It has taken a long time for Kirk Cousins, who signed a three-year, $98 million guaranteed contract — the largest of its kind in NFL history — to get to this point in his career. He has spent much of it fighting to even have a chance to start.
And now in his first training camp with the Vikings, Cousins finally has a multiyear contract and the full faith of an organization that he is their guy to win a Super Bowl.
“I came from somewhere, I was a high school kid who played on a freshman team and a JV team. Went all the way through. I was a fourth-string quarterback at Michigan State at one time. I was benched in Washington at one time,” Cousins said. “The number gets reported and the story gets reported and people would probably think that my whole journey has just been one thing after another. A first-round pick, a blue-chip recruit, that is really not my story.
“While this is an incredible opportunity, this hasn’t really been the norm. It has always been one of trying to prove myself and validate my belonging where I am. I’m excited to hopefully do that again here, but we feel so fortunate and blessed to be in the position we’re in.”
Speaking of his time at Michigan State, Cousins recalled that some of his favorite college battles were against the Gophers.
“We played on Halloween night at TCF Bank, we lost in a high-scoring game. Eric Decker and Adam Weber lit us up,” he recalled of the 42-34 Gophers victory in 2009. “Junior year they came to Spartan Stadium and we beat them [31-8]. Senior year we beat them, as well, in a close one [31-24]. MarQueis Gray was the quarterback and a good player. We had some tough battles with them every year.
“I loved Coach [Jerry] Kill. I thought he was a great coach. A great stadium there. They’re a good program. And now coach [P.J.] Fleck has it rolling.”
Cousins also said that he occasionally keeps in touch with Brad Salem, the son of former Gophers coach Joe Salem, who is now the quarterbacks coach at Michigan State and was the running backs coach when Cousins was there.
“The quarterback play at Michigan State has been really good for several years now, and that’s a big credit to Coach Salem,” Cousins said. “After I left, Connor Cook was one of the top players in the country, was an NFL draft pick, and Brian Lewerke is the quarterback and had a great year last year.”
Also recall that Cousins wasn’t even the Redskins’ top quarterback drafted in 2012. Washington selected Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III No. 2 overall, then drafted Cousins 100 picks later. Yet it was Cousins that ultimately stuck with the team, as Griffin’s career was sidetracked by injuries.
Open to adversity
Over the past three seasons, Cousins is eighth in the NFL in passing touchdowns (81), fourth in yardage (13,176), second in completion percentage (67.02) and sixth in QB rating (97.5), but several national outlets see him as the weak link for the Vikings.
ESPN recently rated him 15th among NFL quarterbacks heading into the season, putting him behind players such as Jimmy Garoppolo and Deshaun Watson, who have started 13 games combined in their NFL careers.
Cousins said that while a lot of people think of his career as being met with skepticism and adversity, he thinks of it as being about overcoming challenges.
“I think you need to have success to get to the place that I am,” he said. “As much as I look back on my first six years in the NFL, and I certainly tend to remember the adversity and the times I didn’t get it done, I’m sure those experiences will make me a better football player in the years ahead here in Minnesota.”
Does he tend to focus too much on the times he didn’t get things done? “I don’t know, Coach [offensive coordinator John] DeFilippo made a great comment the other day in meetings,” Cousins said. “He said, ‘Be your toughest critic but be your biggest fan.’ He’s speaking out of both sides of his mouth there, but you try to find the balance.
“I do try to be my biggest critic, which causes me to focus a little bit on the failures and what I need to do to be better, but you can never lose being your biggest fan. You have to be filled with belief and the positive mind-set. That balance is something I’m always trying to find as a player.”
Ready to become a leader
Cousins acknowledged he has landed on an established team. And he knows that becoming a leader can be both natural for a quarterback and something that has to be earned.
“I think there’s different levels of leadership. Naturally as a quarterback, calling the plays, making the checks, getting guys lined up, you’re going to have a leadership role whether you want to or not. You pretty much have to step into that regardless, but there’s another level you can take after that,” Cousins said.
“As a new player you’re kind of growing in that role, and I do see myself as someone who has been that in the past and it’s just a matter of taking the time to know everyone, to learn how things are done here and listen, and a lot of times good leadership involves listening and then from there stepping it up and be vocal and have a presence about you and hopefully be able to be a leader in this locker room for a long time.”
• P.J. Fleck said that according to college football analyst Phil Steele, the Gophers’ two-deep is the third youngest in the country, and Fleck knows one place that will be apparent is at quarterback, where either true freshman Zack Annexstad or redshirt freshman Tanner Morgan will start. “I’m proud of the progress both of them are making,” Fleck said. “Tanner is better than he was last year, Zack is better than when he first arrived here.”
• Former Vikings offensive coordinator and current Giants coach Pat Shurmur said he hopes running back Saquon Barkley, the No. 2 overall draft pick, can break out like Dalvin Cook did last season. “Dalvin was a guy that displayed a lot of the things that Saquon has showed us,” Shurmur told the Giants website. “He just needs to go through training camp, and work through the good days and the bad.”
• A big part of the Timberwolves roster will be up for some form of free agency in 2019. Jimmy Butler and Jeff Teague have player options, Taj Gibson, Anthony Tolliver and Derrick Rose are unrestricted free agents and Karl-Anthony Towns and Tyus Jones are restricted.
• The Twins played one Saturday night home game over the first half of the season but will play five in the second. President Dave St. Peter said national TV forces the Twins into day games much of the first half of the year, but they prefer the 6:10 p.m. Saturday starts.
• Former Gophers punter Ryan Santoso has a real shot to win that job with the Detroit Lions. The Gophers also have three tight ends in NFL camps: MarQueis Gray in Miami, Maxx Williams in Baltimore and Nate Wozniak in New Orleans.
• Gophers men’s basketball coach Richard Pitino on Gabe Kalscheur: “Gabe has been a pleasant surprise early. He works really, really hard. His approach to the game is very serious. Sometimes you get some freshmen you know who may not have that mind-set all the time. Gabe has it.”