Smith and several other defensive pieces. Going all-in on Cousins was the right move for the Vikings. But that doesn’t mean his starting gig is set in stone heading into the future, after the 2022 season.
Why Kirk Cousins is on the hot seat
Alright, so Cousins got an extension, but it’s only for one year — setting him up for unrestricted free agency after the 2023 season. Does that put Cousins on the hot seat heading into his first year with coach O’Connell? To an extent.
“It’s definitely a big year for him,” says Crissy Froyd. “A lot of people are looking to see if he can take the next step and what he can do for this team. Is he going to elevate himself from a quietly effective quarterback who people are skeptical of that some people like and some people don’t? I go back to the verbiage there and the adjustments and how the defense makes him better, so it’s going to be a challenge but it’s one that he seems to be rising to the occasion of.”
Cousins isn’t at the risk of getting cut from the team if he somehow falls flat on his face this year, but it’s possible he finds himself campaigning to join another team if the Vikings miss the playoffs once again.
He always has strong numbers and the eye test backs it up. No matter what, there will be at least a few teams who would gladly make Cousins their starting quarterback in 2023, which means he will hold some level of trade value.
For the Vikings, it was better to keep that potential trade option alive instead of running the risk of not having a starting QB on the roster by the time the 2023 offseason rolls around. But yes, Cousins is on the hot seat, but that’s nothing new for him and his career thus far.
“I’m optimistic about seeing Cousins with a different setup, but if this season goes the way of another nine-loss season or they miss the playoffs, I do think they will find a way to move on,” says Dustin Baker. “The wins need to start happening now because outside of 2019, it’s always the same thing, always about eight or nine wins.”
Kirk Cousins can be a Super Bowl winning QB
The biggest question that everyone in Minnesota wants to know, and likely has already answered in their heads is whether Cousins can win a Super Bowl? If so, can it be this season?
“He might not fall in the category of elite quarterbacks right now, but he’s in a higher tier than he gets respect for. It’s shown up on the stat sheet, especially so in the past three seasons, through the playoffs he carries a 90.5 PFF passing grade, that ties for fifth in the league,” Sportsnaut’s Crissy Froyd says.
Obviously, we didn’t inherit Mike Zimmer’s crystal ball. But there’s no reason to believe Cousins can’t some day hoist a Lombardi Trophy.
Here’s the thing. Nobody is a Super Bowl quarterback until they are. Did anyone think Brad Johnson or Trent Dilfer were Super Bowl QBs? Nick Foles? Nick freaking Foles? Enough said.
Stafford paved the way. And while Cousins may not have the exact arm talent or strength Stafford has, one might argue that his accuracy is much better. If the defense bounces back behind Ed Donatell’s guidance, along with a healthy season and improved offensive line play, there’s no reason why the Vikings can’t compete for a championship.
“I absolutely think he’s capable. He’s got the talent, he can make all the throws. Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen are as prolific as they are because of what Cousins has done. I’m not sure a Super Bowl can happen this year. New coach, new offense, and a suspect defense in a few spots. A Super Bowl takes a full team effort. Cousins definitely has the ability to lead a team to a Super Bowl,” says Christopher Gates.
Kirk Cousins is underrated, certainly not overpaid
While Cousins may be the biggest and most impactful question to answer on the current roster, he’s not exactly replaceable. At least not as easy as making a fire and then a re-hire. Salary cap implications complicate matters far too much to rip the band-aid off in one fell swoop.
- Kirk Cousins contract: $31.4 million cap hit in 2022, $36.2M in 2023
Cousins has a cap hit that ranks third in the NFL among quarterbacks heading into the 2022 season. While other deals such as Lamar Jackson‘s next contract are set to reset the market once again in the near future, Cousins has found a way to stay near the top of annual quarterback earnings by signing short-term contracts spanning three seasons or less.
As is typical in the modern era of the NFL, each time Cousins signs a new deal, his earnings make him either the top-paid or within the top five of annual earnings. This has led to the perception that Cousins is overpaid. But it’s just wise negotiation tactics.
Cousins and his agent, Mike McCartney, are well aware of just how in-demand an above-average starting QB is in today’s NFL. Starting QBs rarely hit unrestricted free agency anymore. But if Cousins became available again, the contracts teams would throw at him would easily dwarf his current deal.
If there’s one thing Cousins and his agent have mastered, it’s the art of negotiating a contract. Cousins’ current earnings total $186,469,288. There are still more guarantees to come, which puts his guaranteed earnings at $224.3 million.
Not bad for a fourth-round pick who had far greater chances of only ever becoming a backup and flaming out of the league entirely.
Is Cousins overpaid? Not really, but that’s not an opinion widely shared throughout the NFL community. I’d estimate at least 10 to 15 other NFL teams would happily pay him the same salaries he’s earned each year of his career. One also has to consider the going rate for other starters recently signed around the league.
A stronger argument could be made that Cousins is actually underrated, as his stats place him among league leaders based on his résumé thus far.
Kirk Cousins stats among active NFL starting QBs
- Sixth in passing yards – 32,593
- Sixth in passing touchdowns – 223
- Sixth in passer rating – 98.6
- Sixth in passing yards per game – 260.7
- Second in completion percentage – 66.9%
Even though he may not be putting up Hall of Fame numbers, Cousins is typically among the top 10 in all major passing categories, year in, year out. Shouldn’t that mean he deserves to be paid like one, too?
“I don’t really think Cousins is overpaid. You could have made that argument when he first came to Minnesota, but with the way the NFL is, the highest-paid quarterback cost is always increasing. I don’t think he’s overpaid compared to a lot of other NFL quarterbacks,” Christopher Gates tells Sportsnaut.
By all appearances, Cousins has everything on hand to lead his team back to the playoffs and beyond. There are no more excuses for Cousins heading into the 2022 NFL season.
Kirk Cousins may not be elite, but he’s still damn good
Since the Green Bay Packers are one of the foes Cousins has to try and take down each season, we thought it could be beneficial to compare Captain Kirk to Aaron Rodgers. The four-time MVP has managed to win one Super Bowl, but considering he’s one of the best quarterbacks of this era, has largely disappointed in his other seasons.
Many would argue the Packers should have won several Lombardi Trophies with Rodgers, but that just hasn’t happened. The point is, even the best quarterbacks have their drawbacks. How do Cousins’ numbers compare to a future Hall of Fame QB since joining the Vikings?
|Player||Aaron Rodgers||Kirk Cousins|
|W-L record||45-18-1 (2-3 in playoffs)||33-29-1 (1-1 in playoffs)|
|Total salary earned||$126.5 million||$115 million|
Even though he may not be putting up Hall-of-Fame numbers like Rodgers is, the raw stats aren’t that far off for Cousins. The largest discrepancies are the wins, losses and interceptions. But no one in the history of the NFL can compare to Rodgers in that latter aspect.
For the Vikings to have gotten comparable production to Rodgers out of Cousins, maybe the quarterback is a lot better than he’s been given credit for. After all, with a few more wins, many of the largest concerns about Cousins go up in smoke. But that’s sports.
Sometimes a yard can be the difference between a win or a loss. And for Cousins, they can be the difference between creating a lasting legacy or becoming a forgettable part of the Vikings’ history. It’s up to him to choose how he wants to be remembered.
Will he surprise fans with better-than-expected play? Will Cousins ultimately fizzle out with yet another year of solid numbers that aren’t good enough to help his team become great? Our first chance to find out comes in Week 1 when the Green Bay Packers pay a visit to U.S. Bank Stadium on September 11.