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Zulgad: The last chance? Kirk Cousins and Vikings need to go on the offensive in 2021

NFL: NFC Wild Card-Minnesota Vikings at New Orleans Saints
Jan 5, 2020; New Orleans, Louisiana, USA; Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins (8) reacts during the second quarter of a NFC Wild Card playoff football game against the New Orleans Saints at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook -USA TODAY Sports

Kirk Cousins isn’t vaccinated for COVID-19, is overpaid, only has one playoff win in three seasons and is nothing more than a guy who puts up an impressive box score with garbage time success. Kirk Cousins’ vaccination status is none of your business, his salary is far from the Vikings’ biggest problem, the team has never given him the necessary support to be successful and his stats speak for themselves.

There is a large group of Vikings fans who believe the former to be the truth and maybe a larger group who dismiss the former as haters and claim the latter is absolutely correct. The only thing everyone can agree on is that Cousins has become one of the most polarizing figures in franchise history since arriving as a free agent in 2018.

There is another truth on which the majority should agree: That is that the 2021 season is likely a make-or-break year for Cousins in Minnesota, as it is for coach Mike Zimmer and maybe general manager Rick Spielman. Cousins’ salary-cap figure of $31 million for 2021 is second among NFL quarterbacks to the $32 million cap hit Seattle is taking on Russell Wilson’s contract. Cousins’ cap hit is set to jump to $45 million in 2022, putting him behind Atlanta’s Matt Ryan ($48.663 million) and Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers ($46.144)

But Ryan’s deal is almost certain to be reworked, assuming he remains in Atlanta, and we don’t know if Rodgers will be back with the Packers. Cousins will be going into the last season of his contract, so the Vikings’ options will be to either extend his contract for the second time (with plenty of guaranteed money) or trade him and turn over the job to third-round pick Kellen Mond. According to the Over The Cap website, the Vikings would save $35 million against the cap, while taking a $10 million hit, if they deal Cousins to another team.

The Vikings can begin to make this decision on Sunday in Cincinnati as they open the season against the Bengals. Minnesota’s revamped defense has been the big story, but there is no reason why Cousins and the offense can’t do plenty of the heavy lifting. Despite a disappointing 7-9 finish last season, the Vikings finished fourth in total offense and 11th in scoring.

The loss of tight end Irv Smith Jr., to a likely season-ending meniscus injury in the final preseason game will impact the passing game but there’s still plenty to like. Wide receiver Justin Jefferson is expected to build off a fantastic rookie season, and veteran Adam Thielen remains a sure-handed threat. Dalvin Cook is one of the NFL’s best running backs and also can make an impact in the passing game.

The Vikings selected left tackle Christian Darrisaw with the 23rd pick in the first round and planned to plug him in as the opening-day starter, but that won’t happen because of a groin injury that required surgery in January and then another procedure during training camp. Darrisaw hasn’t taken part in a practice since the Vikings reported to camp and it’s not certain when he will be able to play.

That puts a lot of pressure on veteran backup Rashod Hill, who has started only two games the past two seasons. Other than right tackle Brian O’Neill, who was rewarded with a rich contract extension this week, the Vikings are going to have to hope that tackle-turned-guard Oli Udoh will be a quick study playing beside O’Neill, that first-round center Garrett Bradbury finally will have some success in pass protection and Ezra Cleveland will make a smooth transition from right to left guard.

The line, however, isn’t the biggest question when it comes to the Vikings’ offense.

Klint Kubiak has replaced his father, Gary, as coordinator and it remains to be seen what type of freedom Zimmer will give the 34-year-old to turn Cousins and the passing game loose. Kubiak spent the past two seasons as the Vikings’ quarterbacks coach but never before has served as a coordinator. Gary Kubiak and Zimmer were close because they were two crusty football lifers.

Gary Kubiak also knew what Zimmer wanted when it came to play calling. Despite Cousins’ salary, and the presence of Jefferson and Thielen, the Vikings finished last season 27th in the NFL with 516 passing attempts and eighth with 468 rushing attempts. By comparison, the Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers were second with 626 passing attempts and 29th with 369 rushing attempts. The AFC champion Kansas City Chiefs were first in passing attempts (630) and 23rd in rushing attempts (403).

Zimmer appears to be happiest when the Vikings’ offense is controlling the clock by running the ball with Cook — keeping his defense rested — and when Cousins isn’t taking too many chances. The last coordinator who went against Zimmer’s wishes was John DeFilippo and he was fired with three games left in his first season with the team.

Browns coach Kevin Stefanski was promoted to take over for DeFilippo, but Stefanski was able to spend 2019 bouncing ideas off Gary Kubiak. Klint Kubiak won’t have that advantage, at least on game days, because his father is enjoying retirement in Texas.

But offensive line issues and Kubiak’s inexperience are nothing more than excuses for a team that is running out of time to deliver on the promise that existed on the day that Cousins signed his contract and visions of a Super Bowl danced in the heads of Vikings fans.

If the Vikings are going to come close to approaching that goal this season, Cousins will have to overcome adversity, avoid COVID, prove he’s worth every penny of his contract and silence the skeptics once and for all. Is that too much to ask? We’re about to find out.