Nagged by his past, pressured physically and figuratively by the new division powerhouse, confronted with a rival who carries the fame and ring he covets, Kirk Cousins on Sunday night faces a midterm challenge.
Is he the quarterback the Vikings thought they bought, or the one Washington refused to pay?
Sunday night at U.S. Bank Stadium, Cousins begins a three-game stretch against statistically exceptional quarterbacks who have won Super Bowls. It starts with a duel against Aaron Rodgers, his superior and yet his brother in arms.
Rodgers won a Super Bowl at 27, in his third season as a starter. Winning the big one offers the tertiary benefit of preventing anyone from ever accusing you of being unable to win the big one, but it is not a panacea against future ills.
This season, Rodgers, one of a handful of quarterbacks who can make a logical case as the greatest ever at his position, is completing 61.8 percent of his passes, his second-lowest mark as a starter. In the NFL of 2018, that’s a percentage you would expect from Nathan Peterman, not someone known for strapping on invisible championship belts.
The Packers are 4-5-1, and the smart speculation around the league is that a lost season will doom coach Mike McCarthy. If they lose Sunday night, they are likely to miss the playoffs in consecutive years for he first time since 2005-06.
Which can only make U.S. Bank Stadium feel more like a crockpot for Cousins. If he can’t lead a superior roster to victory at home against the reeling Packers, the Redskins might hire a biplane to carry a “You Like That?’’ banner over his house.
Even Rodgers isn’t immune from slumps, the deleterious effect of injuries and the drag of an incomplete roster, but it remains his, and Cousins’, job to rise above.
As the Saints, Chiefs and Rams test new prototypes on the Autobahn, the Packers and Vikings are riding Bird scooters through the park. Rodgers has one proven receiver he can count on — Davante Adams. Cousins is playing behind an offensive line that couldn’t handle the Bears, and yet he could have played better last week, when he took his first, all-too-tentative step onto his 2018 proving grounds.
A miscommunication with tight end Kyle Rudolph cost him one interception. A decision to force a pass to the untrustworthy Laquon Treadwell — and his inaccuracy with that throw — cost him another.
Until a no-huddle offense slowed down the Bears’ rush and bought him time, Cousins looked overmatched in Chicago. On Sunday night the Vikings need Captain Kirk to earn a playing-field promotion.
Chicago’s trade for Khalil Mack and its offensive innovations have altered the divisional forecast. For years, the Packers ruled because of Brett Favre and Rodgers. In recent years, the Vikings have built the better roster but failed to capitalize on it because of offensive line or quarterback injuries.
The Bears are threatening to make the Vikings-Packers more about nostalgia than dominance. Fair or not, Rodgers and Cousins will be branded by the outcome.
Statistically, Cousins has excelled. He has a career-best completion percentage of 70.7. He is on pace to pass for about 4,700 yards, which would be the second-best mark of his career. His interception percentage of 1.7 would be the best of his career.
Cousins’ problem is that no one cares about his statistics. He was hired to replace an efficient quarterback who took the Vikings to the NFC Championship Game. He was paid an enormous amount of guaranteed money.
He will be measured by the grandest and narrowest of metrics — winning conference and league titles. And in his biggest game as a Viking, he looked uncomfortable.
Cousins’ midterms begin with his foremost new rival and conclude with Tom Brady, who makes do with former lacrosse players and college quarterbacks as receivers.
The division is in flux and the season is in peril. This would be a good time for Cousins to assure the Vikings that they have a franchise quarterback.
Souhan’s podcast can be heard at TalkNorth.com. On Twitter: @SouhanStrib E-mail: email@example.com