Getting the groundbreaking contract was the relatively easy part, given the way that Kirk Cousins tilted the NFL’s economic landscape in his favor by hitting the unrestricted free agent market following two franchise tags by the Washington Redskins. Now comes the tougher task as Cousins’s first season with the Minnesota Vikings nears: living up to that contract.
The Vikings did not explicitly attach a Super Bowl-or-bust label to their season when they signed Cousins in March to a fully guaranteed three-year, $84 million deal, but they may as well have. They ousted a quarterback, in Case Keenum, who played at close to an MVP level last season and took them to the NFC championship game. So clearly they believe that adding Cousins amounts to putting the final piece of a Super Bowl puzzle in place. Much is being paid, and much is expected in return.
“He got exactly what he was hoping for,” former Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann said. “The pressure that comes with a contract like that is tremendous. But he spent two years in Washington betting on himself. He knows what that’s like. He’s going to put, what, $120-some million in the bank over the course of five years? He’s going to be okay. So it’s not economic. It’s whether you deliver.”
Will it work? There are plenty of reasons to believe that it will. Cousins, coming off three straight 4,000-yard passing seasons with the Redskins, is surrounded by what appears to be a Super Bowl-ready team. The Vikings have one of the league’s top wide receiver tandems in Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs. Running back Dalvin Cook returns from the torn anterior cruciate ligament that cut short his promising rookie season. The Vikings ranked first in the NFL last season in total defense and scoring defense.
But there are also issues. The offensive line is an area of major concern, particularly with recent injuries causing reshuffling on the interior. Cousins was asked about that instability following Saturday’s preseason loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars, in which he completed only 3 of 8 passes for 12 yards in his abbreviated outing.
“It’s not ideal,” Cousins said. “But I’ve never gone into a season expecting ideal circumstances or ideal outcomes. So you learn to just roll with the punches in this league, and you can’t start to say, ‘Well, that’s not how we drew it up, so now we’re not going to plan on doing great things.’ You have to just play and take whatever’s thrown at you. That’s the only way you have a chance to have success.”
Keenum demonstrated good movement in the pocket last season while passing for 3,547 yards and 22 touchdowns in 15 games, including 14 starts. He threw only seven interceptions and had a passer rating of 98.3. Cousins will have to play extremely well to represent an upgrade over that.
“I’d rather have Cousins than Keenum going forward,” a personnel executive with another NFC team said recently. “I’m not sure Keenum will be able to do that again. But he was really good last year. I’m not sure he got enough credit. Everyone thinks this is a great setup for Cousins. But if they can’t protect him, he doesn’t move that great and you can force him into some bad throws if you get pressure on him.”
Cousins seems to be a good fit with the approach of the Vikings’ new offensive coordinator, John DeFilippo, who was hired after Pat Shurmur’s departure to become the head coach of the New York Giants. DeFilippo most recently was the quarterbacks coach of the Philadelphia Eagles.
The Eagles’ offense thrived last season with the run-pass options that have become the NFL’s latest offensive craze. Cousins is well suited to making the quick reads and delivering the darting throws necessary to make such plays work and get the football rapidly into the hands of his playmaking receivers. He also could thrive off the play-action passing game.
But Vikings Coach Mike Zimmer made it clear from the outset that the team must adjust its offense to Cousins, more so than Cousins adjusting to the offense. At the annual league meeting in March, Zimmer spoke to Los Angeles Rams Coach Sean McVay and San Francisco 49ers Coach Kyle Shanahan, both former Redskins offensive coordinators, about Cousins.
“These guys just rave about him,” Zimmer said then. “So I don’t think the learning curve will be big. But it’s important for us as coaches to do what he does the best. I’ve always said that your offense should be what the quarterback does best, away from, ‘Okay, whatever the playbook says.’ Obviously we’ve got the playbook in, all the installation and all that stuff. That can all go out the window when we get our hands on it and get to know exactly what he’s doing and what he feels comfortable with. You don’t pay that guy that much money to try to put him in a square hole.”
Cousins’s reign as the sport’s highest-paid player was short. His contract’s average annual value quickly was surpassed by that of the five-year, $150 million extension that quarterback Matt Ryan signed with the Atlanta Falcons in May. But Cousins’s contract remains unique because guaranteed deals are so rare in the NFL.
“It is completely fresh, and Kirk is our guy,” Zimmer said in the offseason. “Hopefully we can continue to do some things we did last year. We played pretty good on defense most of the time. We have a good football team. We have a great organization, great owners. If we can just continue to keep getting better, keep trying to get a little bit better every day, maybe we can finally get over that one last game that we didn’t get over last year.”
Cousins said following Saturday’s game that he’d grown accustomed to being asked about the pressure accompanying his new job.
“I don’t go out on third down and think about the pressure,” Cousins said. “I’m thinking about coverage, blitzes, setting the protection the right way, making my reads, my footwork. So it just doesn’t really end up affecting the actual operation of the job. Is there pressure to play in this league? Yes, there always has been. I felt a great deal of pressure as a rookie just fighting to make the team and to wonder if I was even going to have a career here as a professional.
“So there’s pressure for every guy that’s out there. It’s a very competitive league, small margin for error. You’ve got to recognize the pressure for what it is and then put it on the shelf and go to work and not let it get in your way. There’s enough for me to think about, enough for me to be doing, that I don’t really need to be thinking about all that goes with that on the outside.”
Theismann said he believes all will go well.
“If you look back at last year, he had a terrific year,” Theismann said in a phone interview. “And he had no wide receivers to speak about. [Redskins tight end] Jordan Reed was not available. His offensive line had a bunch of guys get hurt. Trent [Williams, the Redskins’ left tackle] was in and out of there. And yet he managed to put up numbers. Now you look at the people around him in Minnesota. He could have an MVP-type year because of the people around him.”
Cousins threw an average of 12 interceptions per season over the last three years with the Redskins. There is the perception that he is particularly turnover-prone with games on the line. He and the Vikings cannot afford for Cousins to allow that reputation to manifest itself in the big games they expect to be playing as this season progresses.
“In Washington, he made critical mistakes,” Theismann said. “He turned the ball over at crucial times in games. That will spell the difference of whether he does what he’s expected to do in Minnesota. If he’s driving toward a winning touchdown and he throws an interception, the answer will be, ‘That’s the Kirk we’ve seen before.’ If he doesn’t, people will say he’s worth every penny.”
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