This is the Version of Kirk Cousins the Vikings Have Been Waiting For
When the Vikings signed Kirk Cousins in March 2018, this is what they were envisioning.
When things didn't work out last year, and they revamped the offense by bringing in Gary Kubiak and drafting Garrett Bradbury in the first round, this is what they were envisioning.
Even when Cousins flunked the season's first two big tests, losses in Green Bay and Chicago, the visions remained of what he and this offense could be if things came together.
Three weeks later, things have come together. And then some.
Heading into a primetime game on Thursday night against the team that didn't want to pay him two years ago, Cousins has spent the past three weeks bringing some measure of validation to the team that did. He has been nearly flawless in carving up the Giants, Eagles and Lions, turning a 2-2 Vikings team in turmoil into a 5-2 team that is brimming with confidence.
After seven weeks, Cousins now leads the NFL in passer rating (114.3) and yards per attempt (9.1). It's been a remarkable turnaround for someone who looked timid as he put up dreadful performances at Lambeau and Soldier Field.
“I’m not going to be playing quarterback here if I play the way I did this past Sunday for much longer,” Cousins said after completing 14 of 32 passes with two interceptions against the Packers. “So, I understand that, and I look forward to getting out there and playing at a much higher level.”
That higher level wasn't reached right away, as he again struggled mightily against the Bears two weeks later. That loss caused criticism of the $84 million quarterback to reach a pinnacle, prompted a public apology to Adam Thielen and caused Stefon Diggs to skip multiple team activities.
It was a crisis situation that is fading further and further into the depths of memory with each week of high-powered offense.
Cousins has found the higher level he anticipated and the offense as a whole has begun to click. Diggs and Thielen have taken off, Dalvin Cook has remained one of the best running backs in the NFL, and Thielen's early departure from last Sunday's game allowed secondary and tertiary weapons like Bisi Johnson, Kyle Rudolph and Irv Smith Jr. to get involved. (Thielen's hamstring injury is likely to hold him out of Thursday night's game against Washington, but the MRI results didn't create serious long-term concern).
Here's the important thing to remember about Cousins' bounce-back: he didn't just flip a switch after the Bears game and become a totally different player. He has always been capable of stretches like this. He had similar stretches in Washington, where he threw for nearly 5,000 yards in 2016.
What has changed the most has been the environment around him, which is giving him the opportunity to succeed. Cousins has taken full advantage of that opportunity, but he isn't doing this alone.
First and foremost, credit must go to offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski, who has called three outstanding games. Stefanski has balanced runs and passes effectively, sequencing similar plays to keep defenses guessing. His play-calling has been a big reason why the Vikings offense has become versatile and unpredictable.
Most importantly, he's dramatically increased the amount of play-action passes for Cousins, which are a staple of Kubiak's offense. Throughout his career, Cousins has always been one of the better quarterbacks in the league at executing play-action. Six of Cousins' 10 touchdowns during this stretch have come on PA, with the Vikings rolling him out into space and letting him find Diggs and Thielen downfield.
“I think the biggest thing — and I said this all offseason — we have to do a good job of putting him in situations that make him comfortable,” Kyle Rudolph said. “When you’re firing on all cylinders and the run game is going well and we’re hitting play-action passes, that’s when Kirk is at his best. If we’re playing from behind and he’s got to drop back and sit in a spot — it doesn’t matter who you’re playing, these teams have such talented rushers that it makes it hard.”
A ton of credit also has to go to the offensive line, which has gotten significantly better over the past three weeks. Bradbury, the first-round center who the Vikings hoped would be a great fit for Kubiak's zone-blocking scheme, has begun to emerge after a rocky start.
It's a bit of a chicken and egg situation, in some respects. Cousins has been put in positions to succeed, but his remarkably efficient and explosive play has made the entire offense look good.
Yes, there are caveats to all of this. The Giants, Eagles and Lions all rank among the bottom-10 defenses in passing yards allowed per game. Cousins hasn't yet changed the narratives surrounding his career, nor will he do so on Thursday night against the Redskins. That will only come by beating good teams and leading the Vikings to the playoffs.
What Thursday night does offer, though, is a chance to stick it to his former team and continue reminding his current one why he was brought to Minnesota in the first place.
He hasn't proven anything yet, but this version of Kirk Cousins is at least giving Vikings fans reason to believe again.