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.