Winless Vikings are plodding but wiser Cousins is peaking

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For the 50th time on Sunday, Kirk Cousins will take the field for a Vikings regular-season game as both a frequent topic of debate for an anxious fan base and a rare source of quarterbacking stability.

Cousins passed Wade Wilson last week for the fourth-most regular-season quarterback starts in Vikings history. In the Vikings' home opener against the Seahawks, he will join Fran Tarkenton, Tommy Kramer and Daunte Culpepper as the only passers with a half-hundred regular-season starts. Since the NFL went to a 16-game schedule in 1978, the Vikings have had only 11 seasons where a quarterback started every game; Culpepper and Cousins are the only two passers with at least two of those seasons.

Cousins is playing some of the most efficient football of his career, currently on both the league's longest active streak of passes without an interception (162) and the second-longest streak in NFL history of games with a passer rating of 90 or better (16). Cousins has thrown 29 touchdowns against three interceptions since the Vikings' bye week last year, is Pro Football Focus' fifth highest-graded passer this year and has gone 11 of 15 in a pair of two-minute drills, throwing for 118 yards to set up Greg Joseph's game-tying field goal in Week 1 and put the kicker in position for a game-winning attempt last week.

"He looks terrific," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "He's throwing all of the throws, whether it's the drop-back stuff or the [play-]action stuff on the edge. He uses the whole field. He uses all the rhythms. ... I've seen him as good as I've ever seen him."

The Vikings, though, are winless, needing to beat Seattle for the first time in eight tries to avoid an 0-3 start. Their defense has allowed the sixth-most points in the league, their offense was penalized 11 times in their Week 1 loss to the Bengals, and their two losses have swung on a pair of plays — Dalvin Cook's overtime fumble in Cincinnati and Joseph's 37-yard miss last week — that immediately followed Cousins' final completion of the day. In Cousins' streak of 90-plus passer rating games, the Vikings are 7-9.

And though the quarterback has been sharp, he's also played with a safer approach that's kept him from delivering the kinds of impactful downfield plays he's made in recent years. The Vikings spent much of their Week 1 game in adverse down-and-distance situations, and Cousins connected with K.J. Osborn for a 64-yard touchdown on the game's second play a week ago, but he's thrown only six passes that traveled at least 20 yards, according to Pro Football Focus.

His fourth home opener comes Sunday in what the Vikings are billing as a "grand re-opening" of U.S. Bank Stadium. The opposing QB is the one (Russell Wilson) the Vikings have struggled to beat more than any other, and Cook — who likely would've gotten the ball on a fateful fourth-and-1 play in Seattle last year if he hadn't left with a groin injury — is questionable to play with an ankle injury.

In regular-season start No. 50, Cousins can accentuate his stability by doing the thing he's always said matters most: Winning big.

"I think we believe in our locker room and the group we have and what we're doing," Cousins said Wednesday, "but the results are all that matters, and that's what we're measured by.

"We've got to be able to win."

Noticeable change

Cousins' year began under tumult, as the quarterback faced scrutiny among prominent players who did not get the COVID-19 vaccine, and the Vikings' first-team offense did not score a touchdown in six preseason possessions.

But two weeks after Mike Zimmer said he watched film with Cousins for the first time, at the quarterback's request, Zimmer noted Cousins' growth as a leader while praising the way Cousins has played overall.

"His leadership has been a lot better this year, just the way he's gone about his business and not just being to himself, but being around the guys more," Zimmer said Wednesday. "I think all those things are important."

The Vikings gave Cousins a fully guaranteed $84 million deal in March 2018, while parting with the three former starters on their roster (Case Keenum, Sam Bradford and Teddy Bridgewater) after a 13-3 season and trip to the NFC Championship Game. It cast Cousins as the final piece on the way to a Super Bowl, but it also put him in an unusual spot when trying to assert himself as a core player.

"I think it's important to be self-aware and understand how you fit," Cousins said. "In '18 I wasn't going to show up and say, 'Hey, you guys just went 13-3; I have all these good ideas, listen to me.' There's a little bit of, 'How do I fit into this puzzle?' Now that three years have passed, my fourth season, there's a little bit more ability to have assimilated and understand how this organization works, how you fit in that puzzle. We've been through four coordinators in that time too, so there's a lot of change, and it's always a moving target as to what things look like."

His fourth coordinator, Klint Kubiak, was Cousins' position coach the previous two years, affording the 10th-year QB a level of familiarity. Cousins, who held the ball longer than all but seven quarterbacks last season, is getting rid of it quicker than all but seven this year, averaging 2.57 seconds per attempt, according to NFL Next Gen Stats.

Cousins has also often talked about improving on off-schedule plays; he scrambled for two first downs last week against the Cardinals, picking up 5 yards on a second-down run that extended a touchdown drive and posting a career-long run of 29 yards. He also drilled an off-balance throw for a touchdown to Justin Jefferson while moving to his left.

And while the Vikings' two late-game rallies haven't produced a victory, they left an impression in Cook's mind.

"That's '8'. That's what he do," Cook said. "He's been playing lights-out football. That fourth quarter you've seen a different demeanor from him — 'Let's go win the game.' These past two games, it's been fun because in the fourth quarter we've had a chance to go win the game, or put ourselves in positions to do that with, kicking a field goal or whatever the situation is. He's been dialed in. It's just fun going out there and competing with him because once you see him dialed in, you see some pretty good throws coming out of his hands."

The Vikings face a Seahawks defense that's ranked 30th in yards allowed and 31st in run defense, but if Cook is out or limited by his right ankle injury, it could be incumbent upon Cousins to outduel Wilson in a series that dates back to their matchups in college.

His 50th regular-season start in Minnesota presents an opportunity for Cousins to meet the moment.

"You know, there's 15 games left in the regular season guaranteed to us, and that's a lot of football," Cousins said. "I'm excited about how much we have ahead of us to get this thing in the right direction. A lot of football left, and I'm excited about that."