An $84M game manager? Vikings still trying to figure out Kirk Cousins

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EAGAN, Minn. -- An otherwise nondescript Week 3 meeting with an out-of-conference opponent has become a hugely important test for Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins.

Cousins might have more to prove on Sunday against the Oakland Raiders than he has in any other game of his career. Not just for the sake of bouncing back from an interception in the end zone that sealed a Week 2 loss at Green Bay, but for showing his team that he can be trusted to not commit fatal errors that become the reason the Vikings lose.

Even Cousins knows what's bound to happen if he doesn't make better decisions.

"Believe me, I'm not going to be playing quarterback here if I go out and play the way I did this past Sunday for much longer," Cousins said.

The Vikings reached a crossroads far sooner than they would have hoped with Cousins. They're one of two teams in the NFL, along with the Indianapolis Colts, that average more rushing yards per game (185) than they do passing yards (160). Part of that is the byproduct of what has worked well for Minnesota on offense, sparked by Dalvin Cook's early-season explosion as the top rusher in the NFL.

But this also might be a reality the Vikings have to come to terms with, if they haven't already internally: Minnesota expected Cousins to be its franchise quarterback, but he might just be an $84 million game manager.

Minnesota claimed to have analyzed every throw Cousins made in six seasons with the Washington Redskins before he was signed to a three-year, $84 million, fully guaranteed contract in March 2018. Still, despite the noticeable flaws and areas where changing his habits might appear unrealistic, the Vikings wagered on with their decision.

The following figures sum up Cousins in big games: He has a 5-26 record against teams with winning records, a career road record of 13-24-2 and a combined prime-time record of 7-25. Since he became the Vikings' starting quarterback, Cousins has yet to lead a game-winning drive, a span of 18 games.

Cousins has never claimed to be more than what he is, noting his own reality as "pretty much a .500 quarterback."

For every moment that bred faith in the QB against the Packers, like the perfectly placed Willie Mays-style, over-the-shoulder catch by Stefon Diggs for a 45-yard touchdown, there were bad throws and costly errors in the 21-16 loss.

The Vikings were aware of Cousins' struggles during the most inaccurate outing of his career since becoming a starter (14-of-32 passing) and seemed to find a way to mitigate them in Green Bay by putting the ball in the hands of Cook, who had 191 yards from scrimmage.

Seven of eight plays on the drive that brought them to the Packers' 8-yard line with just over five minutes left in the game were rushes. Minnesota turned to Cousins at the most critical moment, effectively telling him to go win the game. And Cousins couldn't come through, throwing an interception in the end zone, all but ensuring their first loss of the season.

Whether you agree with the playcall or not, coaches expected Cousins to make a better decision than trying to fight a tight-window throw to Diggs in double coverage. They're entitled to believe that a quarterback with that price tag and experience would make the right call. But they got burned for the trust they placed in Cousins in that moment.

"Ultimately the result wasn't what we wanted, so certainly when we look back, you say, 'Man, I wish I would have run it there,'" offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski said. "But at the same time, I'm trying to be critical of every playcall, from the first to the last, and try to learn some lessons from that game and apply them moving forward. To say we're always going to do one thing in any situation I don't think is fair, but again, really tried to learn some lessons from each one of those plays from Sunday."

The Vikings' challenge: What do they do next time in the same situation because Cousins has not shown he can come through?

According to Pro Football Focus, Cousins is ranked 27th out of 27 qualifying quarterbacks in passer rating (76.5) inside the 10-yard line since 2017. He has completed 44.6% of his passes with the lowest yards per attempt (1.6).

The conundrum becomes what Minnesota's coaching staff does with Cousins moving forward. The challenge of having to scheme around its franchise quarterback places a heavier burden on Cook and even more importance on him staying healthy if he needs to carry this offense.

But the Vikings don't believe they have reached the end of the rope with Cousins just yet. At least not publicly.

"Kirk had an up-and-down game last week," coach Mike Zimmer said. "He's going to be fine. We have the utmost confidence in him. He's in a good place where he's going to play good this week and continue to play good for the rest of the year."

The reality is that Minnesota is locked into Cousins through the 2020 season, given the guarantees of his contract and no-trade clause. Zimmer fanning the flames of his quarterback's shortcomings or putting added pressure with chastising statements in news conferences does the team no good. This is the hand they chose. Now they're dealing with it.

Minnesota is a nine-point favorite over an Oakland team that gave up 443 yards passing and four touchdowns to the Kansas City Chiefs last week. Even if Cousins earns a much-needed bounce-back win, the outcome will hardly point to any sort of revelation about him. It's the games beyond Week 3, including two upcoming road contests against the Chicago Bears and New York Giants, followed by the Philadelphia Eagles at home, that will prove whether the notion of Cousins as a game manager is fact or fiction.

Should it become clear that Cousins is more of a liability than solution, Minnesota can begin to remedy the situation in April by drafting a quarterback and preparing to not re-sign Cousins after 2020.

But the Vikings have learned so far that Cousins hasn't made enough plays with the game on the line to prove they can trust him in high-pressure situations. That trust certainly can be earned back with better play, but it's up to the Vikings to fully recognize his limitations and put him in situations that are far more likely to work, realizing that the team might be better off in asking Cousins to do less.