EAGAN, Minn. — Making the jump from Year 1 to Year 2 of the Kirk Cousins era in Minnesota, Vikings coaches and front office personnel have been adamant that statistics, no matter how impressive they appear, won’t cut it if they don’t translate to wins and a shot at a postseason run.
This offseason, Vikings general manager Rick Spielman has talked about putting the pieces in place, from new coaches on the offensive staff to the players brought in during free agency and the draft, to help Cousins take his game to the “next level.”
What exactly does that mean to the quarterback?
“I think the next level, really, is all about winning,” Cousins said during mandatory minicamp on Wednesday. “I’m pretty much a .500 quarterback in my career so far and I don’t think that’s where you want to be and that’s not why you are brought in or people or excited about you.
“If I don’t play well, if I don’t have gaudy statistics but we win multiple playoff games this year, the narrative will be I went to the next level and I may not walk off the field everyday feeling like I did but if we win, that’s the life of a quarterback is you are at the next level. If I have my best year yet in 2018 but we’re 8-8, I didn’t go to the next level. That’s the reality of it.”
The numbers Cousins put up in his first season with the Vikings fail to tell the full story of a disappointing year. Although the quarterback recorded the highest completion percentage (70.13) in history among QBs who threw for over 4,000 yards, 30 touchdowns and 10 interceptions in a season, Minnesota failed to make the playoffs, stumbling to an 8-7-1 finish.
To Spielman, Cousins’ numbers will never be the end-all, be-all of what he’s judged on.
“If he throws for 1 yard and we get into the playoffs, that’s all that matters,” Spielman said in February.
Cousins was thought to be the missing piece for a team with Super Bowl expectations a year ago. While the offense flexed its muscle with a top-10 passing attack and two 1,000-yard receivers, it sputtered at critical times, including a Week 17 loss to Chicago that would have catapulted the Vikings into the playoffs for the first time in consecutive seasons under coach Mike Zimmer.
The criticisms surrounding Cousins’ game are rooted in his 32-30-2 record since becoming a full-time starter four seasons ago in Washington and the fact that he has yet to win a playoff game. The key for the quarterback in changing the story while elevating his game to the elusive “next level” is rooted more in how he handles himself as a leader, guiding his teammates as the Vikings install their new system under offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski and assistant head coach/advisor Gary Kubiak that has been tailored to the QB’s strengths.
“I’m going to do all I can, control what I can control and I think one thing I can do beyond just playing the best I can is to start really coaching and leading other people so that I can never walk off the field saying, ‘Hey, I did my part but so-and-so didn’t,’ that can’t happen,” Cousins said. “As a quarterback, you have to be bringing others along so that isn’t a point you’re making at the end of a practice or a game. That’s really what it’s all about.”
Minnesota has one final practice session Thursday before wrapping up minicamp and heading into the break before training camp. Last year at this time, Cousins equated the amount of information overload while learning a new system to drinking from a fire hose.
Having worked a full year with many of the same players he won eight games with last season, Cousins’ familiarity appears to be helping him quickly get on the same page with his teammates, especially the ones he’ll be throwing to on Sundays.
“Having one year under his belt around his teammates is a big deal and there’s so much that goes into understanding the nuances of each one of your receivers and your tight ends and knowing how they come out of routes,” Stefanski said. “That was something that we definitely tried to speed up the process last year. There’s only so much you can do that. I think it’s really helpful that he walks out on this practice field and has an inventory of knowledge of each of his receivers in particular.”
In 2019, Cousins will be judged not on his numbers but if he can lead his team back to the postseason for the first time since Minnesota lost the NFC Championship Game two years ago.
Doing so will require him executing his part within the offense more effectively. That’s where his familiarity with Stefanski/Kubiak’s system could pay off its biggest dividends.
“Terminology’s different,” Cousins said. “We’re saying different words, but at times calling the same thing. It’s been an evolution, so it’s a moving target a little bit. You can’t take a snapshot of the 2012 Redskins offense and say it’s so similar, because even plays that are meant to be similar have evolved as defenses have evolved, as offenses have found ways to do things better. And then I got in that system, if you want to call it that, with Sean McVay in Washington, but then he’s evolved that quite a bit, when I watch through the TV at what he’s doing with the Rams.
“So technically, is it the same system? Yes. Are you doing the same things? Is the philosophy the same? I don’t know. It still looks kind of different to me, so there’s changes, there’s similarities. I’ll put it this way: I couldn’t just go out the practice without looking at the playbook, without looking at notes. I wouldn’t be able to do much. It’s new enough that I’ve really got to go over things and make sure I understand it in terms of the route depths and the snap counts and the concepts, because it is different.”