Kirk Cousins made headlines when he signed a fully guaranteed $84 million contract with the Vikings last offseason, but there was disappointment in Minnesota when the quarterback failed to be the team’s savior. Now, two games into the 2019 season, it’s looking like more of the same. He was a bystander, seemingly by design, in a 28-12 Week 1 win and more of a hindrance in a 21-16 Week 2 loss.
Cousins earned his contract when he put up respectable stats in his final three seasons with Washington, though the primary concern was that he was little more than a game manager. He went on to reinforce that reputation in his first season with the Vikings. His numbers were fine — he threw 30 touchdowns against 10 interceptions while completing 70.1 percent of his passes — but he only eclipsed 300 yards five times and didn’t get his team to the playoffs.
Early this season, not much has changed. Cousins is better when he has to do a little instead of a lot.
When Cousins tries to force things too much, things end badly
In Week 1, Cousins only attempted 10 passes, and the Vikings rode their defense and Dalvin Cook to victory over the Falcons. In Week 2 against the Packers, Cousins attempted 32 passes, completing only 14 of them. He also fumbled twice, losing one of them, and threw a pair of interceptions — one of which was particularly egregious.
Trailing five points early in the fourth quarter, Cousins and the Vikings set out on a nine-play drive that made it 52 yards and into Green Bay territory. The drive, which only contained two passes, ended when Cousins threw one of the silliest interceptions you’ll see this season. On a first-and-goal play. With five minutes to go.
FULLY. GUARANTEED. CONTRACT. pic.twitter.com/emVAEBSo57— Christian D'Andrea (@TrainIsland) September 15, 2019
Here, Cousins was pressured, but he had plenty of time to make the right call and just throw the ball away. There’s no reason to toss a 25-yard jump ball to Stefon Diggs, who was surrounded by Packers players. Cousins acknowledged after the game that he made a mistake in not throwing it away, saying “you just can’t do that” in those situations.
And yet, when the Vikings eventually got the ball back with some time on the clock, he nearly did it again. This one is a pretty badly overthrown ball to a receiver who was only partially open underneath.
Playcalling was also part of the problem. On the drive that ended with the end zone interception, the Vikings ran the ball six times, to great effect. It’s understandable to pass the ball to stay unpredictable, but Cook was on fire all game. The Vikings rolling out Cousins for an extended play was baffling.
In other words, Cousins shouldn’t have been going for the late-game heroics, especially on first down and especially because he doesn’t play his best in pressure situations. What could’ve won the game was the same formula the Vikings used in the season opener: leaning on the running game and the defense.
Cook, who rushed for 111 yards against the Falcons and then 154 yards against the Packers, was more than deserving of a chance to get the Vikings a win. The defense mostly did its part by creating a couple of turnovers and shutting down Aaron Rodgers in the second half. A lot of Vikings players did well on Sunday, but Cousins’ poor play overshadowed that.
That said, he excels on the simpler plays, as evidenced by his best throw of the day, a 45-yard touchdown to Diggs.
Kirk Cousins makes his best throws on simple plays, and frequently makes game-defining mistakes when they do anything more complicated. pic.twitter.com/LcEGeeFKic— James Brady (@JamesBradySBN) September 15, 2019
It’s an uncomplicated play — Diggs went up the sideline, then through the seam and Cousins, with good protection, delivered a ball that only Diggs could catch. Textbook. But why does it look so easy on some throws and so difficult on others?
Cousins has always struggled in big games
Cousins’ career record against teams with a winning record is just 5-26. His career record in primetime games is 6-13. Last season, the 8-7-1 Vikings went 1-6 against playoff teams, and several of those were close games.
Since signing with the Vikings, Cousins isn’t credited with a single game-winning drive and has continued to have trouble with his decision-making.
Last year against the Rams, the Vikings were driving, down seven late in the fourth quarter. At midfield, Cousins made another mistake, fumbling the ball and allowing the Rams to recover it. That was also on a first down play, and Cousins was running around trying to make things happen, when he still had time to take a measured approach or even throw the ball away.
There was also the 27-6 upset loss at home to the Bills last season: Cousins attempted 55 passes and the Vikings still only managed six points in garbage time. There was no Cook (out with a hamstring injury for that game) or any running game to speak of, so Cousins was left to flounder. He threw an interception and fumbled three times, losing two of them.
What about when the Vikings won last year? In wins over mediocre teams like the Cardinals, Jets, and Lions, Cousins threw for under 300 yards. He passed for just 164 yards in the 24-9 victory over Detroit. In a 41-17 victory over the Dolphins, he attempted just 21 passes and threw for 215 yards while Cook put up 136 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
The smartest thing Cousins did in most of those games was stand back and not make huge mistakes. He made his best throws from the pocket and his worst throws out of it.
The flip side to all of this is that wins are a team stat, and Cousins isn’t to blame for every loss the Vikings have suffered since he came in. And the argument could be made that the Vikings aren’t doing him any favors with some of the things they ask him to do (like, you know, throwing 55 passes in a game). Perhaps neither side is holding up their end of the deal. Cousins certainly didn’t against the Packers.
After 18 games in a Vikings uniform, the evidence points to Minnesota being a better team when it doesn’t have Cousins to throw the ball 30-plus times. The running game and the defense are (mostly) there, but the Vikings can’t win when Cousins isn’t in his element.
It might be time for the Vikings to accept that he is, in fact, a game manager. They can win with a quarterback like that — the Vikings just have to play to his strengths. Like not asking him to do too much.