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Zulgad: Vikings take another expensive gamble that Kirk Cousins is the answer at quarterback

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Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins (8) reacts during the second half of an NFL football game against the San Francisco 49ers in Santa Clara, Calif., Sunday, Nov. 28, 2021. (AP Photo/Jed Jacobsohn)

There will be no more need for excuses from Kirk Cousins and his apologists. By this time next year, the Vikings quarterback either will have proven that former general manager Rick Spielman and coach Mike Zimmer never did right by him during his first four seasons in Minnesota, or Cousins will have only himself to blame if his team again disappoints.

Cousins, who has led the Vikings to only one playoff appearance and one win since signing a three-year, fully guaranteed $84 million contract in 2018, agreed to his third contract extension with the franchise on Sunday. This time it’s reportedly a one-year, $35 million extension that is fully guaranteed. Cousins will make $40 million in 2022 and $30 million in 2023.

The 33-year-old was given a no-trade clause — something he got in his first contract with Minnesota — but agreed to two voidable years (2024 and ’25) that enables the Vikings to lower his cap hit from $45 million to $31.25 million for the coming season. That is key considering the Vikings must be in compliance with the 2022 salary cap by 3 p.m. Wednesday and were $15 million over the cap starting Sunday. The team is now a manageable $1.612 million over the cap with the NFL’s legal tampering period set to start at 11 a.m. Monday.

Despite receiving calls about Cousins’ availability and reportedly checking with the Texans on quarterback Deshaun Watson, new general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and coach Kevin O’Connell had made it clear since taking their jobs that they wanted the opportunity to work with Cousins. O’Connell had served as Cousins’ quarterbacks coach in 2017 with Washington and was hired in part because the Vikings feel he can get the most out of Cousins and win immediately after back-to-back non-playoff seasons under Zimmer.

We’re about to find out if the new brain trust can deliver.

O’Connell, who had been the offensive coordinator for the Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams and Sean McVay, will be counted on to get an MVP-type of season from Cousins that doesn’t only include flashy statistics but takes him from being the 11th to 14th best quarterback in the NFL to a top eight passer in the league every week.

Building and keeping the current roster will be easier with Cousins now set to take up 15 percent of the Vikings’ cap in 2022. The Vikings need to add a guard and center who can give Cousins one of the NFL’s best offensive lines, and a defense that was one of the worst in the NFL last season needs to find plenty of help for new coordinator Ed Donatell.

Vikings owner Mark Wilf said on the day Spielman and Zimmer were fired that he felt the Vikings could be competitive next season and it’s looking more and more as if he thinks running Spielman’s roster back (with a few changes) will be sufficient. The big change will be the move from the defensive-minded Zimmer to the offensive-driven O’Connell.

The Vikings will lean into their offense — which could be great fun — but it’s going to put the onus on Cousins to lead a unit that can outscore opponents on a weekly basis. That seems possible given some of the Vikings’ skill-position players (Justin Jefferson, Adam Thielen, Dalvin Cook, Irv Smith Jr.) but it will call on Cousins to trust himself and take the type of risks he’s always tried to avoid. O’Connell will give Cousins more support than Zimmer — and a far better scheme than Klint Kubiak did last season — but can he get Cousins to change his mindset and become someone he never has been?

Cousins is going to make mistakes in O’Connell’s offense and can’t afford to allow that to impact him for the remainder of the game like he did when he threw an interception against San Francisco this season. There will be no room for getting flustered.

Jefferson should never be eliminated by an opponent as he was at times last season because O’Connell will move him around and find ways to scheme out of constant safety help. But Cousins, who threw for 4,221 yards and 33 touchdowns and seven interceptions in 2021, is going to be relied on to trust himself to make consistently tough throws. Checking down at the first sign of trouble isn’t part of the blue print that got O’Connell this job.

The plan O’Connell will introduce is one that puts pressure on his quarterback to not make mistakes while putting up big stats, big points and lots of wins. If Cousins can do that, the Viking will have made a wise move to continue to invest in him. If he can’t, Adofo-Mensah and O’Connell could end up suffering the same fate as their predecessors.