Cousins knows what it’ll take to change narrative about him: Winning

·10 min read

The Vikings had just hired Kevin O'Connell — the coach for whom Kirk Cousins had signed a jersey five years ago saying, "I hope our paths cross again" — and O'Connell had put his defense in the hands of Ed Donatell, the still-excitable 65-year-old coordinator whose schemes Cousins had regarded as some of the NFL's toughest to solve.

The quarterback placed a congratulatory phone call to Donatell. Pleasantries gave way to lively football conversation, and Cousins hung up the phone energized. He promptly made another call, checking himself against Harrison Smith, the Vikings safety not known for wide-eyed enthusiasm.

"I said, 'I just got off the phone with Ed Donatell. Am I crazy, or is he the man? That was an awesome conversation — have you talked to him yet?'" Cousins said. "He said, 'Yeah, I have talked to him, and I kind of agree. I had a great conversation with him, too.' So right away, I was pretty excited about some of those people I was meeting over the phone. You're like, 'This could be a fun staff these guys put together.'"

The new staff arrives for Cousins' fifth season as the starter, with plans to empower him perhaps more than ever in Minnesota. He's reunited with O'Connell after they made an impression on each another with Washington in 2017. The team made another commitment to Cousins this offseason, with an extension that puts him in position to direct a loaded Vikings offense and climb the franchise record book in the process.

Does Cousins feel like, after a decade with two teams, three head coaches, seven different offensive coordinators and countless hours in the hypercritical spotlight of the NFL commentary machine, that it's all working out for him? He sighs, pauses and delivers a monologue that ends with him riffing on Vince Lombardi.

"The point I'll make is — and I can't say this enough — winning trumps everything," he said. "It doesn't matter how much you enjoy having phone conversations with the D-coordinator. If you're losing, those aren't fun conversations. Winning sets the tone for everything.

"It's been funny, because I've observed some teams that have gone on great success for a stint, and I knew, knowing the coaches and the players, there was dysfunction. But because there was winning, it really didn't matter. So whether it works out, if you will, will all come down to, 'Did we win? Did we play well as an offense?' That really becomes the bottom line, and the only line."

Cousins will tie Daunte Culpepper for the third-most starts in franchise history if he plays all 17 regular-season games this year. His passer rating (103.5) is the highest in franchise history; and he needs 12 TD passes to overtake Culpepper for third place in that category among Vikings quarterbacks, and 36 to pass Tommy Kramer for second place.

But Cousins, who turned 34 last month, is also a passer whose stated goal of retiring in Minnesota remains uncertain. His contract extension only runs through 2023, with void years for 2024 and 2025.

He wishes, he says, that Minnesotans could get to know him better. Perhaps that would help develop a more nuanced portrait of the quarterback than the one that often exists online. He also knows that's unlikely, when much of his communication to the fan base is through news conferences and social media posts that must be carefully calibrated before they are inevitably aggregated, atomized and analyzed, either for deeper meaning or for talking points.

Appreciate him for his 3.44 touchdown-to-interception ratio in Minnesota (fifth-best in the NFL the past four years), or gripe he's being too careful with the football. Laud him for generous acts like his $500,000 gift to the Vikings' social justice fund last year, or grumble his $32 million average annual salary (ninth-highest in the NFL) is too much.

Cite his oft-discussed record in prime time (2-9 on Monday nights, 10-17 overall) as evidence he can't deliver with all eyes on him, or his late-game performances last year (four game-winning drives, three fourth-quarter comebacks and a 94.1 passer rating when trailing by a touchdown or less in the final two minutes) to support the claim he's up to the task in the big moments.

Now in the 11th year of a career that has lasted longer than he could have dreamed, the former fourth-round pick has started more games (120) than all but eight of the QBs who'll start for their teams this weekend.

Cousins is 59-59-2 in those starts. There's only one way for him to end his career in the location and manner he wants.

"I think winning is a fair expectation from a fan base," he said. "They don't go to the game to watch the middle linebacker get 15 tackles; they go to the game to see the Vikings win. That's always a fair expectation, and that's where I'll put a lot of pressure on myself to do whatever I can do."

Crossing paths again with O'Connell

The list of NFL head coaches who once worked with Cousins — either as his offensive coordinator, quarterbacks coach or an offensive assistant — is at six names now. It includes three of the final four coaches from last year's NFC playoffs (Sean McVay, Kyle Shanahan and Matt LaFleur) as well as the 2020 NFL coach of the year (Kevin Stefanski).

Mike McDaniel, who became the fifth name on the list when he was hired by the Dolphins in February, was an offensive assistant in Washington during Cousins' first two years. Jets offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur was the offensive coordinator at Davidson back then; he would drive from North Carolina up to Northern Virginia to visit his brother Matt, and talk football with Cousins on his trips to practice.

"Every single one of them has left a mark on the way I play the game," Cousins said.

O'Connell was Cousins' quarterbacks coach for just the 2017 season, before Cousins left Washington for Minnesota. O'Connell, a quarterback himself, entered the NFL as a third-round pick in 2008; Cousins was a fourth-rounder in 2012. They quickly found they had plenty in common, and bonded over spirited chalk-talk sessions that revealed their shared love of detail.

Toward the end of that season, O'Connell asked Cousins to sign a jersey for him, as McVay had done when he left for the Rams the year before.

"The lack of time together was what made me say, 'We were just building something; hopefully our paths can cross again down the road,'" Cousins said.

When the Vikings hired O'Connell, the quarterback and coach looked forward to reuniting.

"He has all the skill-set requirements, in my opinion, to play the position at a very high level," O'Connell said. "And then you start learning a little bit more about his makeup and when things get difficult, how he's able to handle adversity, how he's able to trust in his preparation and really understand the comfort he'll feel on Sunday is really an investment from Monday through Saturday. Ultimately, what my goal is for him, we take all that and our previous experience together, and we build something where my relationship with him is minute-to-minute, day-to-day."

O'Connell, who will call the offensive plays during games, openly courts Cousins' involvement in the game-planning process, asking his comfort level with certain concepts or seeking his ideas from a decade of playing QB in the NFL.

There will be a time, Cousins says, when he'll be even more comfortable giving that feedback. At the moment, he speaks frequently about mastering O'Connell's scheme, which Cousins said has evolved in the five years since they worked together. He wants to have what he calls "graduate-level" discussions about the offense.

"Kevin Stefanski always used to tell me, 'What you do when the play doesn't work, or the play isn't there, or we didn't get what we want, is what's going to make you a great quarterback,'" he said. "So, many times, there's a pessimistic approach in your preparation that helps you on Sunday by saying, 'OK, that's great — if we get that look. What do you want me to do if they blitz? What do you want me to do if they drop eight guys into coverage? What do you want me to do if it's man; what do you want me to do if it's zone?' You ask those questions to say, 'I hope we get that look, but I'm not basing this on hope. I'm basing this on fact and knowledge and preparation.'"

When Cousins was in Washington, those questions prompted a lighthearted back-and-forth with coach Jay Gruden, who'd say, "Don't be so negative. We don't want that to happen; it's not going to happen. Let's play the percentages."

Like a pilot going through safety training, Cousins has preferred a different approach.

"I've found it's always helped me to sort of think about different scenarios so the game doesn't surprise you," he said.

Practice Kirk vs. Public Kirk

Cousins was voted one of the Vikings' four offensive captains last week. O'Connell called him "the leader of our team," adding the quarterback has embraced the role by "authentically being himself."

His voice is a frequent presence in offensive meetings where only one other starter (Adam Thielen) is over 30. Cousins' insights carry over to post-practice work with running backs and receivers. His on-field intensity also provided a viral moment on Aug. 17, when Cousins added an expletive to his "You like that!" catchphrase after completing a pass to Thielen during a joint practice with the 49ers, surprising onlookers who'd seen mic'd-up videos of the quarterback yelling things like "Shoot!" and "Golly!" during games.

The teammates that practice with him every day, though, know Cousins as both faithful and fiery.

"That's him. That's Kirk," wide receiver K.J. Osborn said. "A lot of people may not see that, because you can't come to practices [that are closed to the public during the season] or you can't hear him on game day. But he's a super-duper competitive guy."

Said Cousins: "I think there have been times, whether it's yelling, 'You like that!' back in 2015, or dropping a word I probably shouldn't have used, those moments, my teammates don't act surprised. But people on Twitter act surprised."

Giving the public a more complete view of who he is, he realizes, might be easier said than done, when opposing teams scour his news conferences for tips and a single phrase can become social media fodder.

"I think there's a desire for people to know who I really am," he said. "I also think that I'd have to show them. At times, I just say, 'You know what? I don't know that it's that easy to just show them.'"

Victories, he surmises, are what fans want most from him anyway.

Last year, Matthew Stafford changed his career trajectory by winning a Super Bowl with McVay and O'Connell in Los Angeles. Cousins has his chance to chase the same standard with O'Connell in Minnesota.

"When we break down the huddle [in practice], he's talking about, 'We want to be the best offense in the NFL. World-class, championship, is the standard every day,'" Osborn said. "With a guy like that leading us, we're excited."