Approaching the fourth playoff game of his career in a Super Wild Card Weekend matinee on Sunday against the New York Giants, Cousins revealed what it would take for him to “walk away” from the game.
Asked if he is more confident going into the playoffs on the heels of an NFL-leading eight game-winning drives this season, Cousins wasn’t caught up in his performance in the regular season, but his growth as a quarterback being the driving force of his career. But once that growth fades, Cousins could see himself retiring.
“Every time you go out there and play and learn and get better, you build as a player,” Cousins said in a January 11 press conference. “Continuous improvement is what I’ve always looked for… you always want to get better as a quarterback, and I think that continuous improvement has happened. The day that I don’t feel that’s happening anymore, I’ll probably walk away.”
Despite a down season statistically, Cousins enjoyed his best season as a starter with the Vikings, going 13-4 in the regular season behind some of the best late-game performances of his career.
This season has been a bit of a reboot for Cousins under first-year coach Kevin O’Connell, whose offensive philosophy differs from the previous four seasons with Mike Zimmer.
Vikings QB Kirk Cousins Reveals How Kevin O’Connell Unlocked His Next Level
Throughout the aftermath of the Zimmer-Rick Spielman ousting, Cousins has struck down the notion that Zimmer was a detriment to his career.
“It’s just a lazy narrative,” Cousins told ESPN in a January 10 feature. “I’ll tell you this: I got better every year as a player under Coach Zim. I got to go to two Pro Bowls under Coach Zim. I won my only playoff game under Coach Zim. And every year I played, I got better. … I feel like Coach Zimmer gave me everything I needed to be successful, and his style really meshed well with what I was used to when I played at Michigan State and had a ton of success with Mark Dantonio.
“A defensive-minded head coach, very much about discipline, and was going to see it through a defensive coach’s eyes. I saw how well that worked. I saw how much we won and, really, how successful I was able to be at quarterback in that mindset. There were a lot of ways where I think it really helped me.”
Cousins was relied upon as a game manager throughout his partnership with Zimmer. He learned to take care of the ball and put forth one of the best stretches of his career, throwing 57 touchdowns and just 10 interceptions in 26 games coming out of the 2020 bye week to the end of the 2021 season, per Pro Football Reference.
Meanwhile, O’Connell has empowered Cousins to take the next step in his career by instead dictating the game and playing more aggressively. It hasn’t all been pretty. Cousins admitted he hadn’t felt like he had a full grasp on the new offense until Week a 14 loss to the Detroit Lions where he completed 75% of his passes for 425 yards.
But instead of being met with scrutiny and removal of control of the offense, O’Connell has worked with Cousins to install what works for his quarterback.
“It seems like Kevin O’Connell is a little like a tech entrepreneur who comes in with optimism and youth and the free spirit to say, ‘We’re going to be aggressive, but we’re going to let you play free,’ ” former Vikings linebacker and KFAN sideline reporter Ben Leber told ESPN. “We’re going to challenge everybody to enjoy what you’re doing and to enjoy taking risks. You have this guy that comes in with the great smile and this nice personality, but underneath all of those cosmetic layers is this aggressive guy that says, ‘Let’s take risks, and let’s do it in a manner in which I’m not going to berate you and hold you to the fire on Monday morning when we’re watching film and make you feel bad.”
Cousins attempted a career-high 643 pass attempts this season as O’Connell has continued to lean on his quarterback through thick and thin.
Kevin O’Connell Has Kirk Cousins Playing Free in the 4th Quarter
Cousins’ confidence in being himself has been a noticeable development this season with the emergence of his alter ego “Kirko Chainz.”
His teammates have gravitated to him being himself — dad jokes and all.
The vocal support from the coaching staff and teammates has added up to make Cousins becoming one of the NFL’s late-game quarterbacks. He threw for the league’s second-most yards (1,339) and tied for the most touchdowns (13) after the start of the fourth quarter and ranked No. 10 in raw QBR (58.6), per ESPN.
The culture change seems to have made all the difference just a year removed from the franchise’s crater of leadership.
“This is not to take a shot at Zim,” cornerback Patrick Peterson told ESPN. “Some players react different to that type of authority. Kevin is just a total opposite. He is a guy that loves to shed light. He’s a guy that loves to smile. High energy. I just think when you have a guy like that, it brings out the best not only of your quarterback but your entire team.”