EAGAN, Minn. — Kirk Cousins doesn’t have to go far from his Inver Grove Heights, Minn., home to know what Vikings fans are thinking.
The Vikings are 0 for 4 in Super Bowls since that game changed pro football’s landscape 53 years ago. And every time the 31-year-old quarterback goes to a coffee shop, a shopping center or even church, he is made aware how much fans are starving for a title.
“They say, ‘Bring us a Super Bowl, bring us that ring,’” he said. “That’s kind of the last thing they’ll say.”
Cousins was supposed to be the final piece of the puzzle that would lead Minnesota to the Super Bowl last season after signing a fully guaranteed three-year, $84 million contract, which for a short while made him the highest-paid player in NFL history. Coming off an appearance in the 2017 NFC Championship Game, the Vikings were looking for just a little something extra.
Instead, the Vikings fizzled following Cousins’ arrival from Washington, finishing last season with an 8-7-1 record and failing to make the playoffs after an uninspired season-ending loss to the Chicago Bears.
Now, the pressure really is on Cousins, who begins his eighth NFL season at noon Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons at U.S. Bank Stadium. This feels like a make-or-break season considering the Vikings, running a bit out of time, beefed up the offense and brought back one of the NFL’s top defenses in its entirety, hoping to make some noise this fall.
“This is an important year for Kirk,” said Redskins television analyst and former quarterback Joe Theismann, who got to know Cousins well when he played for Washington from 2012-17. “They brought him in to try to win the Super Bowl, so what Kirk is able to do this year is very critical.
“There’s no excuses anymore. There’s no grace period anymore. It’s time to deliver. All the pieces are in place in Minnesota with one question mark: Can Kirk take it to the next level?”
Vikings general manager Rick Spielman said in June that Cousins needed to go to the “next level.” Told Spielman’s comment, Cousins agreed.
“The next level really is all about winning,” he said. “I’m pretty much a .500 quarterback in my career so far, and I don’t think that’s where you want to be.”
As an NFL starter, despite years of impressive passing statistics, Cousins’ career record is 34-37-1, a .479 winning percentage. He was asked recently why he was so blunt with his comment.
“I’m just calling a spade a spade,” he said. “So I don’t need to deny what’s true.”
At least his honesty has been winning him points. Vikings offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski called Cousins “obviously a self-aware player.”
“I love the fact that Kirk is saying what everybody else is thinking,” Fox game analyst Charles Davis said. “It’s the old pre-emptive. In some ways, it’s like when your parents come home and you announce that you broke something in the house, so they can only get so mad at you.
“He laid it out on the table and he’s right about that. He was brought there with the idea that he was the piece to get them to the Super Bowl. That was the impression. His numbers were good, but it didn’t translate into wins.”
Cousins completed 70.1 percent of his passes last season for 4,298 yards and a career-high 30 touchdowns. But he also threw 10 interceptions and lost seven fumbles, tied for most in the NFL.
In four seasons as a regular NFL starter, Cousins is 32-30-2 (.516), so at least that’s a bit over .500. But he’s looking for his record to be a lot better than that.
“Hopefully, there’s a chance now to turn the tables and have a new narrative written,” he said. “I’m really trying to look forward and not be looking back, and I think in time it will turn.”
The Vikings are doing all they can to help make that happen. Shortly after the end of last season, they removed the interim title from Stefanski, who replaced the fired offensive coordinator John DeFilippo for the final three games of 2018. They brought in Gary Kubiak, who coached the Denver Broncos to victory in Super Bowl 50 after the 2015 season, as assistant coach/offensive adviser and Rick Dennison as offensive line coach/run game coordinator.
The second part of Dennison’s title should not be taken lightly. The Vikings, who ranked 30th in the NFL in rushing last season, are determined to do much better this season to take pressure off Cousins. They hope Dalvin Cook, who missed five games last season with a hamstring injury, can remain healthy, and they selected Alexander Mattison in the third round of the draft.
“Ultimately, if we can run the ball effectively, that’s going to make any quarterback’s job easier,” Cousins said.
The Vikings sought to beef up a porous offensive line by signing free-agent right guard Josh Kline, using their first-round draft pick on center Garrett Bradbury and then moving last year’s starting center, Pat Elflein, to left guard.
Cousins was sacked 40 times last season and under pressure a lot more times than that. To help him evade the pass rush, the Vikings want him to use his legs more.
They also hope having a season under his belt in Minnesota will help him from a leadership standpoint.
“Kirk, he’s been different coming in here this spring and preseason as opposed to when he came in here last year,” coach Mike Zimmer said. “I think he’s more about trying to help guys out and do his job, get the guys around him in the huddle on the right page and go from there.”
But will it translate to wins, especially against the NFL’s best teams? The Vikings went 1-6 in 2018 against teams that finished the season with a winning record.
“A lot of it has to do with performance under pressure,” Theismann said. “His history has been to struggle against good teams and in clutch situations, and it’s time for him to change the history.”
Cousins is intent on doing that. Asked how badly he wants to bring a winner to Minnesota, he said, “whatever the scale is, to tell you how badly, the high end of the scale. If it’s one to 10, it’s a 10.”
Cousins has been looking for any advice he can get. During the offseason, when he was visiting his in-laws, he stopped by the Atlanta office of hall of fame quarterback Fran Tarkenton to spend an afternoon.
Though Tarkenton never won a Super Bowl, he did lead the Vikings to three of them in the 1970s.
“I asked him to talk me through all three Super Bowls he was a part of here and the story of why they fell short and what happened,” Cousins said. “I think it is important to learn the history (of the Vikings) and understand it. … It’s a great fan base, and that’s all the reason to deliver for them.”
Despite the Vikings failing to make the playoffs in 2018, Cousins said he has continued to receive great support from fans.
“They’re in your corner,” he said. “They’re not going to spit in your face. All the more reason to go win and give them something.”
One fan, a middle-school-age boy, recently showed up unannounced at Cousins’ door.
“It was like 7:30 at night and they knock on the door and I’m looking at my wife like, ‘Who would that be at 7:30 at night?; it’s getting dark,’ ” Cousins said. “I go to the door and open it, and they just said, ‘Oh, it’s you.’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ And they said, ‘I want to just say hello, go Vikings, good luck this year.’ ”
Davis said it helps Cousins’ popularity that he is down to earth and has Midwestern roots. He grew up in the Chicago area and in Holland, Mich.
“Kirk Cousins chose Minnesota in free agency, and he’s a Michigan guy, a Midwest guy,” Davis said. “He’s smart, self-effacing, earnest, works hard on his craft, cares about his teammates. You’re talking about the whole package that you’re looking for.”
Then again, that only might end up going only so far.
“I can’t imagine Vikings fans wouldn’t be rooting for him, but those things are extras,” Davis said. “They wouldn’t care if that quarterback was from Mars if that quarterback got them over the hump and to the Super Bowl. If an alien came down as the starting quarterback and took them to the Super Bowl, they’d be carrying that alien around on their shoulders.”
Last season, nobody was carrying Cousins off the field. He wouldn’t mind changing that.
“The number one way to fit into the community is to win,” he said. “I don’t like to go to church and show my face after a loss. And so that’s the number one way.”