The mind of Kirk Cousins seems to be a labyrinthine place, one where the Vikings quarterback analyzes his own performance, and the process that led to it, almost like an economist poring over indicators to assess market conditions.
It's also one of the only places in the world where there's a full and clear accounting of everything Cousins was asked to do — the plays he was given to run, the grades he was assigned after games — in his first year with the Vikings. There, Cousins' 2018 season was the best of his career.
"When you go back and watch the tape — if you really know football and watch plays — I just feel like [with] the volume of what the quarterback is asked to do, it was the best I've handled that job," Cousins said. "Protecting the football, going through reads, finding the open guy, throwing with accuracy, getting the protection set correctly — all that comes with playing the position. I guess what I've always looked for is continuous improvement, and from '17 to '18, I feel like there was continuous improvement. If I ever feel like I'm plateaued, or I didn't play better, or I'm not more dialed in, that would be a concern — really a concern. I didn't feel that from '17 to '18."
But just as GDP and stock market trends don't always mean the average family has more money to buy groceries, Cousins knows his analysis doesn't translate on a gut level. He shifts, boiling his self-evaluation down to its most empirical data point, to the only thing that really matters in the NFL.
"We didn't win. And by win, I mean win-win: go 13-3, get to a Super Bowl, that kind of a thing," he said. "It wasn't a disaster. It wasn't like we were 3-13. But we didn't win enough. Ultimately, that's what matters and that's what tells the story."
The towering narrative attached to Cousins' $84 million contract, which cast him as the final piece to a team on a Super Bowl precipice, might have overlooked the sublime health and career-year performances that contributed to the Vikings' 13-3 record the year before. The defense, which had just four games missed by starters in 2017, dealt with nagging injuries and slipped from first to ninth in the league in points against as it struggled with some of the NFL's most challenging new offenses. And the offense — initially envisioned as an attack where Cousins would have plenty of support — asked the quarterback to match a career high with 606 pass attempts. According to Pro Football Focus, Cousins was pressured on 38.9 percent of his dropbacks, the seventh-highest rate in the league.
The offensive overhaul, in the wake of coach Mike Zimmer's decision to fire coordinator John DeFilippo last December, has resulted in a familiar scheme for Cousins (after the addition of Gary Kubiak as assistant head coach) and more accouterments for the quarterback. The Vikings spent their top three picks on a center, a tight end and a running back, and head into the season prioritizing the tenets that made Cousins successful in Washington: Two-tight end sets, an outside zone running scheme and play-action throws built off under-center drop backs.
It's a recipe that appears to have Cousins more comfortable than he was in 2018, when he arrived as a curiosity and spent much of the season being asked to cover for a 30th-ranked running game. He's started a radio show with retired WCCO television sportscaster (and KFAN radio personality) Mark Rosen. He seems more relaxed with teammates and coaches and a little more approachable, cracking jokes about rookie center Garrett Bradbury's sweaty legs and needling reporters at the start of his press conferences.
With the refreshing candor and self-awareness, Cousins acknowledged he's better in a system that doesn't put everything on his back.
"I don't know that I can be that," Cousins said. "I am a quarterback; I'm not a savior. I'm sure you could say there are a few quarterbacks in this league who may be that, but I certainly don't profess to be that. I think I can play the position at a high level, and that certainly is an important part of winning and losing and moving the ball as an offense. But it's only a part of the bigger story.
"I know for a fact I will play my best football when there's a good running game, when there's good protection, when there's really good receivers. And when I say I had a great year last year, what that's saying, too, is I got to play with Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen and Kyle Rudolph. There were pieces where you say, when I do have success, it's because of those guys. It's not because I'm so good."
Conflict turns to clarity
If there's a lasting snapshot of the Vikings' discombobulated 2018 season, it might be the heated Week 17 sideline exchange between Cousins and Thielen, after the receiver put an extra move into his corner route and Cousins threw the ball before Thielen could get there.
The moment, Cousins says now, was the product of two competitors at the peak of their frustration.
"That was the first time that probably happened in my nine months of knowing him at that point," Cousins said. "What happened was, we called the play, and I had felt a pass rush from the Bears the whole first half. He broke in, which I didn't expect him to do, but he was trying to get open. He was like, 'I've run this route so many times; if I just run it, I'm going to be covered.' So I kind of threw it away or whatever happened. When I come to the sideline, I wanted to say to him, 'Hey, why'd you break in there?' But he was saying, 'I don't want to run that route this many times in a row.' He was already kind of talking like, 'What are we doing?' And I'm yelling at him like, 'What are you doing?' We were kind of saying the same thing to each other. He's so passionate — you saw what he did to Bill Belichick three weeks earlier, so I guess I'm in good company."
They'd set team and NFL records together earlier in the season, but Cousins and Thielen's emotions boiled over as their offense ran out of solutions.
"It's most frustrating when you get to that point in the season and you don't really know what your identity is," Thielen said. "That was the general frustration from everybody: 'Yeah, we're not playing our best football, but at the same time, we don't really know what we're good at. We don't know what we're bad at. We don't really have an identity as an offense.'"
Forced to operate with little cap space because of high-priced deals for Cousins, Thielen, Diggs and a handful of defenders, the Vikings used much of their offseason capital on their offensive line, signing guard Josh Kline from the Titans and using their first-round pick on Bradbury.
And as they overhauled their coaching staff, bringing in Kubiak, his son Klint as quarterbacks coach and two of his longtime assistants (offensive line coach Rick Dennison and tight ends coach Brian Pariani), the watchword of the Vikings' offensive rebuild was "multiple," as they shifted toward a scheme with more personnel groups and the ability to do different things out of the same formation.
Cousins was raised in a similar scheme under Mike Shanahan (Kubiak's old boss in Denver) while he started his career with the Redskins. He said he's felt a "healthy uneasiness" about the offense — particularly after its unproductive showing in the third preseason game against Arizona — but has been particularly encouraged by preseason signs that the running game could provide more of a counterpunch this year.
"We had a couple explosive runs [against Arizona], and that's a great sign of improvement," Cousins said. "If you were to say, 'Did they struggle to drop back and throw the ball last year?' No, that really wasn't a struggle. The struggle was, we didn't run the ball well. We didn't have the explosive plays. If we're doing that well, the other stuff should be able to come along."
The QB who ran for 13 touchdowns in Washington has designs on making more plays with his feet, confident he can protect himself and keep a 69-game starting streak intact by sliding, getting out of bounds or even diving headfirst.
He has taken his time with the young receivers this summer, walking rookie Olabisi Johnson through an on-field miscommunication during a sideline conversation in a preseason game and spending a few extra seconds to double-check hand signals at the line of scrimmage in practice.
"It was a lot more relaxed than I expected it to be — because Kirk can get a little upset sometimes," Johnson said. "That's normal. It doesn't matter whether I'm a rookie or I'm a 10-year vet; he expects guys to be in the right place at the right time, and when they're not, it's unfortunate. But I think he handled it well with me."
In a system where he expects to have a little more support and in a city where things are more familiar in Year 2, Cousins appears more at ease.
"That's with anything you do — you're going to be more comfortable the second time you do it," Rudolph said. "It's important for us as an offense to make sure all the pressure is not applied to him. We've got 10 other guys out there that have to make plays and keep this offense on schedule."
'Pretty good gig if we won'
Cousins' contract, too, is less of an outlier than when he signed it. Though his fully guaranteed deal is still one of a kind, he's now the NFL's seventh-highest paid QB, in terms of average salary and guaranteed money, having been passed in the last year by Russell Wilson, Ben Roethlisberger, Aaron Rodgers, Carson Wentz, Matt Ryan and Jared Goff.
His deal with the Vikings, though, is still such that many expect it to be a down payment on a championship. It will also be up after next season, meaning Cousins is already at the point where his future in Minnesota will become a topic of conversation, even as he's not yet at the halfway point of the deal he signed in 2018.
The question that will continue to follow him, then, is this: Did the Vikings pay for a quarterback who can carry them to a championship?
Cousins accepts the nature of the query, even if he doesn't grant the premise that some quarterbacks are good enough to win when things are collapsing around them.
"It comes down a little bit to talent, natural feel for the position and years on task and all that," he said. "But look at Rodgers — did the Packers have a winning record? And he's the guy, right? If you were going to say, 'Who's the guy who can do that?' Aaron Rodgers. And what happened? Losing record. So if he can put the team on his back — which he's shown he can do, and they don't even make the playoffs and have a worse record than we did, then what qualifies it?
"Philip Rivers, I would say, is a guy who can do that and has done that. He's had years back-to-back where they went 4-12 and then 5-11, and he led the league in interceptions. And I would still say he's a dude. You know what I'm saying? What the key is, you've got to win. You win enough, you win enough, you win enough, you build up a résumé, and it's understood that, 'That guy can do it.' And to this point, I've been .500 [in my career]. So guess what? I haven't been a part of that. And that's really all that matters to me."
For all the peculiarities of his journey — from Robert Griffin III's backup to the first two-time recipient of the franchise tag to the guaranteed contract, Cousins will be judged by one crude measurement: Whether or not he wins big.
It seems, on some level, that's what he wants.
"It'll always be that way," he said. "The old adage is, quarterbacks will get too much praise and too much criticism. That's going to be true as long as there's football. You understand it comes with the territory. You also say, 'Hey, it'd be a pretty good gig if we won. If we have a good year, I'll be quite the beneficiary.' You've got to take the good with the bad, too. So it's OK."