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Kirk versus The Critics

EAGAN —  Inside the Minnesota Vikings locker room there was unquantifiable frustration but across the hall in the room built specifically inside US Bank Stadium for coach and quarterback press conferences, there was surprising optimism.

At a podium that sits on a stage about seven feet above a dozen rows of chairs, Kirk Cousins referred to the 2018 season as “Year 1” and said that his chemistry with wide receivers would improve in Year 2. This came only about 45 minutes after having a nationally-televised throwdown with Adam Thielen on the sidelines in which Cousins pantomimed how his Pro Bowl receiver should have run his route — and it was all over national TV.

The out-of-key notes struck in that press conference were perfectly representative of Cousins’ first season in Minnesota. Nothing felt right.

From hiring of John DeFilippo, an offensive coordinator who ran an offense that was foreign to Cousins, to the lack of attention to the offensive line despite signing an immobile quarterback to an $84 million deal to a locker room that had lost its best leaders in Teddy Bridgewater, Case Keenum, Brian Robison and Terence Newman, the pieces never really fit.

As you might expect, there was some debate within the fan base about how to divide up blame but outside of the Twin Cities the main focus was Cousins. Between his contract, the Super Bowl expectations set by a 13-3 season in 2017 and his previous shortcomings in Washington D.C., it was a perfect storm for Cousins to become the meat in which talking heads skewered throughout the offseason.

It carried over into this year. After the Vikings dropped to 2-2 with a putrid 16-6 loss at Soldier Field, it appeared TCO Performance Center was on fire. Adam Thielen talked about being frustrated with the passing game after the loss and Stefon Diggs skipped practice on Monday and Wednesday of the following week. In an attempt to extinguish some of the outrage over the mediocre open to the year, Cousins explained on his team-operated podcast that he apologized to Thielen following an overthrow on a deep ball.

Instead of calming the flames, it was like tossing batteries into the fire.

Former NFL player Ryan Clark went off on ESPN’s popular Get Up show, saying “this…man with sensitivity stuff that he’s doing on podcasts, I don’t want to hear it, I want a dog at that position.”

On FOX, host Colin Cowherd said, “Kirk Cousins stinks, he’s my size, he can’t throw the ball down the field, I don’t get it.”

Since Week 4, Cousins has quieted these folks.

He has won six of seven games — including two on national TV — and posted an NFL-best 121.6 quarterback rating with 18 touchdowns and one fluky interception. Cousins has worked his way into the MVP conversation.

He now has an opportunity to go into Seattle on Monday Night Football and beat another MVP candidate in Russell Wilson and put his team in the driver’s seat to make a deep run into the postseason.

If Cousins wins in Seattle under all the circumstances in which it’s always been said that he can’t win, we will have to ask ourselves: How did he overcome the NFL world collapsing down on him? Did he deserve all that criticism along the way?

“Like Michael Scott says…”

Often times with football analysis all intangibles are conflated together into one vague criticism. You hear things like, “he doesn’t have the ‘it’ factor,” and so forth. Cousins certainly makes things like that harder to pin down.

You can question his mental makeup because of poor performances in big games but he also became a Pro Bowl quarterback as a fourth-round pick in a hostile situation in Washington, where the president of the team called him “Kurt” on multiple occasions. You can say that he isn’t a rally-the-troops type but he’s a classic first-one-in-last-one-out type.

Again it’s a perfect storm for debate.

One thing that isn’t on the table for discussion after the last seven games is whether he can overcome being the center of that scrutiny storm.

At that same podium, Cousins said after a 20-point comeback win over Denver and worked in a Michael Scott reference to an answer about being ripped apart early in the year. He said:

“You guys can be as hard on me as you want. I’m living a dream. I’m well compensated. I’ve got to take the good with the bad. I’ve got a lot of good with my job. If that means there’s pressure and weight and expectations that sometimes are unfair, that comes with the territory. Welcome to maybe living life at a higher altitude than I used to. That’s okay. Sure, I would love to have all the credit and none of the blame, like Michael Scott says in The Office. It doesn’t work that way. If anything, I’d like to, when the blame gets there, I’d like to be able to set an example for my teammates of what it should look like to take blame and point the finger at yourself and to own up. I think, when you do that, you can send a message to people about how you should handle it.”

Former NFL quarterback Carson Palmer can relate.

He went from the savior of the Cincinnati Bengals to a bungle in Oakland to leading the Cardinals to the NFC Championship. Along the way he was torched and praised 1,000 times over, always depending on the most recent result. Palmer argues that if Cousins hadn’t been able to take the heat, he would have been out of the kitchen long ago.

“It’s one of those things that you hear guys say all the time that they don’t hear it but it’s impossible not to hear it,” Palmer told SKOR North. “It’s everywhere, especially during the football season. With all the media outlets you can’t be completely unaffected by it. There’s an effect it can have on you  if you aren’t good at blocking it out then you just don’t make it and you just don’t play as long as Kirk Cousins has been playing. He’s done a good job of not listening to all that noise and trying to focus on his job. The guys who can’t take the criticism.”

Palmer said he respects the fact that Cousins doesn’t try to fight back, in part because once you open that box, the lid doesn’t go back on.

“Colin Cowherd is one of the biggest names in the radio world and once you start those feuds or Twitter battles you are opening yourself up to more criticisms,” Palmer said. “It’s the landscape of the NFL, everybody is criticized and given too much respect and too much love when they win. But once you start talking trash to guys who sit in front of a microphone all day and have thousands or hundreds of thousands of followers it’s tough to get back from that. The only thing you can do to get out of that hole except win every game and that’s pretty hard to do.”

Where Cousins does seem to have grown is in his understanding of how all this works.

He’s come across as condescending at times when explaining that people outside TCO Performance Center couldn’t possibly understand whether he played well or not but this offseason he upped the self-aware meter by acknowledging that getting to the “next level” in his career means winning with a stacked team that has spent more cap space than anyone else in the NFL.

Without a win against Seattle, without a playoff win, Cousins won’t escape the same narratives about his struggles when it counts.

“Now is not the time to pat yourself on the back and look at rankings, the fact of the matter is that you’re only as good as your last game,” Cousins said this week. “I don’t get caught up in all of that stuff, I just want to go win, winning is the name of the game and it’s going to be a big challenge to go into Seattle on Monday night and get a win.”

“It’s uncharted territory for him…”

Kirk Cousins is playing the best football of his career but can it continue?

As long as we all live, people will dispute how much quarterbacks are to blame.

An added wrinkle to that mix is that more than ever the success of NFL quarterbacks seems to be determined by circumstances. Last year Jared Goff led the Rams to the Super Bowl. This year he has more interceptions than touchdowns. Last year with Miami Ryan Tannehill’s starting career was over, this year he’s a great redemption story with Tennessee. Neither quarterback changed, their situation did.

The same can be said for Kirk Cousins. He didn’t suddenly get the ball out quicker, the Vikings have schemed to better protect him. He didn’t improve his ability to find receivers other than Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs, the Vikings got better players in Irv Smith and Bisi Johnson. Instead of an inexperienced offensive mind running the show, Kevin Stefanski has the help of Gary Kubiak.

So how do we factor all of these things into determining whether A) past criticisms were fair and B) whether history will repeat itself over the next five games/playoffs?

The answer to A is probably: What can we prove?

For example: Can we prove that Cousins is bad in primetime because he has a bad win-loss record in national TV games? Not really. Over the last two years, he’s 3-4 with in primetime but has a 106.7 quarterback rating. From 2015-2017 in D.C. he was 4-7 with a 100.9 rating (per Pro-Football Reference play index). His average Pro Football Focus grade in primetime games as a Viking is 72.1, which isn’t as good as his 79.3 and 85.3 overall grades but isn’t far off either.

But there have been games in which Cousins’ team desperately needed him and he didn’t come through. In 2015 Washington made the playoffs against Green Bay and picked up an early two-score lead. They went on to lose 35-18 and Cousins scored a 44.0 PFF grade. In 2016 Cousins faced a win-and-in situation in Week 17. His offense produced 10 points, he graded a 69.4 by PFF and lost. In 2017 Washington had a chance to stay alive in the playoff race down the stretch but no-showed against Dallas and Los Angeles, scoring 27 total points in PFF graded 66.7 and 55.7 games by Cousins.

And then last year the Vikings fans who were skeptical of the Cousins signing got fuel to use for the entire offseason when the offense was shut down by Chicago in Week 17 and Cousins graded a 58.6, his fourth worst game of the year.

To say Cousins simply can’t win the big games is extremely shallow but in ’18 he struggled in all the spots that would connect to winning. He didn’t grade highly by PFF in “big-time throws,” or on third downs or on situations in which he couldn’t use play-action. He got sacked too much, fumbled more than anyone in the NFL and threw pick-sixes at the worst times.

“I think we’re getting better at understanding all the things in play,” Pro Football Focus’s Sam Monson told SKOR North. “We have more sophisticated tools of measuring quarterback performance than just box score numbers. Way back when we used to just be looking at: Were they winning games? How many yards did they throw for? How many touchdowns, how many interceptions, that kind of thing….I think we’re getting a better understanding of just how volatile quarterback play is.”

But this year all of the numbers that justified connecting him to his .500 career win-loss record have been blown into orbit. From 2015 to 2018, he graded 14th, 10th, 18th and 14th. This year Cousins ranks third only behind Russell Wilson and Lamar Jackson and No. 2 in passing. He’s even the third best passer in rating without play-action. The fumbles are mostly gone and sacks are more or less a rarity.

“Him playing at this level for 14 games would seem incredibly unlikely but he’s already had more games at this level than he’s ever achieved on a good run in the past,” Monson said. “Cousins has been incredibly consistent at being inconsistent throughout his entire career. He goes up, he goes down and it always ends up around the same sort of area over the course of a year…it’s unprecedented and uncharted territory for him.”

Things have been vastly different. If things continue down this path — starting with Monday night’s game in Seattle where he has an opportunity to atone for last year’s brutal performance — Cousins will make harsh one-liners from TV debate artists a thing of the distant past and prove to the fans still holding onto memories of Case Keenum’s 2017 season that signing him was the right move. If not, prepare for more of the same table-slapping topics.


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