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Zulgad: This one’s on Kirk: How QB didn’t get himself benched in loss to Falcons is a mystery

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Atlanta Falcons safety Ricardo Allen celebrates in front of Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins (8) after a defensive stop during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Oct. 18, 2020, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Bruce Kluckhohn)

MINNEAPOLIS — There have been many Vikings’ losses since Kirk Cousins became the team’s quarterback in which the postgame refrain went like this: Kirk didn’t play well but what about the offensive line, or the defensive breakdown, or a dropped ball, or anything that was considered to be out of his control.

On Sunday, even the staunchest Cousins defenders had nothing that could be used to take the veteran quarterback off the hook. The Vikings put an embarrassing display in a 40-23 loss to the previously winless Atlanta Falcons. If there was a poster child for this defeat it was Cousins.

Cousins threw an interception on the first play from scrimmage to set up a Falcons touchdown. He would throw two more before the half leading to 10 more points for Atlanta. Cousins was 8-of-14 for 102 yards with three picks and a 40.5 passer rating at halftime, but because he’s the Vikings $84 million man, with a contract extension in hand, it didn’t appear that any thought was given to turning over the ball to backup Sean Mannion.

The question was what would the Vikings have had to lose by going to Mannion in the second half? Is he that bad? He couldn’t have been worse than Cousins and, please, do not be fooled by Cousins’ final stats: 24-of-36 for 343 yards with three touchdowns, three picks and a 90.4 passer rating. The final numbers meant nothing. If ever a quarterback deserved to be benched it was Cousins. The problem was that coach Mike Zimmer didn’t make the move in part because of the message that might have sent to ownership as the team enters its bye week.

Entering Sunday, it was the contention from this corner that the Vikings would not make a coaching change even if they lost. Falcons owner Arthur Blank had fired general manager Thomas Dimitroff and coach Dan Quinn after Atlanta dropped to 0-5 last Sunday, but in a season in which many regular revenues aren’t being generated, that’s an expensive move. Especially for the Vikings, who signed general manager Rick Spielman and Zimmer to three-year contract extensions during the offseason. Those deals will begin next year.

But the Vikings didn’t just lose Sunday’s game, they no-showed it and that started with a quarterback whom Zygi and Mark Wilf were convinced to give a two-year, $66 million contract extension to in March too create more salary-cap room so the Vikings could remain competitive in 2020. Yes, the Vikings have lost some key parts of their defense. Defensive end Danielle Hunter’s season is almost certainly done because of a neck injury and nose tackle Michael Pierce opted out because of concerns related to the pandemic.

But there’s a difference between losing games when a team is trying and what the Vikings displayed on Sunday as they fell to 1-5. Do I think Spielman and Zimmer are going to get fired in the coming days? No. Did their players put forth the type of effort that showed they didn’t care if their bosses do get sacked? Yes.

The Falcons were expected to look better under interim coach Raheem Morris, but they certainly weren’t expected to run away with the game. Atlanta led 20-0 at halftime, the same score that the Denver Broncos led the Vikings by in Week 11 last season at U.S. Bank Stadium. That’s the game in which wide receiver Stefon Diggs singlehandedly willed his team back in the second half as the Vikings rallied for a 27-23 victory. But Diggs is gone now to Buffalo — it’s now clear why he wanted out of Minnesota — and Cousins and his teammates simply remained silent on the sideline on Sunday as the meltdown got worse. Again, don’t be fooled by those who were able to pad their stats.

Thankfully, only a small amount of fans were in the building to witness one of the worst losses of Zimmer’s six-plus seasons as coach.

The Vikings were coming off a close loss in Seattle in a game in which they looked competitive. That came a week after they recorded their first win of the season, beating the Houston Texans. That game got general manager and coach Bill O’Brien fired.

The Vikings took advantage of the Texans’ apathy. On Sunday, it was the guys in purple who looked like they didn’t care if Zimmer was leading the team when they return from the bye. Rookie wide receiver Justin Jefferson did have another fantastic game, catching nine passes for 166 yards and two touchdowns.

What was surprising was his second-half production came on throws from Cousins. There was no reason Cousins should have been left in the game and there was certainly no incentive to allow him to accumulate meaningless statistics. Mannion isn’t the answer for this franchise at quarterback, but Cousins wasn’t the answer either on Sunday.

If nothing else, Cousins should have been forced to watch this gross display of football, just like the rest of us were.