Whenever the Minnesota Vikings have lost a football game over the past two seasons, fans have typically pitched their tents in two camps.
1. Quarterback Kirk Cousins is mostly to blame.
2. If you think Cousins is mostly to blame, you are consumed with irrational Cousins-hate.
I've occupied both camps since Cousins signed a three-year, guaranteed $84 million contract to bring the Lombardi trophy to Minnesota. It's impossible to blame a loss on one individual, when there are 53 players on the roster, but that doesn't change the fact that one playoff win in Cousins' first two seasons in Minnesota is a massive disappointment.
Yes, people are too quick to heap blame on Cousins. The statistic NBC showed during Sunday's loss to the 49ers showing his quarterback rating in his wins and his quarterback rating in losses on the road, in prime time or against playoff teams being almost identical certainly gives a Cousins critic pause. But this isn't just about stats. It's about optics, the eye test. Does Cousins look like the quarterback to lead a team to the mountaintop?
He makes all the throws. He appears to be quality leader on and off the field. But for $27 million a season, part of the return on your investment should be having a quarterback who can make an amazing play or two on his own, win an unwinnable game, or even just excel when a game plan fails and it's clear it’s going to take Plan B to win. Instead, when a game plan fizzles, Cousins looks like a deer-in-the-headlights rookie.
The Vikings beat a very good Saints team on the road in the wild card round. The game plan involving a heavy dose of running back Dalvin Cook and screen passes worked masterfully. Even though the Vikings needed overtime to win, it was clear on that day they were the superior team in the Superdome.
The Vikings then traveled to San Fran to take on a great team, and utilized the school of thought that says you're going to do the same thing until someone stops it. Well, the Niners stopped it cold, and, despite one nice TD toss to Stefon Diggs, fans who know how Cousins wilts when it’s all heaped on his shoulders knew the Purple were toast.
It was the same thing in week 16 at home on Monday Night Football against the Packers. The Vikings due to injuries were down to their third string running back, Mike Boone. The Packers stuffed Boone early, and Cousins, much like late in the Niners game, stood in the pocket while his offensive line crumbled in front of him, and it was an ugly loss. True, most quarterbacks would struggle in that situation, but is an $84 million quarterback you signed to lead a Super Bowl charge supposed to perform like most quarterbacks?
Other than his frequent rollouts and bootlegs, Cousins is a pocket-passer, and without his legs as a weapon, he is a one-dimensional signal caller from yesteryear. (Yes, Tom Brady and Drew Brees don’t run, and Peyton Manning didn’t, either. But they’re obviously better quarterbacks.) Even Ryan Tannehill, who's reignited his career in Tennessee and has, with a major assist from running back Derrick Henry and a stout defense, shockingly led the Titans to the AFC Championship Game, will run when he needs to. Aaron Rodgers runs. Russell Wilson runs. The Titans last Saturday scored a critical touchdown on the road against the heavily favored Baltimore Ravens on an option play from the two-year line. Everyone in the stadium figured Tannehill would pitch it to Henry, but he kept the ball, took a solid hit near the goal line and lunged into the end zone. Can you envision Cousins making that play?
Even after eight seasons in the NFL, Cousins’ biggest problem is that when a game is not going as well as was initially anticipated and it comes to his mind processing what he sees, everything speeds up. For a veteran in his tax bracket, plays should unfold almost in slow motion before Cousins’ eyes, but, instead, when he needs to conjure up a big play when things are falling apart around him, it's like someone hit the fast-forward button in his brain.
One play in the Niners game is Cousins in a nutshell. The Vikings were down a touchdown and facing a third-and-12 near midfield. Cousins drops back, has some time but then the pocket starts to close in. In what amounts to a jaw-droppingly positive development in his critics' eyes, he drifts to the right and steps out of harm's way, something most credible NFL quarterbacks do several times a game. Suddenly, before Cousins' eyes is several yards of open green grass and receivers running their routes near the first-down marker or beyond it. So what does he do? Take off running? No, and that's probably for the best. He would have gained some yards, but probably not enough to move the chains. No, Cousins, in a blink, throws a check-down pass to tight end Kyle Rudolph that probably traveled five yards at the most through the air. Rudolph caught it, was tackled immediately and the play gained two yards.
I've watched a lot of Vikings football in my life and read millions of words written about Vikings football. I've written thousands and thousands of words about Vikings football. I was stoked by the Cousins' signing. But believing now that, two seasons later, the return on the Cousins' investment has been much less than anticipated... that Cousins is, like so many other NFL quarterbacks, solid but not consistently good enough and all too rarely great, does not make me an irrational Cousins-hater.
The Vikings have flaws. The offensive line isn't consistently good enough when it comes to giving a clean pocket to a quarterback who desperately needs one. The defense is aging and looks better on paper than it does on the field.
But most NFL teams live and die with the play of their most important player, their quarterback. Cousins, the Vikings most important player and their most expensive player ever, hasn't been good enough.