The Cousins Chronicles: An Opening Month of Kirk’s Highs, Lows, and Everything in Between
We may have witnessed the end of the Kirk Cousins Era in Minnesota when he tore his Achilles tendon on Sunday. The Cousins Chronicles seeks to be a comprehensive guide for how he has played since arriving in 2018.
The injury affects the immediate and long-term future of the franchise as he is set to become a free agent following the season. He will be 36 when the 2024 season begins. Will the Vikings want to bring him back after his stellar play recently? Or will they choose to move on?
These questions were going to be asked when the season ended regardless of Kirk’s health. Many have been waiting to move on from him, believing he doesn’t have what it takes to elevate a team to a Super Bowl. Others defend him and believe that his supporting cast has been underwhelming more often than not.
I decided to go back through all of his games throughout his Vikings tenure and assign credit or blame to Cousins for each contest. This is based on the TV broadcast and box scores found on Pro Football Reference. I’ve always found myself favorable to Kirk to a point but far from a “stan.”
So we begin with September 2018. The Vikings were coming off of a 13-3 season that ended with an NFC Championship loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. Their defense was the best in the league, but management didn’t believe that career journeyman Case Keenum could lead the Vikings long-term. So they signed Kirk, who spent his first six seasons in Washington. His three-year, $84 million was fully guaranteed, the first of its kind in NFL history, and immediately drew a microscope to his performance.
The first month encompassed almost every bit of the spectrum throughout his Vikings tenure. He played well in a win, even better in a tie and a loss, and bad in a loss. It immediately made fans, and probably head coach Mike Zimmer, wonder: “Did we get the right guy?”
The Cousins Chronicles: September, 2018
Week 1: San Francisco 49ers, Win, 24-16
Stat Line: 20/36, 244 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT, 95.1 passer rating
The Kirk Cousins Era couldn’t have gotten off to a stronger start. The Vikings faced an inferior San Francisco 49ers team at home, and for two-thirds of the game, the better team had a stranglehold. Minnesota took a 24-6 lead with 4:22 left in the third quarter when Kirk dropped a pass into the bucket for tight end Kyle Rudolph.
A year earlier, the Vikings boasted the league’s best defense. In Week 1, it appeared that things may not be the same, though.
Jimmy Garoppolo found receiver Dante Pettis for a 22-yard touchdown with 31 seconds left in the third quarter to cut the Vikings’ lead to 24-13. Two drives later, the 49ers found themselves at the Vikings’ 4-yard line. Fortunately, Garoppolo overthrew second-year tight end George Kittle, and the 49ers would have to settle for a 22-yard field goal. All of a sudden, the Vikings only led 24-16.
The Vikings would take four minutes off the clock when they took over at their own 18-yard line with 5:46 remaining in the game. Kirk dropped back to pass on 3rd-and-5 from his own 37-yard line and then broke the pocket. With linebacker Elijah Lee closing in on him, Kirk put his head down like prime Adrian Peterson, falling short of the first down marker by one yard. The offense stayed on the field for fourth down, drawing the 49ers’ defense offsides, and extending the drive.
Ultimately, the Vikings would punt, but Harrison Smith would intercept Garoppolo two plays later to seal the game. This game had the makings of a blowout, but the Vikings’ defense was too leaky too often. Although Garoppolo was intercepted three times, including on a return for a touchdown by rookie cornerback Mike Hughes, too often receivers were running wide-open. Kirk made enough plays, and his two touchdown passes were dimes.
Verdict: Kirk helps in the win.
Week 2: at Green Bay Packers, Tie, 29-29
Stat Line: 35/48, 425, 4 TD, 1 INT, 118.8 passer rating
Not many games encapsulate the Kirk Era quite like this one. Aaron Rodgers was facing the Vikings for the first time since Anthony Barr injured him a year earlier. Despite going 30/42 passing, Rodgers didn’t have the type of revenge game he envisioned. He only threw for 281 yards and one touchdown and took four sacks.
This was a spectacular game by Cousins. The Vikings were down 20-7 heading into the fourth quarter. Three of his four touchdowns came in the final quarter of regulation as he found Diggs for two touchdowns, including a 75-yard bomb with 7:18 left that cut the deficit to 23-21. The Packers responded with a field goal to take a 26-21 lead, and a comeback attempt seemed doomed when Laquon Treadwell let a perfect pass deflect off his hands with 2:18 remaining in regulation.
Fortunately, the defense would hold the Packers to a field goal, giving Kirk and the offense a mulligan down 29-21. Taking possession at their own 25-yard line with 1:45 left, the Vikings quickly drove downfield. With 36 seconds remaining in regulation, Cousins threaded the needle to Adam Thielen for a spectacular 22-yard touchdown. One play later, he found Diggs for a two-point conversion, tying the game 29-29.
Sadly, this game will most be remembered for special team woes. Rookie kicker Daniel Carlson missed three kicks on the day, including two in overtime following the furious rally. After missing a 48-yard field goal in the second quarter, he missed a 49-yarder on the first drive of overtime. When the Packers failed to respond, the Vikings once again drove down the field. They opted for a run up the middle, setting up Carlson for a potential game-winning field goal from 35 yards away. But Carlson’s kick never came close and missed the net.
No one celebrated on either team. They shook hands, but it was somber. For the Packers, they probably felt like they got away with one. For the Vikings, they knew they had squandered away a victory against a division foe. Their newly signed quarterback rallied them time and time again. But the front office didn’t believe they could risk employing a rookie kicker when they had what they believed was a contending roster, so they cut Carlson the next day. He signed with the Oakland Raiders and is one of the most accurate kickers in NFL history.
Verdict: Kirk did what was needed to win.
Week 3: Buffalo Bills, Loss, 27-6
Stat Line: 40/55, 296 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT, 83.6 passer rating, 2 fumbles lost
The first “dud” of the Kirk Era couldn’t have blindsided fans any more than it did. Minnesota entered the game as 16.5-point favorites after the Bills had been outscored 78-23 in their first two games. Not only would the Vikings not cover, but they got embarrassed at home. It was becoming apparent that duplicating their miraculous 2017 season would be difficult.
Buffalo drove downfield on their opening drive and scored on a Josh Allen run, who was making his second career start. Cousins would get strip-sacked on each of the Vikings’ first two drives, and the Bills would score 10 points off of the turnovers, leading 17-0 going into the second quarter. With 12:14 left in the second quarter, Allen plunged into the endzone to give the Bills a 24-0 lead.
Minnesota could never get a rhythm going. They ran six times all game, in part due to the giant hole they had dug, but it also showed early signs of how little John DeFilippo cared about balance. Diggs dropped a potential 42-yard touchdown with 9:36 left in the third quarter. On the next play, running back Latavius Murray couldn’t haul in a short pass from his QB. The ball deflected into the air and was intercepted. Any hope of a comeback was gone.
Although the Vikings finished with 292 yards of offense, the same as the Bills, the damage was too little, too late. When they took over possession with 33 seconds left in the 3rd quarter, the offense had put up 63 total yards. Buffalo, up 27-0, was content to play softer coverage and allow the Vikings to accumulate 229 yards over the final three possessions of the game. This helped form the narrative of “garbage time” stats for Kirk.
This is a tough one to pin blame on any one person. The Vikings appeared to be flat coming off of their game at Lambeau. Cousins didn’t stand a chance on the two strip-sacks and the interception wasn’t his fault either. Still, as the quarterback, he can’t be blameless either.
Verdict: Kirk is partly to blame for the loss.
Week 4: at Los Angeles Rams, Loss, 38-31
Stat Line: 36/50, 422 yards, 3 TD, 0 INT, 117.2 passer rating, 1 fumble lost
We close out the first month of Kirk’s tenure with a frustrating loss. Cousins was mostly great. Jared Goff, though, was even better. The once-vaunted Vikings’ defense got shredded for five touchdowns and 556 yards. So this one isn’t Cousins’ fault, right?
After barely running against Buffalo, the Vikings ran four times on their opening drive with Cook back in the lineup. The drive took seven minutes off the clock, and it was topped off with a beautiful touchdown pass from Kirk to wideout Aldrick Robinson. Unfortunately, the Rams responded, getting running back Todd Gurley isolated on Barr for an eight-yard touchdown.
This was how the entire game went. The Vikings punched, and the Rams counterpunched. And when the Vikings slipped up, the Rams took advantage. When the Vikings’ second drive ended in a field goal, the Rams once again picked on Barr. Cooper Kupp beat him on a wheel-route for a wide-open 70-yard touchdown.
Despite all of the defensive woes, the Vikings still were able to force a three-and-out late in the game. Down 38-31, they took possession at their own 33-yard line with 2:20 left and two timeouts. Kirk would complete two passes to Treadwell that set the Vikings up with a first down at their own 48-yard line. But he would be strip-sacked by John Franklin-Myers on the next play, the Rams would recover, and the Vikings would ultimately lose.
Of course, it’d be foolish to pin this loss on Cousins because he had a great night overall. And it can be hard to pin a strip-sack on the quarterback. But he did have time, his defense did give the offense one final chance, and he did double-clutch, leading to the strip. Still, the Vikings’ defense allowed way too many big plays on the night and the offensive line failed to hold up when it mattered most.
Verdict: Kirk played well enough to win