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Zulgad: King of the rebound: Kirk Cousins does some of his best work after he's played his worst

NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Indianapolis Colts
Sep 20, 2020; Indianapolis, Indiana, USA; Indianapolis Colts defensive tackle Denico Autry (96) tackles Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins (8) for a safety in the first half at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Kirk Cousins was coming off a subpar performance in the Vikings’ Week 4 loss in Chicago last season, causing some to wonder how the quarterback would fare going forward. Cousins’ play was shaky and he appeared shaken.
He had completed 27 of 36 passes for 233 yards with no touchdowns and a 91.6 passer rating in a 10-point loss at Soldier Field that had upset star wide receiver Stefon Diggs so much he did not show up for work for two days. Two weeks earlier, Cousins had gone 14-of-32 for 230 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions and posted a 52.9 passer rating in a loss at Green Bay.
The Vikings were 2-2 — he had only thrown 10 passes in a Week 1 victory over Atlanta — and Cousins had reached what seemed to be a critical point in his season. In the first season of the three-year, $84 million free-agent contract Cousins had signed with the Vikings, the team had missed the playoffs. Now, Cousins was struggling when the Vikings needed him most and, whether it was his fault, one of his top receivers was skipping work.
Cousins’ response to the adversity was impressive. He hit on 22 of 27 passes for 306 yards with two touchdowns and a 138.6 passer rating in the Vikings’ following game, a 28-10 victory against the Giants at Met Life Stadium. That began a month in which Cousins led the Vikings to four victories, completing 91 of 116 passes for 1,262 yards with 10 touchdowns, one interception and a 137.1 passer rating. That earned him NFC Offensive Player of the Month honors and began the Vikings on the path to making their first playoff appearance with Cousins.
A year later, Cousins and the Vikings find themselves in a worse situation and again we are waiting to see how the quarterback responds. Cousins, who received a two-year, $66 million contract extension in March that will run through 2022, has played a big role in the Vikings’ miserable 0-2 start. He has completed only 30 of 51 passes (58.8 completion percentage) for 372 yards with two touchdowns, four interceptions and a 61.9 passer rating. His interception total is tied with Philadelphia’s Carson Wentz for the most in the NFL — Cousins threw six all of last season — and his passer rating is the worst.
Cousins had the most miserable game of his nine-year NFL career last Sunday in the Vikings’ loss at Indianapolis, completing only 11 of 26 passes for 113 yards with three interceptions and a 15.9 passer rating. “I don’t have a whole lot to add from Sunday’s game,” Cousins said Wednesday. “As suspected, we’ve got to be better. I’ve got to be better. Now we’re back to work this week, a new opponent, and we get that chance next Sunday to get this bad taste out of our mouths.”
That will come against the Tennessee Titans at U.S. Bank Stadium in what is shaping up to be an ugly season for the Vikings. It isn’t just the fact they have lost their first two games, it’s how they have lost the games. The team has come nowhere near passing the eye test in being outscored by a combined 71-45 by the Packers and the Colts. This isn’t just a Cousins issue, but he is going to take the brunt of the criticism and that isn’t unfair. He was signed in March 2018 to be the final, and most important piece, of what was considered a team that could win the Super Bowl with the right quarterback.
But Cousins hasn’t come close to living up to expectations on a consistent basis, and his statistical output has far too often benefited fantasy football players more than his own team. Cousins and the Vikings offense did nearly nothing when it mattered in Week 1 against the Packers, but he was fantastic when he began chasing the game.
So is Cousins’ season close to being a lost cause only two games in? His past performances indicate the answer is no. This spot long ago dubbed the Minnesota Wild as the “Furious Rallies” because of their love of making life nearly impossible for themselves before bouncing back when everyone thinks they are done. Cousins would fit in perfectly on Minnesota’s NHL team.
Nobody embraces the underdog role or seems to love being questioned more than Cousins. Cousins’ famous “You like that?” line came in 2015 after he led Washington to the largest comeback in franchise history in a one-point win over Tampa Bay.
His performance against the Giants was just another example. So was the way Cousins played following a brutal 27-6 loss to massive underdog Buffalo in Week 3 of the 2018 season at U.S. Bank Stadium. Cousins followed that by throwing for 422 yards and three touchdowns in a 38-31 loss to the Rams in Los Angeles. His passer rating against the Bills was 83.6. Against the Rams, it was 117.2. In terms of performance, it was one heck of a furious rally.
“I always have urgency,” Cousins said. “Going in Week 1, I feel it. Going in to Week 2, I feel it. And certainly now going into Week 3, I feel it.”
Even that might not be enough against the Titans, given the fact the Vikings’ already shaky defense will be without two starting cornerbacks (Cameron Dantzler and Mike Hughes), starting linebacker Anthony Barr, standout defensive end Danielle Hunter and defensive tackle Michael Pierce, who opted out of the season because of concerns related to COVID-19. The Vikings are giving up an average of 35.5 points per game, second-worst in the NFL.
The Vikings’ hope will have to be that Cousins can rebound from his awful performances and find a way to keep his team in this game. That will mean looking for wide receivers other than Adam Thielen, starting to use his tight ends more frequently and for offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak to find a way to incorporate running back Dalvin Cook into the game plan.
If all of these things happen, and Cousins starts to play better, there is a chance the Vikings’ highly paid quarterback will earn his salary for the first time this season. Rightfully, there are probably plenty of doubters. That means Cousins has us right where he wants us.