They made a bet on him, wagering $84 million he would be the franchise quarterback they had long sought, but Kirk Cousins made a bet on the Vikings, too: that the structure they had created without him would be stable enough to support him, that the scheme they designed would be compatible with his strengths.
In short, after three seasons spent trying to prove his mettle as an NFL starting quarterback for an organization in Washington that forced him at times to carry it, Cousins staked his reputation on a Vikings team he should not have to carry.
The next three years, not what happened at U.S. Bank Stadium on Sunday, will determine the returns on Cousins’ wager, and there will undoubtedly be times where the 30-year-old quarterback does have to will his team to victory. But as the Vikings beat the San Francisco 49ers 24-16 on Sunday, giving Cousins his first Week 1 win as an NFL starter, they delivered some early returns on the bet.
Their front four harassed 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo all day, as the leading edge of an attack that hit the quarterback nine times, sacked him four and intercepted three of his throws. The Vikings defense turned the 49ers back at the goal line by forcing an Alfred Morris fumble and overcame a few of its own mistakes with big plays from rookies forced into action because of injury.
Cousins, who went 20-for-36 for 244 yards, threw a pair of pretty passes for the only two touchdowns the Vikings would get out of six trips to midfield or farther in the game’s first 58 minutes. But even if the Vikings’ new-look offense remained a ways from a finished product, they could count on a defense that’s five years in the making.
“There’s a lot to like,” Cousins said of the defense. “There’s players all over the field, and [it’s great] when you can create those turnovers, create points for us off those turnovers, make plays in crunch time, pressure the quarterback. So proud of our team and the way everybody contributed at some point to get the win.”
Before they took over at the 49ers 9 to run out the clock after Harrison Smith’s interception, the Vikings had three drives end in 49ers territory without points. On two of them, coach Mike Zimmer opted to punt instead of trying rookie kicker Daniel Carlson from more than 55 yards out. They ran out of time at the end of the first half, as the clock ticked down on a pair of throws over the middle before the Vikings used their final timeout.
Their one turnover — a fumble at the end of a 12-yard Dalvin Cook run — came at their own 48.
But the 49ers countered with a Morris fumble at the goal line in the second quarter, and a George Kittle drop after he’d found himself beyond the Vikings defense in the third quarter. After the tight end’s blunder, the Vikings blitzed Garoppolo on third-and-8, forcing a hasty throw intended for Kendrick Bourne, who admitted after the game he ran the wrong route. Mike Hughes, playing left cornerback after Trae Waynes’ knee injury, intercepted the pass and returned it 28 yards for a touchdown that put the Vikings up 17-3.
“Part of the reason why [General Manager] Rick [Spielman] drafted him is because he’s a good football player,” Zimmer said of Hughes. “Now, he made some mistakes today, and none of those mistakes ended up costing us the game. But you know, he practiced nickel all week long. He hardly practiced any corner so he had to go out there in corner. He had some unsure things going on today that we’ll get corrected and I think he’ll be better for it. He’s a good kid, good football player and he got a nice ball thrown to him one time today.”
The Vikings’ lead grew to 24-6 after Cousins’ second sublime red zone strike of the day — an 11-yard throw to Kyle Rudolph just beyond the 49ers’ coverage — finished a 75-yard drive.
But the 49ers put together back-to-back scoring drives of 75 and 82 yards. On the first one, Garoppolo reset himself after Vikings pressure flushed him to his left, firing a 22-yard strike to rookie Dante Pettis for a TD.
The quarterback had a chance to pull the 49ers within four points on the second drive, but he again failed to connect with Kittle, overthrowing the tight end in the back of the end zone on third down. The 49ers had to settle for Robbie Gould’s third field goal of the day to pull within 24-16; Smith undercut a throw while Sheldon Richardson was bearing down on Garoppolo with 1:35 to go.
“They are a talented group; we knew that coming in,” Garoppolo said. “They stood up to everything we thought they would. With all the things that went bad, we still had a shot at the end there. It’s a tough way to end it.”
Cousins, then, came onto the field for one more perfunctory series, handing off three times. As he flung the ball out of bounds on the game’s final play, it wasn’t hard to perceive a lightness in the quarterback’s step.
“The ceiling is so high for this offense: Kirk slinging the ball, we got two good running backs, the receivers we got out wide — you know what they can do,” Cook said. “Rudy, the O-line, it’s going to take time. First game, this is an important game. This is a good week to do it.”