MINNEAPOLIS — Kirk Cousins was given every opportunity to shut up the people who said he simply wasn’t a winner.
In the conclusion of a season that has been a rollercoaster for the $84 million quarterback, Cousins was given homefield advantage against a team with little to play for and the offensive coordinator who led him to resurgent games against the Miami Dolphins and Detroit Lions.
His defense gave Cousins plenty of chances to stay in Sunday’s game at US Bank Stadium against the Chicago Bears, but he put together another no-show performance against a winning team and will have to spend the entire offseason answering questions about whether he’s worth the Vikings’ massive investment.
Sunday’s must-win contest opened up in the worst way possible for the Vikings: With a three-and-out. Cousins completed one 3-yard pass and then tossed two incompletions.
Chicago took advantage immediately with a touchdown drive to put the Vikings down 7-0, in need of a quick bounce-back.
Instead the Vikings went three-and-out again. The crowd at US Bank Stadium groaned.
It wouldn’t be long before they were booing. Move over, Andrew Wiggins.
Three more drives ending in punts later and a Bears touchdown drive (fueled by a questionable roughing the passer call) later and the Vikings somehow still had a shot to get back in the game.
With 1:03 left in the first half and third-and-6, Cousins threw a pass wide of Adam Thielen. The Vikings settled for a field goal. As Dan Bailey’s boot went through the uprights, Cousins and Thielen engaged in a yelling match on the sideline — one that has been brewing seemingly all season. In a no-show loss against the Seahawks, Thielen was caught on camera saying, “it’s been there all [bleeping] day.”
If you thought the blowup would be enough to motivate the Vikings’ offense in the second half, you were mostly wrong.
They did open the half with a 12-play touchdown drive to come within three points, but it was too little too late. Chicago grinded out a drive against the Vikings’ worn-down defense and then converted a two-point conversion to go up by 11 with seven minutes left.
In need of a quick score, the Vikings’ offense did just the opposite. Cousins nearly threw an interception and then missed Stefon Diggs to put a bow on an overall disasterous season for a team that expected to be playing for homefield this week, not playing for the final playoff spot.
Everything about 2018, however, was exactly how things had gone during his time in Washington D.C. Seasons of 9-7, 8-7-1 and 7-9 opened the door for both his former team, media and fans to wonder if he could really get the job done in a big spot. In 2016, he faced a similar situation in Week 17 and threw two interceptions in a 19-10 loss to the Giants.
With the loss, he finishes the year with just one win against a playoff team and that was against a different version of the Philadelphia Eagles, who will be playing longer tan the Vikings for a second straight year.
There will be plenty of talk this offseason about how to strengthen the supporting cast — namely the offensive line. But for his four years as a starter, the takeaway is always: It’s never enough.
It’s always the defense. It’s always the offensive line. It’s always the running game. It’s always the management.
But in reality, it’s always the same result.
Cousins’ critics were proven right on Sunday.
We can count on a lot of commentators pointing out that judging him based on Sunday’s must-win isn’t fair, but the years of similar outcomes leave little ground to stand on. There’s no choice but to wonder if they can ever get back to where they were with Case Keenum in 2017, even with a great defense.
And the meltdown with Thielen will leave us an offseason to wonder if the offensive stars will believe in him going forward.
But, hey, the folks who only look at his career stats will notice Cousins finished the day with a good completion percentage and quarterback rating.