In one sense, Kirk Cousins’ ninth NFL season finds the quarterback with the stability he’s long sought and often lacked in his career.
He’s set to take home more cash ($40 million) than any quarterback in the NFL in 2020, thanks to a new deal that rewarded him with a $30 million signing bonus in exchange for a lower cap number.
He will spend another season working with Gary Kubiak, the architect of the offense that Cousins directed during a career year in 2019. And he’ll direct an attack that’s spent two first-round and two second-round draft picks on accoutrements for the quarterback since he walked in the door.
But like one of those photos of a famous landmark taken from an unusual angle, Cousins’ moment of prominence isn’t as simple as it would seem.
As the quarterback pointed out Friday, Kubiak — who shifted from offensive adviser to coordinator when the Browns hired Kevin Stefanski — will be his fifth play-caller in as many years. Receiver Justin Jefferson arrived with the first-round pick the Vikings got in exchange for Stefon Diggs, whose eagerness to play elsewhere was “not a mystery,” Cousins said this spring. And the coronavirus pandemic means the quarterback still hadn’t logged a full-team practice snap with his new receivers and linemen as of Friday, 37 days before the season opener against Green Bay.
Heading into Year 9, Cousins has realized he needs to be as much a source of stability as he is a beneficiary of it.
“Turnover is kind of the normal part of this league,” he said in a videoconference Friday. “It’s rare to have continuity, but you appreciate it when you get it. With a little bit less work this offseason, going into my ninth year, I probably am not as concerned about that, but my concern is more on young offensive linemen, our draft picks at positions we know we’re going to need to be counting on. I’ve got to help get them along, get them caught up to speed, and that’s as much my job, potentially, as it is for the coach or the player themself.”
Cousins sneaked in a few days of work with Jefferson and some of his other teammates in Minnesota this offseason, wrapping up just before a summer spike in COVID-19 cases led the NFL Players Association to curtail private workouts.
He otherwise spent his offseason playing catch with anyone who was around (from a high school friend in west Michigan to his father and brother), connecting virtually with his personal trainer Joe Tofferi and squeezing in some tennis. He has yet to miss a game because of injury — or even find himself on the Vikings’ injury report — in two seasons with the team, and he said he is feeling good.
The Vikings will finally be able to put pads on Aug. 17, two days before Cousins turns 32, and their truncated run-up to the season will be spent finding a new starter at guard and determining what Jefferson and free-agent pickup Tajae Sharpe can do in their offense.
The fact the Vikings offense still has Cousins, Dalvin Cook, Adam Thielen, Kyle Rudolph and four returning starters along the line might make that the more established side of the ball. The unusualness of that is not lost on safety Harrison Smith as the Vikings prepare to find four new starters on defense.
“We’re talking about the defense changing and stuff; that’s normally not what we’re talking about,” Smith said. “[Usually] we’re talking about the offense. Now we’ve got continuity with Kirk and a bunch of guys over there, building on success. Especially without preseason games, it’ll be good to go against a group like that in practice who’s going to be clicking at a high level.”
Cousins’ overtime throws to Thielen and Rudolph in New Orleans set up his first career playoff victory, but the Vikings managed only seven first downs the following week at San Francisco.
The loss to the 49ers has become a totem for the three men — Cousins, coach Mike Zimmer and General Manager Rick Spielman — who each got new contracts from the Vikings before the 2020 season, as the team tries to get over the hump the game seems to represent.
Reaching the ranks of the NFC’s elite, in a year with changes on defense and little time to get ready, could require even more from Cousins. At this stage of his NFL career, and at his current level of affluence, it’s to be expected.
“One of the focuses for me this season will be to, if we’re not running the ball well and things aren’t going well, to be able to make those plays that can get us right back into a game and win a game,” he said. “I think you saw it in the Denver game [last November], we were down and able to get back in it and win. Being able to do that more and against a team like San Francisco, it’s not an easy task.
“But those are the challenges when they eventually come up this season, it’s a goal and something you’re working toward to say, ‘Hey, in those moments, try to find a way to dig deep and make enough plays to win.’ ”