This Playoff Run Will Define Kirk Cousins' Legacy With the Vikings

Photo Credit: Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

It’s the year 2043. A father and his son are standing outside of U.S. Bank Stadium. In front of them is a statue of a shirtless man, adorned with all of the chains you could imagine, holding his arms up in celebration. There is no name on the base of the statue, just a simple quote – “You like that?” – etched into the marble.

“Who is that?” the child asked his father.

“That’s Kirko Chainz,” the father replied. “He helped win us a Super Bowl.”

The son looked in amazement at the statue’s epic dad-bod physique.

That future sounds great. But there’s also a grimmer alternate reality.

A man sits at a bar in Waseca. He is grizzled and on his fourth Grain Belt. His Minnesota Vikings hat is tattered. He looks weathered from over 80 seasons of the franchise’s failures. He looks up at a sign on the wall before signaling to the bartender, stopping for a moment, and reads the sign on the wall before ordering his next beverage.

“I’m drinking until I forget Kirk Cousins in the 2023 wild card game.”

The two scenarios represent what Cousins is facing in this year’s playoffs. Cousins has been here before. He’s won a playoff game. But winning a Super Bowl this year with this team will cement his legacy forever. Or he could find himself mentioned in the same breath as Gary Anderson.

Before we get too far down that road, let’s look at Cousins’ tenure in Minnesota. A corner of the internet will tell you that Cousins is the greatest quarterback in franchise history – even better than Fran Tarkenton. They’ll tweak Stathead until either Cousins is placed alongside Tom Brady, Dan Marino, and Joe Montana, or their eyes bleed. It’s a tactic that drives half the internet crazy, although it’s one with some merit.

Cousins currently ranks third in Vikings history with 20,934 yards and 153 passing touchdowns. His 5.5% touchdown rate trails only Randall Cunningham (6.7%) and Jeff George (7%), and his 100.9 passer rating is behind Sam Bradford (101.1) among quarterbacks with at least 450 pass attempts.

Cousins has everything he needs statistically to become a Vikings legend. Now it’s time to add a resumé of playoff success.

The Vikings have one playoff win over Cousins’ time in Minnesota, and that was before they were crushed like a pop can the following week. Cousins’s tenure with the Vikings has been more about who is calling timeouts, relationships with the head coach, and awkward sideline moments than it has been about winning games. That is until this season.

The statistical lens shows a quarterback who threw a career-high 14 interceptions this season and posted his lowest quarterback rating since becoming a full-time starter with the Washington Commanders in 2015. But the growth that Cousins has made between the margins (as Kevin O’Connell would say) has taken his game to another level.

O’Connell’s ability to unlock the Vikings’ offense has given Cousins more confidence to make plays. There are throws he wouldn’t have made under the previous regime, and the emergence of Justin Jefferson as the NFL’s top receiver has made his job easier.

It’s even more impressive, considering that this might be one of the worst supporting casts of his career. Dalvin Cook has devolved into a home-run-or-bust player in the backfield, and Adam Thielen has posted the lowest yards per route run of his career. The offensive line has allowed Cousins to get hit more than any quarterback in the past two decades, and his defense is 31st in points and yards allowed.

A scenario like this would have torpedoed Cousins in previous years, but he’s been able to overcome it – especially in the fourth quarter.

Cousins was tied with Brady with 13 touchdowns, ranked fourth with a 104.9 passer rating, and fifth with 8.22 net yards per attempt in the fourth quarter this season. These are the stats that the dark corner of the internet would frame to say Cousins is one of the best in the game. But it hasn’t correlated to wins over his career.

That has changed this season. Cousins led eight fourth-quarter comebacks, tying an NFL record set by Matthew Stafford in 2016. He has also helped the Vikings go 11-0 in one-score games, fueling the third season with 13 or more wins in franchise history.

Again, this is all great stuff, and we haven’t even mentioned Cousins’ evolution as a locker-room leader. But it’s time to put that to the test as the Vikings enter the playoffs.

The playoffs are where quarterbacks become household names and even construct their busts in Canton. Nobody would know who Joe Flacco was if he didn’t lead the Baltimore Ravens to the Super Bowl in 2012. If Aaron Rodgers didn’t win a Super Bowl in 2010, we would be placing him next to Dan Marino as one of the quarterbacks who “couldn’t win the big one.”

A run for Cousins would do wonders for his legacy. We’re talking statues, a spot in the ring of honor, and perhaps his chains being placed in the team museum at TCO Performance Center.

If he tanks, it would have an inverse effect. Cousins would become even more polarizing if he were to implode in the wild-card game against the New York Giants or even a Divisional game.

Cousins will be 35 next year. The Vikings need to decide whether they want to ride Cousins into his late 30s or start thinking about a succession plan. A Super Bowl ring would not only pair nicely with the chains hanging around Cousins’ neck. It would also be a big, flashy reminder of who was correct in the Great Kirk Debate.

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