The two most compelling figures at U.S. Bank Stadium on Sunday will be rich men trying to pretend they aren’t rattled. Kirk Cousins and Jon Gruden have made their money. In the second year of their latest endeavors, neither has yet to make his bones.
Cousins, the Vikings quarterback, has shrunk before our eyes since the middle of last season, falling from possible savior to targeted goat. Famous for screaming, “You like that!’’ he now seems to yearn to be merely liked, or forgiven. Signed to an $84 million fully guaranteed contract, Cousins is becoming a cross between Herschel Walker of 1991 and Brett Favre of 2010.
Gruden, the Raiders’ self-caricaturing coach, is 5-13 in his second stint in Oakland. He has traded his two best players, Khalil Mack and Amari Cooper, and traded for Antonio Brown, only to become an unwilling actor in the worst buddy movie ever. Signed to a $100 million contract, he’s threatening to write the worst sequel since “Weekend At Bernie’s II.” (Yes, there was a “Weekend at Bernie’s II.” Spoiler alert: Bernie was still dead.)
The two men have one intriguing tie, someone who will be in the stadium Sunday and whose career speaks of better possibilities. For each, Gary Kubiak is the embodiment of hope.
Kubiak is in his first year as the Vikings’ assistant head coach and offensive adviser. He offers hope to Gruden because he is proof that you can win a Super Bowl late in your career, and after changing teams.
Joe Gibbs won three Super Bowls in his first stint with Washington and none in his second. Jimmy Johnson won two in a row and set up a third in his first stint as a head coach and won none in his second.
Bill Parcells won two in his eight years with the Giants and none in his 11 years with the Patriots, Jets and Cowboys.
Gruden is trying to win big in his third head coaching job and there isn’t much precedence for that kind of success. But there is Kubiak.
In eight years coaching the Houston Texans, Kubiak had a record of 61-64. The Broncos hired him because of his connection with former teammate and current Broncos General Manager John Elway. In his first year as Broncos coach he went 12-4, then won the Super Bowl. As unsightly as Gruden’s second tenure with the Raiders has been to date, he only has to look across the field Sunday to see someone who’s done it.
Kubiak offers hope to Cousins, as well. Kubiak didn’t win the Super Bowl because Peyton Manning was his quarterback. He won the Super Bowl despite Manning being his QB.
In 2015, Manning was nowhere near as good statistically as Cousins has been in every one of his seasons as an NFL starter. Manning went 7-2 in his regular-season starts despite completing just 59.8% of his passes. Cousins’ lowest completion percentage in a full season is 64.3.
Manning won that year by relying on a powerhouse defense and a strong running game, by reading defenses well and converting third downs.
Cousins doesn’t necessarily have to play like prime Peyton Manning to win. He just has to play more like old Peyton Manning, and reduce mistakes.
If Cousins hadn’t turned the ball over at Green Bay, the Vikings would be 2-0 and the conversation around the division would be about Mitch Trubisky’s struggles and whether Matt LaFleur had a chance to get along with Aaron Rodgers. Instead, Cousins has, two weeks into the season, positioned himself as someone in need of redemption.
Cousins hasn’t looked fully comfortable as the Vikings’ quarterback since the New Orleans loss in Week 8 last season. He’s produced. He’s put together impressive games. But he exudes the aura of a golfer who has lipped out too many 4-foot putts.
Either or both could change their trajectories. Cousins will get until next season to prove he can win. Gruden has another eight years and a move to Las Vegas in which to reboot. By midafternoon on Sunday, one of them is going to be looking for a story to sell.