Kirk Cousins is Mike Zimmer’s fifth starting quarterback in five trips to Lambeau Field as Vikings head coach. So when it comes to listing the many variables involved in winning on the road, you’ll have to pardon the old-school football guy for ranking each team’s personnel ahead of mystique, Mother Nature and crowd noise.
After naming and explaining why New England, New Orleans and Green Bay are three of the toughest places to play in the NFL, Zimmer paused, shrugged and said, “Part of it is the team you’re playing.”
That’ll be especially true Sunday when the Vikings (1-0) find out whether the Packers (1-0) will play Aaron Rodgers. The week after his heroic, one-legged, comeback-from-being-carted-off victory over the Bears, Rodgers and his sprained left knee missed practice Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. He practiced Saturday but is officially still listed as questionable.
“I have no doubt he is going to go out there and give it his best shot,” Zimmer said. “And what I said about Rodgers walking on water, that was a compliment. It wasn’t like I was trying to ding him. He can do anything on the football field.”
Zimmer, of course, is prepared for anything Lambeau Field has to offer. After all, he’s seen it all, going 2-2 while riding shotgun with Christian Ponder, Teddy Bridgewater, Sam Bradford and Case Keenum the past four years.
He has lost 42-10 while using a third-string quarterback (Ponder). But he also has won 16-0 while facing Rodgers’ 2017 backup (Brett Hundley).
He’s been eliminated from the playoffs on a day when Bradford threw for 382 yards and four touchdowns. But he also has clinched the NFC North on a day when Bridgewater threw for 99 yards, no touchdowns and an interception.
Next up is Cousins, the $84 million gamble that Zimmer’s days of instability at quarterback are over. The former Redskin is 1-1 against Green Bay including playoffs but hasn’t played at Lambeau or against a Packers defense led by first-year coordinator Mike Pettine.
In January 2016, the Packers handed Cousins a 35-18 loss in his only playoff start. Cousins completed 63 percent of his passes for 329 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions and a 91.7 passer rating.
“I’ve grown probably in every area as a player and as a person since then,” Cousins said of his first full season as a starter. “I’ve been through two-plus seasons since that playoff game and obviously have taken a lot of steps as a player and my confidence.”
Ten months after that loss, Cousins outdueled Rodgers, completing 70 percent of his passes for 375 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions and a 145.8 passer rating in a 42-24 victory. Rodgers threw for 351 yards, three touchdowns and a 115.0 passer rating.
Asked how well he knows Rodgers, Cousins gave an aw-shucks answer that sounded funny coming from the third-highest-paid player in NFL history talking about the highest-paid player in NFL history.
“Just saying hi to him at games,” Cousins said. “I don’t think I’ve ever really bumped into him outside of that. He came into the league much earlier than me. I think he flies at a little bit of a different altitude than I do.”
Yes, Rodgers has a Super Bowl ring and might be the best player in the league. But the Vikings are banking — literally — on Cousins closing the gap between the teams at quarterback.
So how Cousins performs in his Lambeau Field debut will be remembered. There haven’t been many good memories made by some of his notable predecessors.
On Sept. 16, 1962, Fran Tarkenton threw five interceptions in a 34-7 loss at what was then called New City Field. On Oct. 26, 1980, Tommy Kramer posted a 57.1 passer rating in a 16-3 loss.
On Nov. 6, 2000, Daunte Culpepper threw three interceptions in a 34-17 loss. Ponder lost 45-7. Bridgewater played there just the one time while Zimmer’s defense carried him to a division title.
Of course, the best Lambeau “debut” by a Vikings quarterback was turned in by a former Packer named Brett Favre. Looking to stick it to his old team back in 2009, Favre did just that when he threw four touchdown passes, no interceptions and posted a 128.6 passer rating in a 38-26 win.
A Week 2 meeting eliminates the cold weather and slick footing Lambeau is known for later in the year. But those 81,441 fans will no doubt create the kind of noise that can disrupt communication and unnerve a visiting offense.
Several Vikings players were asked this week to name the toughest place they’ve ever played.
“I would say my first game at Denver,” receiver Stefon Diggs said. “That was pretty loud. After that, I was like, ‘All right, stadiums won’t get too much louder than that.’ I hear Kansas City’s is pretty loud, but I’ve never been there. I played Seattle in the preseason. That was kind of loud, but they didn’t get it as loud as they could.
“The times I’ve played at Lambeau, it’s been pretty cold. So as far as [remembering it] being loud, I probably was distracted by the cold.”
Right tackle Rashod Hill quickly fired off his answer.
“Philly, last year, for sure,” he said, reflecting on last year’s 38-7 NFC Championship Game loss. “That crowd was hyped up.”
Center Brett Jones picked U.S. Bank Stadium, having played there with the Giants. Receiver Adam Thielen said Lambeau Field and New Orleans.
“Those places that have just a crazy atmosphere,” he said. “You can’t hear anything.”
As Redskins quarterback, Cousins played division games at Dallas, Philadelphia and the Giants. He went 4-7 at home and 4-7 on the road.
In 58 career starts, Cousins is 17-12 at home and 10-18-1 on the road. Statistically, he’s pretty consistent.
At home, he has 49 touchdowns, 22 interceptions and a 97.9 passer rating. On the road, he has 48 touchdowns, 29 interceptions and a 91.1 passer rating.
Of course, all the Vikings care about is whether Cousins’ first NFC North game will improve their 18-22-2 record at a venue where the Packers have the league’s fourth-best home record — 70-26-1 (.727) — since 2006.
“There are places that are a little bit louder, maybe a little bit quieter,” Cousins said. “But, all in all, on the road, if you’re not on the details and communicating at a high level and locked in from the first snap to the last, you tend to get beat no matter who you’re playing.”