GREEN BAY, WIS. – The first scene of "Quarterback," the Netflix series that followed three NFL passers on and off the field throughout the 2022 season, opened with Kirk Cousins reading Sports Illustrated's "Big Book of Why" to his son Turner after the Vikings' playoff loss in January.
"Why does the NFL have so many rules against hitting quarterbacks?" Cousins read in the scene. "An injury to the quarterback can sink a team's entire season."
Three months after the premiere of a series that humanized Cousins for Vikings fans by highlighting his toughness and diligence, the quarterback was in the midst of one of his finest seasons, ranking second in the NFL in touchdown passes and third in yards despite playing three games without the injured Justin Jefferson. Six days after he threw for 378 yards in a Monday night upset of the 49ers, Cousins had helped the Vikings build their largest lead at Lambeau Field since the day Brett Favre emerged from the visitor's tunnel against his old team in 2009.
Cousins had completed 23 of 31 passes for 274 yards and two touchdowns without a sack. As he drove the Vikings toward Lambeau's south end zone, it appeared they would head home with a three-game win streak and a decisive victory that would highlight their newfound quarterbacking advantage over their hated rival.
And then, as Cousins dropped back, planted his right cleat at the 30-yard line and winced in pain, it appeared he was about to play out the dramatic scenario he had read to his son.
The injury to Cousins' right Achilles tendon put the Vikings in a somber state after a 24-10 victory over the Packers that got them back to .500 for the season. A source with knowledge of the situation said Cousins suffered a torn Achilles. Coach Kevin O'Connell said the quarterback will undergo further tests Monday, but a torn Achilles would all but guarantee Cousins will miss the rest of the 2023 season.
"Every single player in our locker room is thinking about our leader, our guy right now," O'Connell said. "I am just so proud of him. Proud of the way he has played all season long. Whatever is the case, if we don't have him for one snap or for the duration of our season, that will not change the level he played this year, and ultimately what he has meant to me and our organization."
Rookie Jaren Hall finished the game after Cousins left with just over 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter and lost the ball when the Packers' Preston Smith sacked him at the Vikings 3 with six minutes left. But the Vikings sacked Green Bay quarterback Jordan Love on second down and stopped Love at the Minnesota 6 on a fourth-down scramble, ensuring the Vikings would retain a two-score lead. On his next drive, Hall found T.J. Hockenson for a 16-yard gain with about 4:30 left that forced the Packers to spend their timeouts, and Danielle Hunter got his 10th sack of the season on Green Bay's second-to-last play.
"It's not an easy place to come get a road victory," O'Connell said. "I thought the defensive performance was phenomenal; I gave that whole side of the ball and the coaching staff game balls. They forced six three-and-outs. Got the huge turnover that we then scored on the next play. Complementary football at its finest, and then some of those stops on downs there in the second half to really allow us to keep a pretty comfortable lead there all the way to the very end."
The Vikings held the Packers without a first down until the final five minutes of the second quarter and allowed Green Bay to keep the ball for only 11:58 in the first half. It was the Packers' latest anemic offensive performance in a losing streak that has stretched to four games as Love struggles in his first year replacing Aaron Rodgers. A raft of Packers penalties aided a Vikings offense that scored on three of its next four drives after Greg Joseph missed a field-goal attempt on the first Vikings possession.
Cousins worked from clean pockets and exploited defensive coordinator Joe Barry's zone coverages, much as he had done in the Vikings' 23-7 season-opening victory over the Packers in 2022. After Love threw deep for Jayden Reed on third-and-9 in the middle of the third quarter and Josh Metellus snatched the ball from the wide receiver's hands, Cousins threaded a 20-yard throw to Jordan Addison on the next play, finding the rookie receiver for his seventh touchdown of the season. The Vikings lined up Addison in the backfield, giving him a free release on Packers cornerback Jaire Alexander, and Addison found a group of Vikings fans in the northeast corner of the end zone, performing a Lambeau Leap before any Green Bay player had scored a touchdown.
The Vikings' lead was 24-3 — the largest hey had enjoyed at Lambeau since Nov. 1, 2009, when Favre hit Percy Harvin for a 51-yard touchdown that put the team up by the same score. At that moment — when Cousins had thrown touchdown passes to Addison and T.J. Hockenson, Cam Akers had scored the team's first rushing TD of the season and Jefferson was only two weeks from a possible return from his hamstring injury — the Vikings appeared to be turning into a team ready to take off in the NFC.
Cousins' injury could change it all, two days before the NFL trade deadline on Tuesday afternoon. O'Connell said the Vikings would discuss their options at quarterback, including Nick Mullens' possible return from a low back injury as soon as Nov. 12 against the Saints.
"I think we have to look at potentially all of the options, including the best possible group around Jaren, knowing that we are going to continue to build a complete offense based upon a lot more than just the quarterback," O'Connell said.
They will have to answer larger questions, too, with Cousins set to be a free agent and Hunter — who turned 29 on Sunday — also heading for the open market after the season. The Vikings would seem reluctant to trade away veterans in the middle of a win streak, but their long-term need at quarterback could preclude them from trading a high draft pick for an immediate starter, unless they felt like they were acquiring a possible QB for next season.
The Vikings headed home Sunday night with those deliberations ahead in what might be the toughest set of decisions they have faced in General Manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and O'Connell's two seasons together.
On Monday night, Cousins sat his oldest son Cooper in the front row of the interview room at U.S. Bank Stadium, to take in his press conference after the Vikings' win over the 49ers. On Sunday afternoon, Cousins' wife Julie paced worriedly with Cooper through the hallways outside the visitors' locker room at Lambeau Field.
The Vikings had lost the past two New Year's weekends here by the combined score of 88-27; the first defeat eliminated them from the 2021 playoff race, while the second cost them a chance at a first-round bye in 2022. Whatever charge they took out of a two-score win was quickly muted on Sunday, though. Mostly, Cousins' injury had left them numb.
"He lives and breathes being durable, and available for us," said right tackle Brian O'Neill, who sustained an avulsion fracture to his right Achilles tendon at Lambeau Field on Jan. 1, near the spot of the field where Cousins was injured. "It's surprising, and it hurts. I think people are starting to understand how much he means to us."