The strange case of Kirk Cousins goes like this.
There’s Kirk, the quirky, overly calculated signal caller who was brought to Minnesota to manage a run-first offense. Then there’s Kirko, the shirtless gunslinger whose chains around his neck rival only his ice-cold veins.
For most of last season, the Vikings got Kirko.
Cousins won a career-high 13 games and tied an NFL record eight game-winning drives en route to clinching his first division title in Minnesota. After mounting a career-high 460-yard, 4-touchdown comeback against the Colts, the largest in NFL history, Cousins arrived at his postgame press conference wearing the gaudiest Vikings jacket imaginable. His response when asked about the suit: “My wife dresses me.”
That day proved to be a holy union between the two sides of Cousins.
But after a disappointing loss in Sunday’s season opener to the Buccaneers, it was Kirk who showed face at the podium. He expressed some regrets after the game, calling a first-half throw he tried to squeeze to K.J. Osborn “too aggressive” when it was intercepted.
Kevin O’Connell pushed back against that notion. He does not want cautious Kirk to take over his quarterback’s psyche.
In a Monday media conference after the loss, O’Connell was encouraging of Cousins’ decision-making on the play. O’Connell made his expectations clear. Cousins “knows that he’s going to continue to stay aggressive in those moments.”
“I think it was a situation where he felt like, that’s not even half a click, that’s maybe a quarter of a click away from probably being a catch and then KJ’s got a chance to split two and maybe score. I think looking at it again, 13-yard line, where we were, it’s going to be a little tighter, things happen faster,” O’Connell said. “That’s a play that Kirk has executed multiple times and he knows that he’s going to continue to stay aggressive in those moments. And [it’s] just an unfortunate outcome with how the defender, outside leverage defender kind of ended up, where that ball ended up with KJ trying to make a tough catch there.”
Kirk & Kirko Have Butted Heads Since Washington
When to play conservative versus aggressive is a dilemma Cousins has grappled with since his days in Washington.
During a 2017 Mic’d Up exclusive, Cousins is captured talking with O’Connell, Washington’s quarterbacks coach at the time, about a tendency to not keep his foot on the gas with a lead.
“Sometimes I get in a weird place when we get a lead like this where you start playing conservative, not to lose. It’s smart but it kind of hinders your ability to just go play,” Cousins told O’Connell on the sidelines.
O’Connell’s entire pitch of coming to Minnesota was to coach up this mentality in Cousins, who for years was a quarterback who was slighted for checkdowns, taking what’s given, and playing it safe.
Washington’s head coach at the time Jay Gruden faced the same challenge, which led to an uneasy marriage where the Commanders were noncommital to Cousins, franchise-tagging him twice before he left in free agency.
“If he does have a weakness, it’s that he’s too much of a perfectionist. He wants everything to be perfect. Unfortunately, I can’t get guys 30 f****** yards open all the time. There are going to be some tight-window throws he’s going to have to throw some days,” Gruden said of Cousins, who argued he’d throw 20 interceptions if he played how Gruden asked him to.
Gruden’s response: “He’d have about 60 touchdowns a year (too).”
Here’s the full Q&A from that presser for context: pic.twitter.com/hINn8r79BJ
— Nick Olson (@NickOlsonNFL) March 17, 2020
It’s Going to Take Kirko to Beat the Eagles
Sure, the interception to Osborn proved to not be the best decision given it came on second-and-1 with plenty of time left on the clock. But it was part of a process O’Connell does not want Cousins to fray from.
The Vikings offense struggled in the second half against the Buccaneers as Cousins was under pressure from a blitz-heavy defense. However, there were many open opportunities down the stretch to make plays.
Three early turnovers seemed to affect Cousins the rest of the game. Minnesota, searching for at least a field goal to tie the game, went three-and-out on its final two drives.
The Vikings are now 0-1 and face a vaunted Eagles defense on Thursday night that held them to 7 points last season.
O’Connell knows; it’s going to take Kirko to prevent a dreaded 0-2 start to the season.