Kirk Cousins’ quest to please everybody brought happiness to nobody during a dramatic week in which the Vikings were overwhelmed by an undermanned Bears team, forced to punish disgruntled star receiver Stefon Diggs for skipping practice, and thrust into the national spotlight because their $84 million quarterback is looking more skittish than skilled in the pocket.
“The way Kirk’s playing now, there is no debating that he has very little to zero confidence in his game,” former NFL quarterback and current ESPN analyst Dan Orlovsky said. “I would say he’s scared of making a mistake.”
Scared because he doesn’t want to be the reason a run-oriented team with a veteran, top-five defense loses, said Fox analyst Charles Davis, who will help call Sunday’s game between the Vikings (2-2) and Giants (2-2) at MetLife Stadium.
“But he knew what he signed up for, to be that final piece, to play differently when dictated, to make that throw when they can’t run the ball,” Davis said. “People bought that he might not be able to win in Washington. With this team? People are not going to accept anything less than the Vikings should win big games.”
Yet Cousins has an average and all-too-familiar-feeling 10-9-1 mark through 20 games with the Vikings. He is 36-39-2 in his eighth season. Against winning teams, he is 5-27, including 1-6 last year and 0-2 this year in NFC North games at Green Bay and Chicago.
“You can win a championship with Kirk Cousins’ ‘A’ game,” said former NFL general manager and current ESPN analyst Mike Tannenbaum. “You just want to see the bandwidth of his expected performances being smaller. Meaning you can count on getting an ‘A’ or a ‘B’ performance. It just seems like his bad games have been so poor.”
Tannenbaum cautioned against writing Cousins off, citing the fact he’s only seven games into Kevin Stefanski’s tenure as offensive coordinator. Orlovsky, meanwhile, doesn’t believe the built-to-win-now Vikings have time for growing pains like the ones in last Sunday’s 16-6 loss at Soldier Field. And, besides, Orlovsky said he can point to several plays in that game in which the confident Cousins he saw in Washington would have pulled the trigger, let the ball fly and made big plays to Diggs and Adam Thielen.
One of those plays came from the Vikings 5-yard line early in the second quarter.
“They go play-action pass,” Orlovsky said. “Right when Kirk gets to the top of his drop, Stefon is sitting in a soft spot of a zone down the field. The closest guy to Stefon is 6, 7 yards away. Stefon curls up and [faces] Kirk, and Kirk just won’t throw it to him. He’s looking at him, the pocket is plenty good and he just will not throw him the football.”
Cousins checked down to fullback C.J. Ham for a 2-yard gain.
“There was another time when he had two guys to throw to,” Orlovsky said. “He’s at the top of his drop. The pocket is as good as you’ll ever see in the NFL and he puts his foot in the ground and runs toward the line of scrimmage and throws another checkdown. It’s like, man, he just has no confidence in his game, in what he’s seeing, in trusting his eyes.”
The big question
With an entire nation of analysts being asked, “What’s wrong with Kirk?” the Star Tribune had a chance to pull Cousins aside this week and ask, “So, what was wrong with Kirk in Chicago?”
“If I could sum it up, it would be just a couple play pass opportunities that we missed,” Cousins said. “A couple of deeper shots we missed. That’s it.
“I think we completed over 70 percent of our passes last week. We didn’t have an interception. I think the passer rating was over 90. So, it’s not the horrific quarterback play that I think some people, based on their questions, would lead you to believe.”
But, Kirk, even coach Mike Zimmer said there were times you needed to just pull the trigger without fear of consequences.
“There were some play passes where guys were open and I either needed to pull the trigger or when I did pull the trigger, I missed by a few feet,” Cousins said. “That’s it. Going forward, keep my eyes downfield. Trust the pass protection and not allow a previous rep when you took a sack or threw the ball away affect the next rep by speeding through the progression.”
In other words, Cousins is seeing the proverbial ghosts. Or at least feeling them when they aren’t there. Pro Football Focus, whose 52.7 grade on Cousins was 30th among 38 quarterbacks last week, says Cousins is the most pressured quarterback in the NFL but also has the longest average time to throw.
“Kirk very much wants to do everything the right way, please everybody, do it the way the coaches want and all that,” Davis said. “I don’t think the Vikings all of a sudden want him to be a Hell’s Angel and a rebel. But, at the same time, you got to know when to break the rules. You got to know when to color outside the lines. You got to know when to make a play that’s a little bit different, and consequences be darned.
“Every now and then, it’s OK if you don’t get the merit badge that week.”
Cousins apologized to Thielen publicly on his radio show and podcast for missing opportunities to connect with him in Chicago. That touched off another debate. Some, like Tannenbaum, say it shows strong leadership. Zimmer, on the other hand, didn’t like it and suggested Cousins get off his podcast.
Asked if he tries too hard to please everybody, Cousins told the Star Tribune: “Maybe there is some of that. But, honestly, I feel an obligation to be honest and open with my teammates and own mistakes. That’s important. I’m never going to back down from saying, ‘Hey, that was my fault.’ That’s got to always be part of being a quarterback. But if a guy is not doing his job, I’ll let him know.
“I think it’s key publicly never to throw anybody under the bus. So publicly, I’m never going to ruffle feathers in the locker room. I’m always going to make sure I say, ‘Hey, it’s my fault.’ Take it even when it’s not my deal and just say we got to get back to work.”
It remains to be seen whether Cousins or the Vikings can please Diggs. According to Star Tribune sources, Diggs missed the team meeting on Monday. He didn’t show up for practice on Wednesday. Although he later told reporters he had a cold, Zimmer didn’t list him as such on the injury report, called his absence an internal matter he wouldn’t discuss, and admitted to punishing Diggs for his actions.
Diggs also acknowledged his frustration with the state of the passing attack and did not deny that he wants to be traded, saying, “I feel like there’s truth to all rumors.”
Tannenbaum downplayed the magnitude of the Diggs dust-up, saying he thinks Zimmer has built enough “equity” in his player relationships to smooth things over.
“In the NFL,” he said, “you’re never going to have 53 guys who all feel, ‘Wow, they’re paying me really, really well and I don’t deserve a nickel more.’ Or, ‘My play time is totally fair.’ That’s why head coaches are so valuable. Mike Zimmer is a great leader. There’s probably 1,000 other times something like this has happened and nobody even knew about it.”
But there’s still a problem, Orlovsky said.
“Normally, I take what receivers say with a grain of salt,” Orlovsky said. “But in this case, I absolutely get Diggs’ frustration being as high as it is.”
Bull by the horns
Orlovsky questions whether Cousins can get his confidence back.
“I’m not a ‘take’ person or anything like that,” he said. “But I think the Vikings are a really good football team. They should at least be having conversations about calling Jacksonville and Miami. You don’t know what you might be able to go get [Josh] Rosen for or Nick Foles for.”
Under far more desperate circumstances, the Vikings had Sam Bradford ready to start two weeks after Teddy Bridgewater’s knee injury in 2016.
“Quarterbacks are smarter than you think. Especially a guy like Foles, who has been around a bunch. And Rosen, who’s highly intelligent. How long would it take? I don’t know. A couple of weeks.”
And this, folks, is only Week 5 for a team that’s 2-2 and one game out in the division.
“It’s not time to panic, but this is another big week for Kirk,” Davis said. “Can he start to string together some consistency?
“I’m looking forward to seeing where his confidence is. Has he been stung so much that he’s going to be even more risk averse? Or has he been stung so much that it’s, ‘I’ll show you!’? Is it, ‘I’ll show you what Mike Zimmer and this Vikings team was looking for when they signed me!’?”