Kirk Cousins Is Feeling the Weight Of the Vikings Organization On His Shoulders

Photo Credit: Katie Stratman (USA TODAY Sports)

Mike Zimmer has given Kirk Cousins the green light. It’s not just Zimmer telling him to air it out. Klint Kubiak says the goal has always been to be aggressive. Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen are on top of their game, K.J. Osborn has emerged as a bonafide WR3, and Dalvin Cook is always dangerous — even as a checkdown option.

“If you throw an interception, hey, you throw an interception,” said Zimmer. “You turn the ball over; we gotta go out and stop them. That’s part of it.”

“Coach has always instilled an aggressiveness in us,” said Kubiak, the offensive coordinator, “and it’s always been a point of emphasis.”

“I’ve been telling them to just throw it up to any one of us,” said Jefferson. “We’re confident enough to make the catch.”

That’s gotta be music to a quarterback’s ears, right?

Here Cousins is, getting MVP praise and living up to his billing as a $150 million quarterback. Rick Spielman has surrounded him with an incandescent second-year receiver in Jefferson, and one of the best route-runners in the league in Thielen. Let’s turn the clock back to 1998, baby! Just toss the ball in their general direction and let these guys make a play.

“I don’t want to throw picks,” said Cousins, “even if the coach gave me the green light to.”

Hold up. What?

“I’m still pretty much playing the way I’ve always played,” he added. “Certainly, I don’t feel constraint by any means, but still very systematic, decisive. You understand when you hold the football, you hold much of the organization in your hands. So, you want to take that seriously.”

Oh. Okay. Well, he’s not wrong.

Football teams go as their quarterback goes. The Green Bay Packers got away with mediocre coaching from Mike McCarthy because of Aaron Rodgers’ spectacular play. Conversely, the Denver Broncos have seemed like they’re a franchise quarterback away from contending since Peyton Manning retired.

Cousins also knows that fans would be feeling differently about him if he had thrown three picks against Green Bay on Sunday. And, frankly, he could have. He threw the ball directly to Darnell Savage because of a miscommunication with Jefferson, only to have it called back because of a roughing the passer penalty. Savage nearly picked another pass when Cousins underthrew Thielen, but Thielen batted it out of Savage’s hands. He dropped another one late in the game.

“It’s a razor’s edge,” said Cousins.

For most of Cousins’ time in Minnesota, I believed that he and Zimmer were caught in a vicious cycle. Cousins is conservative by nature, unwilling to take risks that other signal-callers wouldn’t think twice about. Similarly, Zimmer’s conservative nature has allowed inferior teams like the Detroit Lions and Cooper Rush-led Dallas Cowboys to hang around. Detroit nearly beat them, and Dallas famously did.

He’s also a defensive coach who would seem disinclined to let his quarterback take risks by pushing the ball down the field. An interception puts a lot of pressure on the defense, after all. And, to be fair, Cousins turned over the ball a lot at the beginning of last season and had a propensity for tossing an interception at inopportune times. But Zimmer seems to basically be pleading with him to be more aggressive this year.

“I talk to Kirk every week,” Zimmer said after the Packers game, “and I told him, ‘Look, you try to score touchdowns, you let me back the game down when it’s time to do it.’ So that’s kind of our approach.”

Cousins is incredibly calculated in his actions. Ask him about any of his decisions, and he’ll remember exact details about how the play developed, and offer a rational explanation for why he threw the ball where he did. I wouldn’t be surprised if he ends up becoming a quarterbacks coach when he’s done playing, given his approach to the position. He’s endorsed by past coaches, like Kyle Shanahan, who he played for in Washington and will face when the Vikings play the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday. He also was an advocate for Klint Kubiak, his former quarterbacks coach who was promoted to offensive coordinator this season.

Zimmer and Cousins have started watching film together every week, just as Zimmer did with Teddy Bridgewater. They say it has helped create a mutual understanding between player and coach. Zimmer learns how Cousins goes through his reads, and Cousins learns how a defensive coach would approach him. Still, they don’t seem to be simpatico when it comes to how aggressive Cousins should be.

“I could kind of point to a half dozen throws there that were too aggressive, and I could argue that that’s one of them,” said Cousins when asked about his final throw to Thielen in the Packers game, a risky pass that set up the game-winning field goal, “and I don’t think you want to live doing that.”

Cousins isn’t going to change. He’s 33 and has risen from a fourth-round pick backing up Robert Griffin III to a franchise quarterback. If Jefferson is a meme stock headed to the moon, Cousins is a certificate of deposit. But it’s his job to bring out the best in the weapons around him without throwing game-changing interceptions. A quixotic task, for sure. But that’s why he’s paid the big bucks.

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