In the resurrection of this Vikings season, one which appeared on the brink of disaster after a 2-2 start – even though we should know better than to judge a Mike Zimmer team after four games – there have been plenty of story lines and standout performances.
But in the course of the last 10 games, when the Vikings have gone 8-2 and put themselves on the brink of making the playoffs, there really has been one positive constant above all others: the excellence of Kirk Cousins.
The running game has disappeared for stretches, injuries to Adam Thielen and Dalvin Cook have changed the look of the offense, the defense has been inconsistent (and at times flat-out bad) and special teams have been a mixed bag.
All the while, Cousins has thrown for 22 touchdowns against just three interceptions in that span, with 2,745 passing yards and a 118.1 passer rating along with 8.74 yards per attempt. His Total QBR, which was down near the bottom of the league through four weeks, is No. 9 among passers now.
In almost every case where he’s been asked to make big throws, he’s made them. In games that called simply for good decisions, he’s made them.
Before this stretch, he was 36-39-2 as a starting QB in the NFL, including 10-9-1 with the Vikings. Cousins changing the narrative on his career as a .500 quarterback has been the defining narrative of this Vikings season.
We’ve seen this from Zimmer teams before, this ability to shape-shift after a quarter of the season. Both his previous playoff teams in 2015 and 2017 started 2-2 before finishing 11-5 and 13-3, respectively.
But we haven’t seen this level from Cousins, the combination of consistency and winning.
He’s not doing it alone, of course. An underrated part of the narrative of the last 10 games is the improvement of the offensive line – which goes hand-in-hand with Cousins’ better numbers and decision-making.
Through the first four weeks of the season, Cousins was being pressured on 46.8% of his dropbacks – tied for the highest rate during that span with Deshaun Watson of the Texans among the 27 passers with at least 100 dropbacks per Pro Football Focus. That came on the heels of 2018, when Cousins was pressured on 260 dropbacks (second-most, again behind Watson).
Since then, in the last 10 games, Cousins is being pressured on just 31.8% of his dropbacks – the 10th-lowest rate among 28 qualified quarterbacks in that span. And when he has been pressured in the last 10 games, Cousins has delivered – throwing four TDs with zero interceptions and 86.9 passer rating (sixth-best).
Not surprisingly, the Vikings’ offensive line grades are much-improved. They were tied for the second-worst pass blocking efficiency through four games; since then, they are a respectable 15th out of 32 teams. Rookie center Garrett Bradbury is the individual embodiment of that improvement; he graded last out of 32 centers through four weeks; since then, he’s closer to league average at 19th among centers.
And as Zimmer said Monday, it’s not just about the line or Cousins.
“I think it’s more than one area. I think Kevin (Stefanski) has done a nice job calling the game, which helps, helps the quarterback getting the ball out on time, helps he’s not sitting back there and patting it,” Zimmer said. “The offensive line has done a nice job as well. I think if you put all those three things together, it’s a combination of not getting negative plays.”
But Cousins is the one who is making the big money, who has to make the in-the-moment decisions and who ultimately gets the glory or blame. He was getting plenty of the latter early in the year, and he deserves the former now.
All of those things will be tested in the final two weeks against Green Bay and Chicago. Arguably the worst games of the season for Cousins, the line and to a degree Stefanski came in Week 2 and Week 4 losses to the Packers and Bears.
We will see how far they have come as the Vikings try to close in on a playoff berth that could ensure Cousins is here for years to come.