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There’s Not Much to Vike About Kirk Cousins Right Now

Minnesota handed the quarterback an unprecedented contract to put the team over the top. He may not even put the Vikings back in the playoffs.

NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Chicago Bears Quinn Harris-USA TODAY Sports

Last spring the Minnesota Vikings gave Kirk Cousins a three-year contract fully guaranteed for $84 million. The deal was the first of its kind. Vikings fans took up the rallying cry of “You Vike that?,” a phrase mimicking Cousins’s famous “You like that?” scream in 2015. That outburst was a distillation of what we thought Cousins would become: clutch, fiery, and a quarterback who puts his team on his back. That’s not what the Vikings have gotten.

Cousins is now 20 games into his Minnesota career, nearly halfway through the 48 regular-season games he signed on for, and the Vikings are 10-9-1 in that span. Their 16-6 loss to Chicago on Sunday was thisclose to being a shutout, and it dropped the Vikings to 2-2 and last place in the NFC North. Including his confounding late-game interception against the Packers in Week 2, both of Minnesota’s losses featured Cousins coming apart at the seams against a division rival. Cousins has 28 games left on his Minnesota contract, and fans—and head coach Mike Zimmer—no longer Vike that.

It’s difficult to point at Cousins in the box score and see the problem. In Sunday’s 16-6 loss he completed 27 of 36 passes for 233 yards with a passer ratings of 91.5. But box scores lie, and a closer peek at the game reveals startling numbers. The Vikings had 222 yards on 10 drives, but 92 of them came on their third-to-last drive. On their other nine drives they gained 130 yards. Stefon Diggs had seven catches for 108 yards, but Adam Thielen, who signed a deal paying him $33 million over the next three years, had two catches for 6 receiving yards—his lowest output since Week 15 of 2016. Relatedly, three of Cousins’s first eight passes went to fullback C.J. Ham. Unsurprisingly, the Vikings’ first drive ended in a punt. Their second drive ended in a fumble by receiver Stefon Diggs. They did not have a third drive until the third quarter as the Bears had the ball for 19 minutes in the first half. With the Vikings getting the ball to start the third quarter down 10-0, the first play of the second half ended in defensive end Khalil Mack strip sacking the quarterback.

Cousins fumbled twice on Sunday, losing one, and was sacked six times for a loss of 51 yards (including one fumble that Minnesota recovered to get a third-and-35). Lack of awareness is not a new problem for him. Entering Sunday, Cousins was tied with Buffalo’s Josh Allen for the league lead in fumbles this year. Bears defensive end Khalil Mack leads all defenders in fumbles forced, so perhaps we could have seen this coming.

Not only is Cousins bad at sensing pass rushers when they come after him, but he also gets nervous in clean pockets. Here is Cousins on Minnesota’s 92-yard touchdown drive—his best of the game—planting a checkdown pass in the dirt despite having good protection.

Minnesota scored on that drive but failed to get the two-point conversion, which made the game 16-6 with four minutes to play. The Vikings got the ball back, but quickly faced a fourth-and-5. With the game on the line, Cousins stared down a free rusher but had a streaking Thielen open on a slant. Cousins found the wideout, but the ball was off and Thielen barely got a hand on it before it bounced incomplete. Even the famously measured Thielen lost his composure with Cousins after the play.

Thielen becoming visibly angry feels representative considering he is a proud Minnesota native. Broadly speaking, Minnesota sports fans do not vent their anger as quickly or with the same whiplash that, say, Philadelphia does. But fans’ frustration with Cousins has been brewing for a while, and it is now at risk of boiling over. Through three games Cousins was the 30th-highest-graded quarterback among 35 qualifying QBs on Pro Football Focus, and that could go down this week. The team has invested $28 million annually in him and given Thielen and Diggs two of the top 13 contracts at receiver, but through three weeks the Vikings had attempted just 63 passes, the fewest in the league. To put that in perspective, Rams quarterback Jared Goff threw 68 passes against Tampa Bay on Sunday. The Vikings brought Cousins in to be a difference-maker, but his usage suggests the less he gets involved, the better.

Performances like Sunday suggest the people who say the offense is better when he is less involved are right, though putting this entire Bears loss on Cousins is unfair. The Vikings’ running game couldn’t get going on Sunday as Chicago held running back Dalvin Cook to 14 carries for 35 yards and a late touchdown. The inability to come back late in games isn’t just on Cousins, but also Zimmer, who has never led a Vikings comeback of more than 11 points. Minnesota’s offensive line could not protect Cousins on Sunday. Most importantly, this happened against the Chicago Bears, the most ferocious front seven the sport has seen in years. Surely we can’t blame Cousins for not rising to the occasion against Khalil Mack?

Wrong. The Bears are the defending NFC North champions. The Vikings gave Cousins an unprecedented contract because they believed he could beat Chicago and Green Bay. Minnesota has a fantastic collection of talent on defense with safety Harrison Smith, linebacker Anthony Barr, defensive end Danielle Hunter, defensive lineman Everson Griffen, and defensive tackle Linval Joseph, among many others. Minnesota reached the NFC championship game in the 2017 season with mostly the same collection of players, but jettisoned Case Keenum for Cousins in hopes he could put them over the top. Instead Cousins may not even bring the Vikings back to the playoffs. He has been solid in games against Atlanta and Oakland, but those were contests against far worse defenses than Green Bay and Chicago, and Cook and the running game were able to get humming. Chicago lost starting quarterback Mitchell Trubisky to a shoulder injury, and Cousins still couldn’t compete, which speaks volumes about where the Vikings are heading without better play from their QB.

In big games and big moments going back to his Washington days, Cousins has consistently disappeared. The truth hurts, but Cousins is great until he’s got to be great.