Kirk Cousins says he noticed Lincoln Gustafson in the stands during a TV timeout, and he and the other guys in the huddle couldn’t contain their laughter. No, it wasn’t Joe Montana pointing out John Candy in the stands during Super Bowl XXIII, but it was a moment.
Gustafson was hard to miss. He may not have starred in Uncle Buck, Stripes, or Home Alone, but the US Bank Stadium jumbotron kept panning to him. Why? Because the seven-year-old from Denver, Ia. was shirtless, wearing faux chains. Throughout the game, the jumbotron camera repeatedly showed him dancing like Cousins did on the flight back after the Minnesota Vikings’ last-second win over the Washington Commanders in early November.
Many fans who were reluctant to support Cousins have changed their minds this year. Some people bought No. 8 jerseys shortly after Rick Spielman signed Cousins to an $84 million guaranteed contract, but not everyone embraced him. Why should they? Mike Zimmer never was fully on board with him. The Vikings went 8-7-1 in his first season, despite going 13-3 and reaching the NFC Championship with Case Keenum the year before. Cousins always put up stats, but his .500 career record stuck to him like a stale odor.
Before the Commanders game on Nov. 6, a reporter asked Cousins about his unceremonious exit from Washington. Cousins did his best to avoid controversy with his answer. “It’s probably a combination of reasons,” he said. “Any time you go .500, it’s a league that you wanna win; you gotta win. It’s what have you done lately, and you’re only as good as your last play.
“So I think by going .500, it’s hard to have that staying power in any place.”
A couple of minutes later, another reporter asked him about going to DC with 6-1 and if that reflected his improved play. “I don’t think it is,” he said. “I’ve had a lot better seven-game starts to a season than this. I think I’m getting more comfortable in this system.
“I’ve been kind of chuckling to myself driving home. We can play so much better, we have played so much better, and there were games we would lose. I’d drive home, and I’d say, ‘I don’t know if I can play a lot better. That’s about as good as I can do.’ Then these games this year a lot of times … thanks to the defense, thanks to the special teams, thanks to the turnovers, thanks to our run game, thanks to whatever, we’re winning. But, man, I can play a lot better.”
Cousins doubled down on those comments after Minnesota’s 33-26 win over the New England Patriots. Not only had Kevin O’Connell defeated Bill Belichick, the coach who drafted and unceremoniously cut him, but the Vikings had bounced back four days after the Dallas Cowboys had shellacked them, 40-3. As he had done in the 33-30 overtime win in Buffalo, Cousins started slow and finished magnificently. He’s continued to make plays when it matters most.
“It’s funny because we’re winning, so I feel like talking to you guys has been a lot easier this year, but I’m not playing any better,” Cousins reiterated after the Patriots win. “If anything, I’m coming to these press conferences trying to smile, having to work to smile, because I’m thinking to myself, ‘Man, I’ve got to play better.’”
“There’s a lot of things that I’m not really involved in that are helping us win,” he continued, referencing kickoff returns, pass rush, and field position. “I believe, I’m optimistic, that the longer I’m in this system, we’re in this system, it’s only going to get cleaner, it’s only going to get better. As I said in August, we don’t have time. Thankfully we’ve been finding a way to win in spite of it being Year 1 in this system.”
There is one way that Cousins’ self-critical approach is positive and two that it could be negative. The positive is that he feels he and the offense can reach another level. But one potentially negative aspect is if he lets perfect become the enemy of good. Should Cousins have thrown a ball directly at cornerback Dane Jackson in the Buffalo Bills game? No. But he also led them to an overtime win. A lot of games have gone like that this year.
Finally, he can’t use his individual numbers to exclusively determine how he’s playing.
Cousins had four 300-plus yard games through 11 weeks last year; he only has one (vs. Buffalo) this year. At this point in the season last year, Cousins had seven games with a quarterback rating over 100; this year, he only has four. But nobody would claim that he played better last year when he led the Vikings to their third near-.500 record since arriving in 2018. Fortunately, Cousins doesn’t seem to be making that claim. Instead, some of it appears to be an innate feeling he has in O’Connell’s system. To some extent, it’s also individual mistakes he identifies in each game.
“If you look at the pass to K.J. [Osborn] in the flat that I left a little short, threw too quickly,” Cousins said, referring to a pass in the Patriots game where Osborn bailed him out by ripping a potential interception out of the cornerback’s hands. “I tried to put touch on it. I just need to stick my back foot in the ground and rifle that thing to him. Way too close for comfort. The third down with Justin in the first quarter, it all runs together. The one I left inside could have been intercepted. This is the way I am, man. I’m kind of hard on myself. I go back there and think of all the plays I need to be better.”
O’Connell has shown Cousins support ever since he took the Vikings job. He’s allowed him to fail and recover. Cousins says he feels the support, which is likely why he’s playing better. He bounced back from throwing two early picks in Buffalo and one against the Patriots. O’Connell said Cousins’ interception against New England was his fault, that he was doing too much on third-and-long. Therefore, it’s funny that Cousins feels he’s underperformed in a season where he has a supportive coach and is driving winning for a team that was .500 the past two years.
“I don’t know,” he said when a reporter asked if he’d ever be satisfied with his performance. “I probably drive myself crazy, my family crazy being this way. It’s just the way I’m wired. I’m an improver. I’m kind of obsessed with improvement. Even when things are good, my mind goes to how can they be better? You kind of torture yourself that way.”
Cousins’ drive to be better has served him well. He went from a player Washington drafted to be Robert Griffin III’s backup to a $150 million starting quarterback. But perfect can be the enemy of the good, and stats don’t quantify everything. Cousins didn’t become “Kirko Chains” by throwing 300-yard games. He transformed into a social media sensation after his teammates threw their chains on him after a win over his former team. Everyone can embrace a winning player. A seven-year-old fan doesn’t care about Cousins’ quarterback rating; he wants to see his favorite team win.