MINNEAPOLIS – Kirk Cousins wanted to hit Adam Thielen on a quick in-breaking route, and upon seeing his wide receiver make his move, the Minnesota Vikings quarterback cocked his arm back to throw and started bringing the ball forward. But no sooner than he had, he located the cornerback and realized the Packers defender hadn’t played the route as he expected.
If he threw the ball, Cousins was either going to lead Thielen into a situation where the receiver would have gotten leveled, or even worse, his pass would have been intercepted. So he re-holstered, as he likes to say. Cousins pulled the ball back, reset, pivoted and hit tight end Kyle Rudolph for an 11-yard gain and a first down.
Disaster averted. Chains moved. Hope preserved.
The play – one of the many key sequences in Minnesota’s 24-17 win over NFC North rival Green Bay on Sunday night – was exactly the display of poise and execution that the Vikings have needed from their quarterback. It was the kind of play that Cousins delivered far too infrequently in an ugly loss to Chicago one week earlier. But that connection Sunday night, and many others like it, reflected one of the points of emphasis offensive coordinator John DeFilippo drilled into his quarterback throughout the practice week.
“When you hold the football in your hands,” Cousins said, relaying a message from the week, “you hold the livelihoods of a lot of people in that building and their families. And as one coach told me many times, ball security is job security. Yours and mine.”
Message received. Cousins rebounded from the Chicago debacle and delivered the type of performance that the Vikings sought when they gave him a three-year, fully guaranteed, $84 million contract in the spring. He completed 29 of 38 pass attempts for 342 yards and three touchdowns. Most importantly, Cousins didn’t turn the ball over. The Vikings, as a result, improved to 6-4-1 and remain in contention for a wild-card berth.
With his performance, Cousins quieted some of the critics who spent the week questioning his abilities and positing that the Vikings had erred in giving him such a rich contract.
But Cousins also delivered the kind of performance that his teammates and coaches fully expected of him.
“You know how the media is,” wide receiver Stefon Diggs said in a post-game scrum. “When we’re playing great, they build you up. If things happen, they’re going to tear you down, but we have 100 percent in the guy. He’s proven why he’s as good as we say he is. We’re behind him all the way.”
Diggs, who had eight catches for 77 yards and a touchdown, didn’t stand alone in his assessment and declaration of support. Fellow wideouts Thielen and Aldrick Robinson, left guard Tom Compton, tight end Kyle Rudolph and coach Mike Zimmer all echoed Diggs.
Cousins’ stellar play didn’t surprise them because they see how hard he works behind the scenes.
No stranger to criticisms because of his time in Washington, in which every throw, miscue and contract decision drew intense scrutiny, Cousins didn’t flinch as the same talking heads and fans who suddenly expressed reservations about his capabilities and worth despite having heralded him in the spring as the missing link.
He has trained himself not to listen to the critics. He has also trained himself to intensely self-scout and to remain consistent in his approach.
So, Cousins returned to work after the loss to the Bears carrying himself with the same purpose and focus as he always does.
“He takes every game pretty personally and pretty serious. ... He’s the same guy every day,” Compton, Cousins’ teammate and friend since their rookie season in Washington in 2012, told USA TODAY Sports. “He doesn’t really – if he is frustrated – he doesn’t really take it out on anybody. He’s just intense and wants to win so bad, so every little thing matters.”
As Robinson – another player drafted by Washington in 2012 and now reunited with Cousins in Minnesota – explained to USA TODAY Sports, “When he wants something a certain way, he wants it that way. That intensity to get things right comes out. He’s very specific about how he wants things and how he wants it to work.”
That often requires getting an extra receiver or two to join him for post-practice drills as he tries to improve his timing or accuracy on previously challenging throws. It also entails conversations with teammates and coaches about breakdowns as well as additional film study sessions.
All of the extra work gives the Vikings confidence that Cousins will get them where they need to be. Though the team might not catch Chicago (8-3) for the division title, contending for a Super Bowl remains possible.
“He (rebounds) because he prepares for the worst-case scenarios and he knows that not everything turns out perfectly, so he also plays football,” Diggs told USA TODAY Sports. “He’s not out there robot-ing. He knows guys are trying to get open on the outside for him and do their job, so he plays football. He’s just a baller.”
A common discussion in the Vikings quarterback room involves the importance of reacting favorably to the unexpected.
“What are you going to do if (the called play) is not there? What’s your exit strategy?’” Cousins explained. “Is it to run, is it to progress? Is it to find an outlet? So, many times our plays are designed for certain coverages and we spend time about if we don’t get that coverage, then what are you going to do? It takes time and you build up that inventory of experiences and you start to learn where all the bones are buried in those plays, as coach (Kevin) Stefanski likes to say, and then you’re able to not to get fooled as easily and be ready for the tough scenarios that get thrown at you. Just about anybody can handle the easy looks but you’ve got to be great when it’s a tough look.”
Cousins and the Vikings firmly believe that he’s doing just as he said: stockpiling experiences so he can draw upon them, avoid repeats of disaster plays and games, and deliver positive outcomes. Doing so is a must. Because with matchups against formidable foes in New England, Seattle and Chicago ahead, the Vikings need Cousins to remain cool under pressure and ball out like he did against Green Bay on a consistent basis.