One-third of the way into his ground-breaking fully-guaranteed contract with the Minnesota Vikings, Kirk Cousins sees value — however hollow — in Minnesota’s non-playoff season that ended flatly Sunday afternoon with a 24-10 loss to the Chicago Bears.
“It’s OK to be disappointed,” said Cousins. “I think, if anything, it will sharpen us and give us an edge as we prepare for next year. And I think that’s a good thing.”
The fans, on the other hand, may not be as ready to move forward.
Cousins delivered this year as one might’ve expected, based on his numbers with the Washington Redskins. He threw for over 4,000 yards, tossed between 25-30 touchdowns and threw between 10-15 interceptions, as he’d done each of the previous three years.
Many assumed that would be enough to lift the Vikings to heights unreached in over four decades — a Super Bowl appearance. After plateauing in the NFC Championship Game four times since 1998, including a disastrous 38-7 loss in Philadelphia the year prior, Cousins was the alleged missing piece. But his season-long performance, while statistically adequate, left plenty to be desired when evaluated by the eye test.
His seven lost fumbles were a regression from four years of cautious quarterback play under Mike Zimmer, and his immobility in the pocket became an easy juxtaposition against Teddy Bridgewater and Case Keenum, both of whom won the NFC North with weaker arms but greater playmaking ability.
Cousins has yet to win 10 or more games — or a playoff game — in four full seasons as a starter.
He believes there is growth to be made in the next two seasons of his lucrative pact. But it will be many months before he can start demonstrating those strides and dissolving the skepticism of his mounting critics.
“I’m excited about the years ahead to build rapport with these guys, because this was Year 1,” said Cousins. “And I remember when I played in Washington and we went to the playoffs, and at the end, the message was, ‘Hey, this is only your first year starting. Think how much better you are going to get going forward.’
“I feel the same with my time here with the Vikings. This is only Year 1. There were times in the season where I said, ‘Boy, you give me another OTAs, another mini-camp, another training camp that builds a library of reps with these guys … you could add layers to this offense,’ and I’m excited about it.”
Perhaps there’s merit to Cousins’ claim, considering he nearly made the playoffs with one of the league’s most vulnerable offensive lines and a running back who was hurt roughly half the year, as well as a shallow receiving corps beyond Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs.
Week 17 showed signs of frustration between Cousins and his top wideouts as they were seen having animated exchanges on the sideline while the offense wheezed, delivering a season-low 132 yards through the air.
Thielen and Cousins, however, denied any fissures, while Diggs voiced his support for Cousins, who helped him collect his first-ever 1,000-yard season.
“Criticism is going to come in all positions, but I don’t want anybody blaming anything on Kirk, because it’s hard to play QB,” Diggs said. “If anyone wants to criticize him then they should play quarterback and then they’ll find out for themselves, but they’re not. He has that job for a reason, and I think he’s extremely blessed.”
There was certainly more than window dressing on Cousins’ résumé this season. He played nearly mistake-free in a season-opening win against San Francisco, led the Vikings back to a dramatic tie against Green Bay and reserved some of his cleanest play for the Packers and Lions, against whom the Vikings were undefeated.
Turnovers, though, bit him in losses to Buffalo, Los Angeles and New Orleans, and several other giveaways made games more interesting than they needed to be. While his year-to-year outputs have been predictable, his game-to-game play has proven more volatile. The unsteadiness at quarterback, at times, exposed the Vikings defense by giving teams short fields or free points that stripped the defense on its greatest advantage — rushing the passer with a lead and defending long fields.
“You could point to so many plays,” said Cousins. “There’s 16 games, where you say, ‘If this one ball bounces this way, we’re in the playoffs, even with today.”
One of Cousins’ early pre-game speeches revolved around the concept of “finishing.” Ironically, the Vikings failed to do so in most of their losses against superior teams. Cousins fumbled with a chance to tie the Rams late. The offense sputtered in the fourth quarter against the Patriots after being tied 10-10 late in the third quarter. Cousins failed to complete a fourth-quarter fourth-and-goal pass against the Seahawks that wound up being one of offensive coordinator John DeFilippo’s last play calls.
DeFilippo may be viewed as a scapegoat, as well, considering the Vikings took steps backward offensively under his watch. The Vikings will have to hope that the next offensive coordinator — whether it’s interim Kevin Stefanski or another candidate — hits the right notes in directing the offense for Year 2 of Cousins.
“He’s a great person, a great football mind,” said Cousins of Stefanski. “He’s been here a long time, but he’s going to have options, too. So hopefully he wants to work with me. It goes both ways.”
Financially bound to the Vikings through the 2020 season, Cousins won’t be going anywhere, which means Minnesota could have the same Week 1 starter in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 2012-13. Continuity is worth something.
But they’ll need some shakeups, too, most likely on the offensive line, which is due for another overhaul.
Vikings brass will have the task of equipping Cousins with the right tools to succeed in his second act in Minnesota. The first act fizzled despite many twists along the way.
“Naturally, Year 3 you’re going to be more experienced and comfortable than Year 1,” Cousins said. “I’m not saying that’s an excuse for Year 1. We understood what we needed to do this year. It’s just part of the deal. I’m always going to look at the glass half full and always look forward with optimism. That’s something I’ll be excited about going forward.”
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