EAGAN — Considering the meaningless nature of all preseason games, Kirk Cousins could have easily blown off his 3-for-13 performance at US Bank Stadium against the Arizona Cardinals.
They used to call the third preseason game a “dress rehearsal” but with starting quarterbacks playing less and less and coaches refusing to show their cards, it’s more of a marketing tool than a tune up for players. But Cousins elected to put the offenses’s struggles on his shoulders.
“Really disappointing performance,’’ Cousins said. “Put it on me. It wasn’t good enough. If we play that way during the season, it’s going to be a very tough year. We have to be much better than we were…”
He stopped to correct himself.
“I really should say I have to be much better than I was. It’s about as simple as that.”
Cousins’ post-game comments are emblematic of Vikings quarterback learning from last year that his circumstances are different now. That the pressures of playing under an $84 million contract on a team that should be a Super Bowl contender are much different than his previous situation, where he was a good-story underdog who is one of the lone bright spots in an otherwise sorry franchise. Post-game words matter more here.
Cousins has taken a different tone at the podium since minicamp, when he acknowledged that getting to the “next level” meant taking a strong team deep into the playoffs.
“I think the next level is all about winning,” Cousins said on June 12. “I’m pretty much a .500 quarterback in my career so far and I don’t think that’s where you want to be and why you are brought in or people are excited about you.”
He also acknowledged early in training camp that he wanted to focus on being a better leader when it came to bringing teammates along in a new offense.
The lasting image of the 2018 season was his contentious back-and-forth in Week 17 with Adam Thielen — and that wasn’t the only time the two debated how things should be done. They had a similar “conversation” in 2018 OTAs and Cousins said afterward that they had a “pity party” at their lockers about a tough day in practice.
This time around, head coach Mike Zimmer said that he’s seen changes to the veteran quarterback’s approach in installing the Gary Kubiak/Kevin Stefanski offense.
“I think Kirk, he’s been different coming in here this spring and preseason as opposed to when he came in here last year,” Zimmer said. “I think he’s more about trying to help guys out and do his job, get the guys around him in the huddle on the right page and go from there. I don’t know that he’s going out of his way to change how he is or who he is.”
Cousins said that he didn’t specifically put a focus on changing his approach but noted that he has tried to make it easy for teammates to pull him aside and talk about details of the new offense.
“It’s always about communicating, asking questions, going to players and pursuing them, trying to pull information out of them, not everybody is comfortable coming to a veteran and asking them a question,” Cousins. “So you want to make sure you’re sending a message to younger players that you are here and you are available so they do feel comfortable to do that.”
Often times in football things like culture and leadership are overblown in a media world desperate for storylines but the juxtaposition of Cousins’ 4,000 yards, 30 touchdowns paired with the sideline yelling match and his 8-7-1 record put the Vikings quarterback’s intangibles under the microscope heading into a season that will shape the future of the franchise.
Can he get everyone on the same page? Can he make people around him believe that they can succeed? Can he show up when it matters most?
Of course, there are many ways to lead a team.
Receiver Stefon Diggs said he hasn’t noticed anything decidedly different but pointed to Cousins’ consistent preparation as a way of leading.
“He’s kind of been the same guy for us as far as how he carries himself, how he leads this team, he’s come in with the same mindset, how he prepares, how he leads up to each and every day,” Diggs said. “He goes out on the practice field and does his job. That’s my guy.”
But preparation and helping others with the offense are just some of the boxes that need to be checked under the “leadership” category, according to current Tampa Bay Bucs head coach Bruce Arians. In his book The Quarterback Whisperer, Arians wrote about how QBs that he coached like Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Carson Palmer and Andrew Luck displayed their leadership qualities.
“Whenever the quarterback puts the team above himself, that’s an expression of heart,” Arians wrote. “If a quarterback doesn’t have this, his teammates will see it…and wont believe in him. The quarterback doesn’t have to be the most popular player in the locker room but he sure better have the respect of every man on the roster. And that level of respect is possible…through displays of heart.”
Cousins displayed toughness last season, taking hits as he let passes go and often times finding his target regardless of the defender coming down on him. Those plays fit Arians’ description. He was among the league leaders in QB rating when pressured and number of times he was hit. But Cousins struggled in many of the biggest moments that defined the season — moments where his teammates needed the quarterback to make a big play.
Week 17, a meltdown against Chicago with a win-and-in scenario is the most obvious example but there was also a fumble on the final drive with a chance to tie a shootout against the Los Angeles Rams, a key pick-six and failed fourth down against the Saints and an offensive no-show in Seattle on Monday Night Football.
Against teams with a winning record in ’18, the Vikings went 1-6 and Cousins posted a 93.7 QB rating (17th in team rating). Against teams that finished with a losing record they were 7-1-1 and the starting QB managed a 105.0 rating (eighth).
His 5-13 in primetime and 4-24 against teams with a winning record during his career became the target of criticism throughout last season. Cousins said last year that the primetime record was probably due to playing tough teams. But the Vikings are supposed to beat tough teams.
“I think if there’s a difference it’s that you’re going to be playing good football teams,” Cousins said. “We got flexed to that primetime last week because we were playing a really good football team. If either of us weren’t good, I don’t think we get flexed. If there is a difference with primetime, I don’t know of any other difference. I certainly don’t treat them any differently.”
Of course win-loss record isn’t always a good measure of a quarterback. There are plenty of factors — defense, luck, injuries etc. — that go into a QB’s win-loss tally. And a closer look at all of his primetime games find that he put together somewhere between solid and great performances at least half the time throughout his four years as a full-time starter.
But with the 2019 Vikings — just like 2018 — things like opponents/injuries/luck/kicking etc. look like excuses more than explanations.
The front office and Zimmer spent years putting together a top-notch defense, they hired Kubiak to assist the offense, they spent the first four draft picks on offense and even recently signed a former Cousins teammate in Josh Doctson to fill out the receiving corps.
It’s somewhat of a unique position that the fan base, ownership and team aren’t interested in yardage totals or PFF grades, they are only interested in whether their quarterback can come through in the biggest games and take them back to the playoffs and beyond.
And Cousins will have every opportunity to do so and in turn erase the narrative about his intangibles.
But he’ll have to go a long way to get there. With five primetime games and a tough division, playing well in half of the “big” games might not be enough for the Vikings to make it deep into the postseason.
Former NFL quarterback Brooks Bollinger, speaking on the Purple Daily show on SKOR North, said that the Vikings’ starting QB has to navigate the rough waters in order to fulfill expectations.
“I think he can be two different people,” Bollinger said on Purple Daily. “I think when he’s comfortable he’s in rhythm, he’s accurate, he throws the ball on time, he throws the ball where it should go. What I think is going to have to change from last year is…when there are cracks that show up and he gets hit in the mouth a couple times or there is some adversity or Thielen is chirping him or Diggs is chirping him or whatever, what happens then? It seems to me that it either goes well and smooth and it’s kind of pretty…when there is adversity and some tougher times he gets tense and always wants to try so hard and it gets a little choppy.”
It may be intangibles that we’re looking for but the tangible results of leading a team and stepping up in important situations can be shown on paper. Cousins was graded 23rd by PFF on third downs last season, 20th in “big-time” throws and operated the 21st ranked red zone offense.
If these things improve — even if bolstered by a better supporting cast and smarter offensive design — Cousins could find himself in a category of quarterbacks who changed their public perception. If not, he will enter the final year of his three-year contract battling an even steeper hill.