As the Minnesota Vikings fell to 8-7-1 and missed the playoffs in 2018, Kirk Cousins was taking heat — not just for his myriad fumbles, bad interceptions and inability to win primetime games, but for a perceived lack of accountability.
That seemed to change in 2019 when Cousins fell on the sword after a disappointing Week 2 loss at Green Bay that largely fell on his shoulders. “Believe me,” Cousins said, “I’m not going to be playing quarterback here if I play the way I did this past Sunday for much longer.”
Cousins turned things around last season and played the best football of his career with 26 touchdowns and only six interceptions. He won a playoff game, and won a large chunk of the fan base over while earning a two-year extension from the Vikings. Loyalty, though, can be fickle, as Sunday’s 40-23 loss demonstrates.
After a three-interception day against the winless Atlanta Falcons, equaling his 2018 total with 10 picks, Cousins was again reflecting on his mortality as the quarterback of the Vikings, who now sit at 1-5.
“The reality is if the pace I’m on in terms of the interceptions, if that were to continue, I won’t finish the season,” Cousins said frankly. “That’s what the rest of the season will be about for me, is trying to protect the football as best I can. Because when you turn the ball over, it really hurts your changes to win. I know that. I just need to improve as we look ahead to the rest of the season.”
Head coach Mike Zimmer was asked after the game if he contemplated benching Cousins at halftime when the Vikings trailed 20-0. He responded with one word: “No.”
Minnesota has married itself to Cousins contractually through 2022 after declaring in the offseason that they believed he would “ascend” following his career-best season. A Week 6 benching would produce the messiest type of egg on the face of Vikings decision-makers. There is no quarterback-in-waiting on the Vikings roster. Sean Mannion is appreciated for his helpfulness in the meeting room; not because of his ability to step in and steal ballgames. The odds are slim that Mannion is a Case Keenum-like vigilante that could swoop in and save the day.
A move to Mannion would be the ultimate waving of the white flag, an embrace of the dreaded tank that would be out of character from an organization that spent every possible dollar to stay competitive this offseason. It seems about as unlikely as Zimmer playing three rookies at cornerba—
Whoops, bad analogy. That actually happened Sunday.
The point stands that, barring an unexpected QB switch, Cousins will likely be given the next 10 games to make the case that he still belongs as the Vikings quarterback moving forward. But it may be hard to wash away what he’s put on tape through six weeks.
“You go back and correct what took place,” Cousins said. “You talk about it, you take the coaching you need to get, and you need to be hard on yourself, too, and coach yourself and identify why mistakes are happening and correct them, fix them, whether that’s in the way you prepare on the field, off the field, whatever it may be. When you have a tough loss, when you’re 1-5, you’re certainly looking for ways to improve, and it’s certainly easy to do that.”
Cousins is on a Jameis Winston pace. The former Buccaneers quarterback famously put together a 30 touchdown, 30 interception season in 2019 and is now Drew Brees’ backup. Cousins is on pace to go for 29 touchdowns and 27 picks. His previous career high in interceptions is 13.
The nature of his interceptions have been especially alarming. While two of them have come on Hail Mary passes that were up for grabs, Cousins has been culpable for a majority of the rest, and he’s only played one interception-free game. Six of his picks have come on poor throws that were either ill-advised or off the mark, one was tipped by a defensive lineman and another was off the hands of his receiver.
Two of Cousins’ interceptions Sunday fell squarely on the quarterback’s shoulders.
The Vikings veered from their typical coin toss choice to defer and instead opted to receive the opening kickoff and get the offense in a rhythm early. Cousins proceeded to toss an interception on the first play from a clean pocket into immense traffic.
“I thought the first one was the worst one, if you will,” Cousins said. “First play of the game, and the coverage was not confusing. It was just a zone drop, and I simply forced the football into coverage, tried to do too much. That’s a mistake I may have made in Year 1, but I’m disappointed that I would do that now.”
.@debo STOLE IT!
📺 Watch now on FOX pic.twitter.com/LJYFYeG0Uv
— Atlanta Falcons (@AtlantaFalcons) October 18, 2020
Cousins’ second interception was equally poor: late, low and into coverage. A.J. Terrell made a diving play to remarkably clamp the ball between his legs and secure it to force the turnover.
“Third down, saw Cover 2,” Cousins recounted, “felt them squeeze Adam, doubled Adam, and wanted to replace the squeeze with throwing it to Justin, and the cloud corner jumped it and made a good play.”
Even if you absolve Cousins of the tipped interception before halftime, his careless mistakes earlier put the Vikings behind the 8-ball. There is no margin for error with this defense, yet Cousins is on track for the most mistake-prone year of his career.
“There’s so many ebbs and flows with the momentum throughout the course of the ball game,” Zimmer said. “Obviously that [first interception] was not a good one. I think the second one didn’t help any, as well.”
Because of Cousins’ contract, he’s going to get a longer leash than teams would typically tolerate. For the sake of self-preservation, Zimmer and Spielman have little incentive to pull the plug on the quarterback to whom they’ve devoted a great deal of resources.
The more the Vikings lose, however, the likelier it is that they’ll have a chance to draft Cousins’ replacement in the first round of next year’s draft. And once Roger Goodell reads a QB’s name on the Vikings’ draft card, Cousins time remaining with the Vikings becomes increasingly finite. As of Sunday, it’s hard to imagine the Vikings not going down that path.
Cousins has 10 games remaining to change their mind.