EAGAN, Minn. — Last year, after his first offseason workouts with the Minnesota Vikings, Kirk Cousins took an Uber to a hotel room, where he picked outfits from an unpacked suitcase. He purchased a home before training camp but then had to fill it with furniture. He can think of 15 other ways his life transitioned. They are small things, but together, he recognizes now, they add up to a big thing.
“There were moments where you look back and you go, ‘Man, I never thought about free agency and leaving a team and how much goes into that from just a life and career standpoint,’ ” Cousins said. “It creates a lot of stress.”
Cousins feels at home now, entering his second season of a fully guaranteed, three-year, $84 million contract that made him Minnesota’s franchise quarterback and the best hope of a Super Bowl-starved fan base. He wakes up in his own house with an organized closet and a car in the garage. Every face he sees is familiar. The Vikings have crafted their coaching staff and roster to fit him. All he needs to do now, he knows, is win.
The Vikings expected to contend for the franchise’s first Super Bowl title last year. By January, they had fired offensive coordinator John DeFilippo, slumped to an 8-7-1 record and missed the playoffs. Cousins compiled dazzling statistics, completing 70.1 percent of his passes and throwing for 4,298 yards. But the figure most associated with him remains 5-26 — his record against winning teams, including a loss in his only career playoff start.
Cousins used two words to define his offseason: frustration and impatience. He feels urgency to “make amends” for his first season in Minnesota. Despite those feelings, Cousins comes to a surprising, although inarguably valid, summation of last season.
“When I factored in everything, I had my best year,” Cousins said. “That doesn’t say much because we only went 8-7-1 and didn’t make the playoffs, so that’s not good enough. I also, in my four years [starting], the best I’ve been able to be a part of is 9-7. It’s not like I had a year where we went 14-2, either.”
To bridge the gap, the Vikings have both constructed their operation around Cousins and tried to ensure he carries a lighter burden. A season with Cousins better informed the Vikings of his strengths and deficiencies, and Coach Mike Zimmer built a staff catered to them.
The Vikings used their first two draft picks on offensive players. Their first-round pick, center Garrett Bradbury, possesses the athleticism to fit into the zone running scheme the Vikings plan to implement, and he will be charged with helping upgrade a pass-protection unit that struggled last year. In the second round, the Vikings chose Alabama tight end Irv Smith, a pass-catching threat to complement Kyle Rudolph, whom they re-signed in free agency.
While not anointing Smith, General Manager Rick Spielman compared Smith to Jordan Reed, who thrived with Cousins in Washington, as a tight end who can line up anywhere and create mismatches.
“You want those guys to feel comfortable and just go out and play, and everything just comes natural to them,” Spielman said. “By the things we put in place this offseason, he can just go out there and play.”
The Vikings promoted Kevin Stefanski to interim offensive coordinator last year, and they put him in the job permanently this offseason. Stefanski will run an offensive system heavily influenced by former Super Bowl-winning coach Gary Kubiak, whom the Vikings hired as an assistant head coach and offensive analyst. Kubiak’s son, Klint, will coach quarterbacks.
Gary Kubiak learned under Mike Shanahan, who drafted Cousins in Washington. Cousins ran a similar system during his first two NFL seasons, and this offseason has been a process to revert to the fundamentals he once used.
“I’ve kind of got to unwire my brain to stop doing some of the things I’ve been doing for five years and go back to what I was doing,” Cousins said. “And that’s been a tough transition. I’ve instinctually gone to fundamentals I’ve developed over five years, and I’ve got to unlearn that and do things a different way. I’m still in that process.”
Cousins and the Vikings believe it will be worth it. Last year, Zimmer openly chafed at how many pass plays DeFilippo called, then fired him with three games left in the season. Stefanski and Kubiak will run a system reliant on outside-zone runs, play-action and bootlegs. When Stefanski reviewed video of last season with Cousins, he told him he had too often started in the shotgun and dropped back, creating too little indecision in the defense.
“There are times where I‘ve said in meetings, ‘Wow, I can’t believe I went five years in this league without that element’ — without that play, without that route, without that piece of the play,” Cousins said. “It’s such a great improvement.”
More play-action could be crucial for Cousins. The Vikings ran play-action on 20.8 percent of his dropbacks, 27th among quarterbacks who dropped back at least 200 times. He completed 77.1 percent of those passes, second only to the New Orleans Saints’ Drew Brees, and posted a 116.1 passer rating (compared with 95.2 on regular dropbacks), which ranked seventh.
“Kirk works really hard in the ballhandling aspect of the game, and that’s in the run game and in the play-pass game,” Stefanski said. “When he sticks that ball out there, it looks exactly the same as it does on a run and on a play-action pass.”
The Vikings also expect a breakout from third-year running back Dalvin Cook, who if healthy could be one of the most dynamic backs in the NFL. Only five teams attempted more passes than the Vikings last season.
“We can’t drop back 60 percent of the time and expect our offense to hold up and for him to stay healthy,” tight end Kyle Rudolph said. “You want to do things that put him in comfortable and favorable situations. It’s what we did in 2017 that allowed us to be extremely successful. . . . That’s what we’re trying to get back to.”
The Vikings have essentially changed Cousins’s role. Last year, the Vikings asked him to carry them. This year, they are asking him to be a better version of 2017 Case Keenum, who, along with one of the NFL’s best defenses, led Minnesota to within a win of the Super Bowl.
“The other thing, too, is getting all those expectations off of him,” Spielman said. “You don’t have to worry about throwing for ungodly stats. If you look at his stats last year, I’d take that every day of the week. We’re not worried about that. We’re worried about how we’re going to win games — not only Kirk, but how the rest of our team can improve to win games. You’ll get measured by that more than you get on your so-called stats.”
Cousins’s results in big games remain central to his narrative — a competent quarterback who produces gaudy stats but stumbles when it matters most. Those struggles could be attributed to playing most of his career for a Washington franchise that has been adrift for two decades. But he also went 1-6 last year against winning teams with a roster pegged as a Super Bowl contender.
Cousins addresses that narrative with gentle defiance. “You got to peel back that stat a little bit,” he said. He doesn’t run from it, but he doesn’t accept it, either.
“You got to beat winning teams eventually, right?” Cousins said. “But I also would go back and say, how many of those games — because that includes some years in Washington, right? — were we the favorite? Most of them, we weren’t picked to win. So then we don’t win, and it’s like, ‘He didn’t win!’ Well, the spread said we wouldn’t win. That’s one thing that kind of gets lost.”
Cousins has quarterbacked seven games as a favorite against a winning team. He has lost six of them, including his only playoff start — a home loss to the Green Bay Packers in 2015.
He acknowledges he needs to win more of those games, and that in many of them — particularly in crucial losses to the eventual NFC North champion Chicago Bears last year — he didn’t perform well enough. But he is also honest about his successes. He called Minnesota’s 38-31 loss to the Los Angeles Rams, when he threw for 422 yards and three touchdowns, one of the best games of his career.
“There have been some losses — and you can go back and point them out — that I played my best football,” Cousins said. “We lost, but I walk off the field saying, ‘Man, I’m getting better, and I’m playing really well.’ We may have lost. The Packers last year in Green Bay, we tied, I walked off the field saying: ‘I’ve never done that. I’ve never gone on the road like that, thrown for 400 yards in a hostile environment like that and brought the team back with a touchdown and two-point conversion in the final minute of the game.’ That was special. And we tied. We didn’t win. But I walk away saying: ‘I’m getting better. We didn’t do that in Washington.’ ”
This week, Cousins sat on a couch outside the Vikings’ locker room in their palatial team facility, next to a bar full of sports drinks. He put his hand even with his chest and slowly moved it toward his chin, then nose, then eyes. He used the motion to explain his career. As a fourth-round pick, his first few training camps felt like the Super Bowl. He became a starter, then a Pro Bowler. The next rung is competing to make the Super Bowl. Cousins feels comfortable now, but he knows he is far from finished with his rise.
“That bar keeps getting raised,” he said, “but you’re still chasing something.”
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