Skip to main content



The Vikings opened the vault for QB Kirk Cousins, pushing all their chips in on a hand the entire city of Minneapolis expects to deliver a Super Bowl title

By Michael Silver | Published Sept. 4, 2018

EAGAN, Minn. -- Kirk Cousins' first flash of freedom arrived like a lightning bolt in the bitter frost of winter. After six seasons with the Washington Redskins, three as their highly productive starter, Cousins was out in the cold -- and the soon-to-be-displaced franchise quarterback was practically the last person in the football world to know it.

When news broke on the night of Jan. 31, 2018, that the Kansas City Chiefs had agreed to trade veteran quarterback Alex Smith to the 'Skins, there was a perceptible buzz in the restaurants, bars and hotel lobbies of Minneapolis, which five days later would play host to Super Bowl LII. Yet, for more than an hour, as analysts and fans took to the airwaves and social-media platforms to scrutinize the seemingly out-of-nowhere deal, Cousins -- arguably the man most affected by it -- was obliviously out of the loop.

In one of those increasingly rare slices of time in which a 21st century citizen is not tethered to an electronic device, Cousins was in the fitness room of the Courtyard by Marriott in nearby Maple Grove, sneaking in some cardio as much of the rest of the NFL community socialized in the immediate vicinity. When he finally finished his workout and reached for his phone, the prolific and polarizing quarterback was bombarded with missed calls and texts telling him that, essentially, his six-year stint in the nation's capital had come to a sudden end.

Little did he know, he was already home.

"My phone had just blown up," Cousins recalled in June during an on-camera interview that will air on NFL Network's "GameDay Morning" on Sunday. "I mean, there were tweets and texts and everything else letting me know what had happened. I guess (I was) blindsided in the sense that I didn't know it was coming. But I've also learned that in the NFL, that's life, you know? You don't really expect to be warned or told what's going on; you just roll with what takes place."

What had happened was an NFL anomaly: An accomplished and healthy quarterback in his prime was a little more than six weeks away from hitting the market as an unrestricted free agent. Six months shy of his 30th birthday, Cousins was about to make a lot of money and, just as important, he was going to get to handpick his next destination.

For a player who -- since entering the league as the far less celebrated quarterback of the two selected by the Redskins in the 2012 NFL Draft -- felt stung by the absence of an unconditional organizational embrace, self-determination sounded pretty sweet. As former Redskins coach Mike Shanahan, the man who pushed to select Cousins in the fourth round six years ago, put it, "All Kirk ever wanted to do was be loved." And so, after calling his agent, Mike McCartney, to assess their potential options and getting a good night's sleep, Cousins arose and began looking for love in the most obvious place of all.

Said Cousins, who like many of his fellow NFL players was in town for media and promotional appearances: "I knew, Hey, I've got a few days here in Minnesota -- and there's a chance, depending upon what takes place, that I could end up here. I have some free time; might as well take a look. I was with my brother and some high school friends. So, we rented a car and drove around a little bit."

One obvious tour stop was the Vikings' soon-to-be new home: The Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center, their high-tech, 277,000-square-foot training headquarters in Eagan that would open in early March. When Cousins got out of the car, he was greeted by a brutal Minnesota chill and an unfinished facility: "It was zero degrees, a lot of snow on the ground, and I thought it was good for me to be here when the temperature might be negative-5. I grew up in Michigan, so I know what cold weather feels like -- so it wasn't a shock. It was still under construction and I just got a feel for it and gathered information the best I could."

The complex may not have been ready for a formal tour, but Cousins knew that the Vikings, who'd reached the NFC Championship Game after pulling off one of the most memorable playoff victories in league history (courtesy of the "Minnesota Miracle"), were a far more polished product than most NFL franchises. With the league's top-ranked defense in 2017 and a slew of standout skill-position players, Minnesota had a stacked roster -- and uncertainty at the sport's most important position. After an up-and-down career, Case Keenum had emerged as a successful starting quarterback in 2017, but there were questions about his ability to sustain that success. His backups, former first-round draft choices Teddy Bridgewater and Sam Bradford, were each attempting to bounce back from knee injuries that made team executives hesitant to make a long-term commitment. All three quarterbacks were free agents, and offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur had just left to become the New York Giants' head coach.

Upheaval was in the air. The franchise's powerbrokers had some very big decisions to make. It wasn't far-fetched to believe the Vikings, still searching for their first Lombardi Trophy despite four Super Bowl appearances in the 1970s, were a franchise quarterback away from a championship. And Cousins, a man seeking unconstrained support from his bosses, was already drawn to the challenge.

His frozen walk around the outside of the unfinished facility didn't seal the deal, but it set in motion a mindset that led to perhaps the most significant transaction of the past offseason: On March 15, the Vikings signed Cousins to a three-year, $84 million contract that, at the time, was the richest in NFL history. It was also fully guaranteed, making him the first-ever quarterback to achieve such security on a multiyear basis.

At long last, after years of overcoming long odds and consistent skepticism, Cousins was The Guy, and as Minnesota prepares to kick off its 2018 season against the San Francisco 49ers, there may not be an NFL player under more pressure to produce than the new guy in purple. When the Vikings charge through the tunnel at U.S. Bank Stadium on Sunday, they'll look to Cousins as their leader, and he'll be judged primarily by how far he can take them.

"He runs the show out there on the field," said Kyle Rudolph, the Vikings' Pro Bowl tight end. "When you are the starting quarterback, especially when you are the starting quarterback who just got paid a record contract, you are gonna be the leader of this football team, like it or not. Kirk has taken charge, and it's what we've been looking for."

The storyline sounds simple -- talented, detailed and driven passer shows he's the best man for the job, and everyone falls in line behind him. But for Cousins, it has rarely, if ever, played out so smoothly. In sixth grade, while living in suburban Chicago, Cousins tried out for his first tackle football team and was told his quarterbacking services were not needed. He joined the B team and led it to the league championship. In high school, he was lightly recruited before landing a last-minute scholarship (a "miracle," as he described it to GQ last summer) to Michigan State, where he began as a fourth-stringer who didn't make the travel team as a true freshman. He ultimately beat out several bigger-name recruits, including future Super Bowl LII MVP Nick Foles, to win the Spartans' starting job as a sophomore.

"I've always had that chip on my shoulder, felt the need to prove myself," Cousins said. "And I think it's served me well." And in the NFL -- well, Cousins' presence on a Redskins team that had drafted its would-be quarterbacking savior exactly 100 spots earlier was awkward from the start and tension-filled to the finish, with plenty of frayed feelings in between.

The abrupt divorce papers Washington served Cousins with by nailing down the trade for Smith five days before the Super Bowl were the byproduct of friction that had played out over the previous six years, beginning in the visitors' locker room of the stadium commonly known as the Factory of Sadness.

To understand the dynamic that ultimately steered Cousins to Minnesota, you must go back to the immediate aftermath of his first career start: a pivotal road game against the Cleveland Browns in mid-December of his rookie year, on the day he discovered he had what it takes to be a legitimate NFL quarterback.

Actually, let's turn back the clock a bit further: On March 12, 2012, Washington sent three first-round draft choices and a second-round selection to the St. Louis Rams to acquire the second overall pick in the draft that was six weeks away. With Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck almost certain to be selected first by the Indianapolis Colts, the obvious target was Robert Griffin III, the ultra-talented quarterback who'd just won a Heisman Trophy.

The 'Skins indeed took RG3, one of seven quarterbacks who came off the board before Shanahan used a fourth-round pick on Cousins, in a move that amounted to a hedge: While owner Dan Snyder and general manager Bruce Allen were convinced Griffin was the future of the franchise, Shanahan worried the former Baylor star's transition to running a pro-style offense might not go smoothly, and he wanted a backup plan.

As it turned out, RG3's rookie year was a revelation: Shanahan and his son, Kyle, the team's offensive coordinator, had Griffin run their scheme out of a zone-read set, taking advantage of the quarterback's remarkable rushing skills while flooding opposing secondaries with open receivers. He earned Rookie of the Year honors and a Pro Bowl berth while leading Washington to its first NFC East title in 13 years.

Yet even as Griffin was preparing to light up the league, Cousins was commanding his new bosses' attention in offseason workouts and training camp.

"Quarterbacks all start off on the same page; you never know how fast people process things until you're with them," Mike Shanahan said. "It didn't take very long to see that not only did Kirk have the intangibles, but he processed it much more quickly than most quarterbacks. We saw very quickly that Kirk could do some things that were quite unusual, and you could see he was going to separate himself."

From the start, according to players and coaches who were part of that 2012 team, Griffin was less than thrilled with Cousins' presence.

"Robert would never call Kirk by his name when he talked about him publicly," recalled former Washington tight end Chris Cooley, who closed out his nine-year career with the team in 2012. "He was dismissive in interviews. I felt like he never liked that Kirk was there."

After struggling to a 3-6 start, Washington went on a tear after its bye week, ending the season with a seven-game winning streak. Midway through that run -- late in a Dec. 9 clash with the Ravens -- Griffin was knocked out of the game with a right knee injury. Cousins came in, forced overtime with a game-tying touchdown pass and two-point conversion and led the 'Skins to a 31-28 victory.

The next Sunday in Cleveland, with Griffin still sidelined, Cousins started against the Browns, who were riding a three-game winning streak. The Shanahans scrapped the zone-read and put Cousins on the move, conceiving a game plan heavy on bootlegs.

"Kyle played to Kirk's strengths," recalled Vikings guard Tom Compton, a rookie for Washington that season. "I think they might have run 10 rollouts that game, and Kirk executed."

The Factory of Sadness was abuzz with excitement, especially after Cousins threw an early interception that set up a Cleveland touchdown. Then he settled down and stepped up, completing 26 of 37 passes for 329 yards and two touchdowns in a 38-21 victory. Afterwards, Cousins was excited.

"Well, it was certainly validating for me," he remembered. "I think at that time, even in my own self -- and I hate to admit it -- but there probably was a little bit of doubt of, 'Do I belong? Am I good enough? Can I do this?' And that game was just a shot in the arm."

Then came a cold dose of reality. According to five witnesses, Snyder entered the locker room after the game and made a beeline for Griffin, stepping right past Cousins in the process. Then, with Cousins at an adjacent locker, the owner proceeded to reassure his injured quarterback that he was still the unquestioned starter.

"[Snyder] sat right next to Robert in the locker room, and all he talked about was how good he was, that he was a franchise guy -- and he was sitting right next to Kirk when he did it," Mike Shanahan recalled. "It didn't bother Kirk. . . . He just let that stuff roll off of him . . . but it bothered the rest of the players.

"A week later, I got on the phone, and I'm the one that told Dan that it had been a problem. I said, 'Did you realize what you did in the locker room? Did you realize that when you were saying all that to Robert, Kirk was right there, coming off a great game, and you didn't say one word to him?' I said, 'Kirk will be fine -- but the other guys think this is pretty f----- up.' And, of course, he had no idea."

Cousins, in an interview following an August practice, said accounts of the incident were overblown: "That's an overreaction. [Snyder] came up to me and encouraged me as well. And the fact of the matter is, at that point, [Robert] was the Rookie of the Year, and he [made] the Pro Bowl, and he was our guy. And so that kind of response is understandable. And [Snyder] did acknowledge me, so I think that got misconstrued a little bit."

Contacted last week for a response, a Redskins team spokesman said, "We're focused on the 2018 season. However, Kirk's version was more accurate."

One thing that was abundantly apparent, at the time, was Griffin's sour mood in the wake of Cousins' performance.

"Obviously, Robert wanted to be out there," recalled Bills linebacker Lorenzo Alexander, who played for Washington from 2007 to 2012. "I don't think it was any secret in the locker room that Shanahan liked Kirk Cousins. I understand what Robert was thinking. You can quickly get forgotten in this league -- and really, if you look at what took place over the next four or five years, that's kind of what ended up happening.

"That whole thing was just typical of what Washington was -- it's always something. If things were going well, we always found a way to create drama. That's why things could never sustain there. Every time we had success, we found a way to create that drama and mess it up." 

In the aftermath of the Browns game, and in the week leading up to the following Sunday's divisional showdown with the Philadelphia Eagles, Griffin, according to players and coaches, made his displeasure obvious.

"I know that Robert was irate after that [Cleveland] game, because Kirk got all the bootleg stuff he thought he should have been running," Cooley said. "We had been great all year with Robert running a zone-read-style offense. To think we would change that was absurd. Maybe Robert thought he should have been running boots.

"The next week, he was in team meetings doing physical therapy the entire meeting, in the back of the room, doing leg-strengthening exercises and stuff with the medicine ball. He brought the training room into the meeting room. It was insane. Then I watched the kid play the next week when he shouldn't have been playing."

Several coaches and players believe Griffin's insecurity about Cousins also factored into his decision to remain in the game during an eventual 24-14 playoff defeat to the Seattle Seahawks despite having reinjured his knee in the first quarter. Ultimately, he was knocked out midway through the fourth quarter and diagnosed with a torn ACL, LCL and meniscus, which required reconstructive surgery and launched his career on a downward trajectory. He was released by the Redskins in early 2016 and spent a year with Cleveland before sitting out the entire 2017 season. He is currently serving as the No. 3 quarterback in Baltimore.

Through a Ravens team spokesman, Griffin disputed some of the claims made in this story but declined to comment with specifics.

Eventually, as Griffin became mired in a cycle of injuries and ineffectiveness, Cousins got his chance to run the offense. He started the final three games of the 2013 season, after which Shanahan was fired and replaced by Jay Gruden, and got five more starts early in the 2014 campaign. Yet even after Cousins beat out Griffin in the 2015 preseason and became the unquestioned starter, the issue never seemed settled.

"Robert was the prodigal son; Kirk was the stepchild," said one source familiar with the mindset of the organization's top decision-makers. "They had so much invested in Robert that, more than anything, they wanted him to be The Guy -- even after it was clear that he wasn't."

The distinction wasn't lost on Cousins. "Well, I think there's a difference between [being] named a starter and being The Guy," he said in June. "You know, I was named the starter (in 2015), but you've got to start somebody. I don't know that I'd really done enough to earn the title of The Guy, and I think that it always was kind of up in the air as to, how do you define 'The Guy?' "

Cousins tried to make it obvious, throwing for a team-record 4,166 yards in 2015 and leading Washington to an unlikely playoff berth. He shattered that mark in 2016 with 4,917 passing yards, earning a Pro Bowl selection, and threw for another 4,093 in 2017. His true takeover of the team came in conspicuous fashion -- and at a clear crisis point.

"The biggest thing that's a credit to Kirk is his ability to respond to adversity," said Los Angeles Rams coach Sean McVay, a Washington assistant from 2010 to '16 who spent the last three of those seasons as Gruden's offensive coordinator. "Where he was at the end of 2014, which was not a good place -- to bounce back from that and get to where he got by the end of 2015, that was impressive. In 2015, it took a while, and we were 5-7 at one point, but he played his best when his best was required."

Cousins may have cut it closer than most people realize. In an Oct. 25 home game that year against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Washington fell behind 24-0 in the second quarter and trailed by 17 at the half. The 'Skins looked likely to fall to 2-5 heading into their bye week, and there was a sense that big changes could be coming.

"If they don't win that game, the narrative in D.C. was, Kirk's getting benched and Jay's immediately in jeopardy," recalled Cooley, who remained close to team executives while working as a local radio host. "It was an ugly, sloppy first half, and you got the sense that, OK, this could be it."

By game's end, they were dancing at FedEx Field: Cousins' 6-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jordan Reed with 24 seconds remaining, and the ensuing extra point, gave Washington a 31-30 victory, completing the biggest comeback in franchise history.

Afterward, on the way to the locker room, Cousins unleashed what would become his signature statement, twice screaming "You like that?!" at a local reporter, with a television camera preserving the moment for a football-obsessed nation's enduring viewing pleasure.

Robert was the prodigal son; Kirk was the stepchild. They had so much invested in Robert that, more than anything, they wanted him to be The Guy even after it was clear that he wasn't.

"His whole confidence changed after that game," said running back Mack Brown, who was a member of Washington's practice squad at the time and who was claimed by the Vikings last October before being cut on Sunday. "He went from Kirk to Captain Kirk."

If Cousins had become an unlikely star, the franchise stopped short of anointing him as one -- and he, too, maintained an emotional distance from the organization. This mutually assured obstruction often played out in the realm of contract talks, with the two sides unwilling and/or unable to agree to a long-term deal over a period that spanned more than two years.

Washington first approached Cousins' agent, McCartney, in December of 2015 -- shortly before the quarterback's rookie deal was set to expire. The team made its initial offer in the wake of the 'Skins' 35-18 home playoff defeat to the Green Bay Packers, and it averaged just $12.5 million a season, which would have placed him squarely in the bottom third of NFL starters. To Cousins' camp, that was yet another sign that he was undervalued by his employers -- and another perceived slight that stoked his competitive fire.

In the words of current Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur, who was Washington's quarterbacks coach from 2010 to '13, "Kirk is a guy that remembers everything and wants to prove all the naysayers wrong."

The organization chose what it believed was the careful path, keeping Cousins for 2016 by using the franchise tag -- which gave him a one-year salary of $20 million. A year later, coming off a Pro Bowl season, Cousins had more leverage, and he used it: With the 'Skins now motivated to sign him to a long-term deal, he opted for a passive strategy that led to him getting tagged again, this time for $23.9 million.

Cousins' reluctance to commit might not merely have been about money. The abrupt firing of general manager Scot McCloughan in March of 2017 was viewed by many analysts as a sign of organizational turmoil, and the quarterback told people close to him that it concerned him. Meanwhile, McVay -- the offensive coordinator for whom Cousins would later sign a jersey with the inscription, "I owe you my career" -- was hired by the Rams at 30, making him the youngest head coach in modern NFL history. Gruden, who received a contract extension amid the fallout, did not have the same connection with Cousins; one person familiar with both men described them as "oil and water."

Said Cooley: "Jay made a choice in 2015 to play Kirk over Robert, and perhaps it wasn't appreciated on the other end [by Cousins]. They didn't have a great relationship. No one's gonna tell you that they did."

Those who believed the Redskins didn't properly appreciate Cousins had plenty of examples to cite on behalf of their thesis, and vice-versa.

In July of 2017, after the deadline passed for signing a tagged player to a long-term deal, Allen, now the team's president, released a statement that blamed Cousins for turning down a lucrative offer, saying, "Kirk has made it clear that he prefers to play on a year-to-year basis. While we would have liked to work out a long-term contract before this season, we accept his decision." Then, in a corresponding video interview released on the team's website, Allen appeared repeatedly to refer to Cousins as "Kurt." (A team spokesperson told reporters that Allen's "accent" made it sound as though he'd been using the wrong name.)

The slights became more overt after Cousins departed D.C., with now-retired defensive back DeAngelo Hall telling ESPN last March, "We kind of felt like the commitment wasn't there from Kirk. . . . Everybody in that locker room was behind Kirk, we wanted him there, but we wanted to feel like he wanted to be there as well."

Asked about Hall's comments in June, Cousins replied, "I don't think that's fair to say."

Gruden, meanwhile, told reporters at the annual league meeting in late March that, after acquiring Smith as his starting quarterback, "We got better."

"I think they can say what they want to say," Cousins responded in June. "They have every right to have their opinions and, at this point, you know, what are you gonna say? You've got to move forward; you've got to focus on where you are now. I mean, why look backwards? Why look at what could have been?"

When Cooley looks back on Cousins' time in Washington, he sees a complicated dynamic with valid perspectives on both sides. "At the end of 2015, he wanted them to do a deal -- I don't blame them for not knowing," Cooley said. "At the end of '16, it was the opposite, and I understand why Kirk used the leverage he had. Neither party felt the loyalty they wanted. It just soured."

Two days before the Vikings' third game of the 2018 preseason, Cousins took a snap in the red zone, dropped in the pocket and zipped a crisp pass into the heart of the league's best defense. Third-year receiver Laquon Treadwell jumped to grab it in the back of the end zone, successfully completing the two-minute drill that ended practice.

Sometimes, Minnesota coach Mike Zimmer asks a player to break down the team at the conclusion of these mid-week workouts. On this warm Wednesday afternoon in August, he tabbed Cousins to do the honors, meaning players and coaches would spend a few extra minutes in the summer sun. As Zimmer would later explain: "Usually, it's, 'Go Vikes!' or, 'Get better,' or, 'Let's work hard,' or, 'Eliminate penalties.' When I pick Kirk, he gives a speech."

Cousins didn't disappoint: Assuming he and the Vikings' other starters would sit out the fourth and final preseason game, as is now customary around the league, the quarterback told his teammates, "We need to go out and have a good showing Friday. This is our last performance before Week 1, when it really counts."

Zimmer interrupted: "How do you know this is your last performance before Week 1?"

Cousins stared back at his coach.

"We'll see how you do in Week 3 of the preseason before we make that decision," Zimmer said, and Cousins smiled.

"Good point," conceded Cousins, who didn't play in the team's final warmup game.

Zimmer was joking -- at least, we think he was -- but figuring out his new head coach, and what triggers him, is part of Cousins' adjustment to his new surroundings. He's also learning a new offense, coordinated by John DeFilippo, who was poached away from the Eagles (where he was Doug Pederson's quarterbacks coach) four days after their Super Bowl LII triumph over the New England Patriots.

Perhaps most significant, Cousins has scores of new teammates he needs to bond with -- and lead. He had multiple suitors in the days leading up to free agency, and the New York Jets were the most aggressive of all, offering $6 million more over three years than Minnesota did, with all $90 million fully guaranteed. He chose the Vikings because he felt they gave him the best chance to win. Winning over his new teammates, however, wasn't so cut and dried.

If he wants to truly lead a football team, he's gonna have to learn how to open himself up as a dude to other people to get them to completely trust him. I think that was one of the issues with the Redskins

"We had three quarterbacks from last year's team, and we kept none of them," one Vikings player said. "Case had won a playoff game; Teddy had been in a playoff game. Kirk hadn't won any. He's good -- he can throw it where he wants -- but so could the three guys we had. Some of us were like, 'What's going on?' "

Some defenders bristled when, during an OTA practice in late May, Cousins threw a deep touchdown pass to receiver Stefon Diggs and celebrated by yelling, "Boom!" There was dead silence on the defensive side of the ball.

Recalled Zimmer: "When he would throw a touchdown, he'd say 'Booyah!' or some s--- like that. They'd start saying a few things back to him when they knocked the ball down or picked it off."

By training camp, Cousins had toned down his exclamations -- but he hadn't turned down his competitiveness.

"The first few times, I think it caught them off guard," Cousins admitted. "But I think they quickly have seen, this guy has that intensity to him, that fire to him, and I think they're gonna realize that's who I am."

Said Rudolph: "It's funny -- he's by far the most competitive guy at that position that I've ever played with. He cannot stand it when we lose a situation or period to the defense. It's arguably the best defense in the league, with one of the best defensive minds in the world (Zimmer) running it, and he absolutely cannot stomach losing to them. It eats at him. We get put in some tough situations out there: blitz, third-and-long. Advantage, defense. But he still wants to beat them every single time."

At the same time, Cousins has made a concerted effort to take charge of the entire locker room, even if coming on so strong so soon went against his instincts.

"Sometimes you want to ease into the situation and maybe sit in the back row for a while and allow time to get adjusted and then speak up," Cousins said in August. "I don't know that I had that luxury or had that kind of time, so in a lot of ways I needed to act like a starting quarterback would from Day 1."

In April, the quarterback hosted the Vikings' divine receiving duo, Diggs and Adam Thielen, for a few days' worth of private throwing sessions in Georgia (where Cousins and his wife, Julie, spend part of their offseason, staying in her parents' basement to save money). A week before training camp, he welcomed Zimmer to his newly constructed house in Saugatuck, Michigan, and they sat outside on a deck overlooking Lake Michigan and bonded.

"It's got a glass railing and it's like 10 yards away from the lake," Zimmer said. "It looks like the ocean. He had his notepad out and was writing things down as we talked. I wanted to find out his thoughts and opinions and ask him, how can I help him? I actually felt really good about him when I came back. He's an honest guy. I'm an honest guy."

Many quarterbacks and coaches would crack a beer or three in such a context; Cousins, the son of a retired pastor, opted for water.

While he may not give love up in the club, Cousins is at least at peace with his insipid image. The dude who rolls out of the player parking lot after games in "The Gray Ghost" -- a lightly dented, 2000 GMC Savana conversion van he bought used from his grandmother for $5,000 in 2014 -- has embraced his inner dork and rolls with it.

"He's not afraid to be himself," said second-year quarterback Kyle Sloter, who spent the summer with the Vikings battling for a roster spot. "People call him dorky, but sometimes I feel like he's trying to be dorky. That's just his sense of humor. He knows he's being dorky, but it's funny."

During film sessions, Cousins and his backup, Trevor Siemian, enliven the quarterback room by breaking down past and future opponents with dueling impressions of ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr.

"He's good at making fun of you without you realizing it," Compton said. "It comes off as positive, so you don't really think about it that way: 'Hey, man, that's a really cool shirt.' Eventually, you get the joke."

Said Rudolph: "He has dad jokes. We got a night off during camp and went over to Adam Thielen's house to hit golf balls in a simulator, and Kirk's like, 'I'll be over after I'm done cruising around in my conversion van with the shades down.' "

Keeping things light, at times, has helped Cousins lend some balance to his on-field intensity, a combination that has been well received in his new surroundings. Then again, the Vikings have yet to play -- or lose -- a meaningful game with him as their quarterback.

In the eyes of one former Washington teammate, Cousins' true challenge within the Minnesota locker room will be to keep it real.

"Kirk's had a desire to be a leader," Cooley said. "If he wants to truly lead a football team, he's gonna have to learn how to open himself up as a dude to other people -- to get them to completely trust him. I think that was one of the issues with the Redskins. He was hard to get to know completely as a guy. Being able to self-deprecate and showing vulnerability was something Kirk didn't do often. I think to foster good, healthy relationships as a leader, you need that. Kirk has always been very careful."

If all goes according to plan, one thing Cousins won't need to do is overextend on the football field.

"Kirk doesn't have to come in here and be the savior," Vikings general manager Rick Spielman said. "We've got a pretty good team."

To some skeptics, that kind of statement speaks to what they believe is Cousins' unduly cautious nature. While with the 'Skins, he was stigmatized -- not only by fans and analysts, but also by some within the organization -- for being prone to checkdowns and other safe passes that could pad his robust completion percentage.

In reality, since 2015, Cousins has 81 passes that were completed 20 or more yards downfield -- more than all but three quarterbacks during that span. And to many of his former coaches, the suggestion that he's reluctant to force the ball downfield is preposterous.

Kyle Shanahan, now the head coach of the 49ers, still uses teaching videos that feature a pair of audacious throws Cousins made during his rookie year, the first of which occurred in his second preseason game.

"We were running a 'Choice' concept out of a three-by-one formation, where the inside receiver goes 5 yards and either breaks in or out or sits down, with an outside guy behind him to occupy coverage," recalled Niners run-game specialist Mike McDaniel, who was an offensive assistant with Washington in 2012. "Typically, you throw that to the inside guy, or you dump it off to a back. Kirk threw to the outside guy, Aldrick Robinson, and somehow fit it in there. And he did that after getting very few reps, because we were getting Robert ready to play, and Robert was getting most of them. We were like, 'What just happened?' "

Said Cousins: "Terrence Austin had the choice route in the slot and broke out, and the cloud corner (in a Cover 2 scheme) basically lets the route outside of him release down the sideline, and then that corner has vision on me. Just playing off of feel, I felt the corner flat-footed and ready to rally to the choice route, and so I just went down the sideline to Aldrick Robinson. I didn't think too much of it, but the coaches were really pleased. Matt LaFleur said, 'You can't teach that. You just kind of have that or you don't.' "

To McVay, the significance of the play wasn't just that Cousins spotted the opening -- it's that he had both the chutzpah and skills to get the ball there.

"He was able to speed it up and rifle a hole shot before the half-field safety could react and get over the top," McVay said. "Some quarterbacks might see it, but do they have the upper-body twitch to speed it up? It was one of those, 'What a play by Cousins!' moments on the headset -- and he did that a lot."

A few months later, in his first start against the Browns, Cousins did something even more mind-blowing. Said McDaniel: "We have a keeper where he rolls to his right and there's a guy dragging across that's his first option. Leonard Hankerson runs a post on the backside to clear out the safety; he's like a non-option. And Kirk, on the move, throws it 60 yards across his body and hits [Hankerson] for a touchdown. He came back to the sideline and said, 'Yeah -- it just flashed.' We couldn't believe he'd done it.

"That play survives in our teach tapes because it's the only time it's been thrown. I love it when that happens, 'cause now I can show that play every year to our receivers and say, 'See -- it could come to you -- so run your fastest.' "

Cousins laughed when asked to recount the play. "One of my former coaches, [Matt] Cavanaugh, told me, 'You throw that once every 10 years.' I've run hundreds, if not over a thousand keepers since then, and I don't know that I've ever hit the backside post. So the rule has held true, and I joke with people that I'm on pace to hit another one in about four years.

"That's the keeper that they've saved all these years for that specific route to say [to receivers], 'Don't fall asleep -- that ball can go there.' Although it was a tight window, and it might have been a little bit of an ill-advised throw. When [Kyle Shanahan and LaFleur and McDaniel] got to Atlanta (in 2015) and they showed it to Matt Ryan, they told me he said, 'Even in that look, and even though it went for a touchdown, I don't know if I'm gonna try to fit that one in.' And he's probably right."

McVay, the reigning NFL Coach of the Year, isn't just a Cousins fan; he's his de facto fan club president. "I know I certainly wouldn't be in this role if it wasn't for his success," McVay said. "From a player standpoint, nobody's been more impactful."

So yes, the Careful Cousins label bothers McVay. It's another stigma, however, that absolutely unsettles him.

"People say he doesn't have good arm strength!" McVay said, sounding incredulous. "I don't know what film guys have been watching, but he can make all the throws, on time, in tight windows. I think this guy's arm talent is incredible. It's special. Coaches all talk about it, but I don't think this guy gets the credit [from the general public] for the natural stroke and consistency he displays. The ball comes out quickly and he throws a nice, crisp spiral that makes it catchable.

"I think when you really saw his arm talent was that Sunday night game we played against the Packers in 2016 (a 42-24 Washington victory at FedEx Field in mid-November). The wind was just howling; it was brutal. When you're down there in warmups, as a play-caller, you're thinking, 'Man, I have to alter some of my calls to account for this.' But I didn't have to change a thing. Aaron (Rodgers) is arguably the greatest pure thrower of all time, but Kirk was getting it done, too. He was spraying the ball all over the place with accuracy, making downfield throws and doing whatever he wanted to do."

McVay, like many who have coached Cousins, adores -- and relates to -- the quarterback's obsessive approach to his craft. "What impressed me about Kirk so much in his rookie year is that he would go every day and study concepts," LaFleur said. "We have an archive of everything we've ever done -- I call them the 'All-Time Cuts.' For every route concept, we have a video file of every time we've ever run it. And he'd go watch those every day, and he'd come back with a bunch of questions. He attacked it like a coach would attack it."

Shortly after the 2015 season, his first as a starter, Cousins made a lengthy list of things he believed he, his teammates and coaches could work on to get better. Gruden, according to witnesses, was less than enthralled. McVay celebrated it.

"I'll bet he had about 40 things on there, just things where he felt we could get better, whether it was drill work or ideas we could improve upon schematically," McVay said. "I love that. That's right up my alley. I think that's kind of why he and I get along so well.

"I'll be honest with you: Even after I left for the Rams, I had him send me some of his notes after the 2016 season, because so much of what he thinks through is helpful. I said, 'Hey, you got anything from a situational or overall team concept?' He picked out a couple of bullet points and sent them to me."

Cousins doesn't just grind at the workplace; he's constantly looking for an edge. According to Sports Illustrated, he employs a brain coach, a naturopath, a kinesiologist and a biochemist, among other consultants. One anecdote in a story by SI's Greg Bishop from late last season revealed Cousins' extreme commitment to his craft, if not his bravery: Last September, when Julie was in labor with the couple's first child (a son, Cooper, who'll turn 1 later this month), the expectant father sat in the delivery room and FaceTimed his way into a quarterback meeting at Redskins Park, taking breaks every few minutes to hold his wife's hand during contractions.

Now, at long last, Cousins has found a franchise willing to go all in on him, and his reciprocity has not been surprising.

"I tell people, 'He's an over-communicator,' " Rudolph said of his new quarterback. "He tells guys where they should line up and where they should go. A lot of times [quarterbacks] will try to keep it a secret. Kirk doesn't. Some [quarterbacks] don't know where every wide receiver's split should be. Kirk knows all of it.

Minnesota will be very, very happy they signed him. People say, 'He's never won a playoff game,' but he's never had a defense in the top half of the league rankings. Watch what happens.

"He has worked very hard to learn this offense inside and out. When you have a guy who's willing to take over a meeting room -- whether the coaches are in there or not -- it's pretty awesome. It's his offense. And that's not something we've ever had here."

Now, of course, comes the pivotal part. Cousins' contract might ensure financial security for life, but it doesn't fully guarantee success. In 2018 and beyond, he'll be judged against Smith's play in Washington, against Keenum's play in Denver (as the Broncos' new starting quarterback), against Bradford's in Arizona (as the Cardinals' new starting QB), perhaps even against Bridgewater's in New Orleans (as the Saints' newly acquired backup to 39-year-old Drew Brees) -- and, most of all, against the Vikings' lofty expectations.

"Minnesota will be very, very happy they signed him," Mike Shanahan predicted. "People say, 'He's never won a playoff game,' but he's never had a defense in the top half of the league rankings. Watch what happens.

"He believes in himself. Very few guys have got the guts and intestinal fortitude to bet on themselves. But he did it, and it paid off, and in three years, people will see it again: He'll get another great contract. If I had to bet on someone, I'd bet on Kirk Cousins."

The challenge for Cousins is this: After receiving the organizational affection he's always craved, can he still channel his inner underdog? Can he keep approaching his job like the ancillary afterthought who couldn't get his owner's attention, even after the biggest game of his life?

"I've always felt a need to prove myself, a sense of urgency, and the one-year contracts maybe amplified that to the outside world," Cousins said. "But I was on a four-year contract as a rookie, and I didn't feel safe at all. So, on one hand, [the Vikings have] communicated belief in me, but every single day I get up and I think, 'Boy, I'd better provide a return on their investment.'

"We haven't won a game yet here with me as the quarterback, so there's still a lot to prove. And, believe me, there's plenty of people out there that are doubting that I was worth it, and there's probably a lot more people who believe that it wasn't worth it to bring me here than people who are excited about it and believe that I'll deliver."

And if he does deliver, and Minnesota can finally experience a Super Bowl triumph? An entire fan base will hail the Redskins for letting go of their guy, and Cousins will be eternally grateful to his former bosses for setting him free.


Editors: Andy Fenelon, Ali Bhanuri, Brooke Cersosimo, Dan Parr | Illustration: John Trail
back to top

Related Content