Zulgad: Kirk Cousins will allow play to do the talking in return to Washington

The Washington Commanders have made significant changes since Kirk Cousins last played a game for the franchise nearly five years ago. The general manager (Scot McCloughan) and coach (Jay Gruden) that Cousins played under are long gone, the inevitable roster turnover has taken place and the previously offensive nickname was dropped.

That means not much will be familiar to the quarterback when he makes his first visit to FedEx Field since signing a three-year, fully guaranteed $84 million free agent contract with the Vikings in March 2018. But don’t underestimate what this game will mean to Cousins.

In what has been a successful season from a record standpoint, but a shaky one on the statistical side, Cousins almost certainly would love nothing more than to give embattled Commanders owner Daniel Snyder a firsthand view of what he lost by not rewarding him with the type of contract the Vikings did following the 2017 season.

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Did Cousins deserve that type of payday? Probably not. He posted some impressive stats during his first four seasons with the Vikings under former coach Mike Zimmer, but that did not translate into wins. A team that had gone to the NFC title game in 2017, and saw Cousins as the final piece to its Super Bowl puzzle, missed the postseason with an 8-7-1 record in 2018.

The Vikings went 10-6 in 2019, with Cousins earning his only playoff win during his time in Purple, before back-to-back sub-.500 seasons that resulted in Zimmer being fired.

While Cousins isn’t near the top of the quarterback leaderboard in many of the traditional categories this season, he has delivered when it mattered most under new coach Kevin O’Connell.

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The Vikings have lost only one of their first seven games in large part because Cousins led game-winning drives in the fourth quarter in consecutive victories over the Saints, Lions and Bears. Cousins now has directed seven game-winning drives either in the fourth quarter or overtime in the past two seasons after he had only four total in the regular season in his first three years in Minnesota.

Cousins began his NFL career as a fourth-round pick by Washington in 2012. He was taken with the 102nd selection of that draft, 100 spots behind second-overall pick Robert Griffin III. Griffin was supposed to be Washington’s future at quarterback, with Cousins seen as a project who would probably never play. But injuries derailed Griffin’s career and Cousins became the starter in 2015.

Cousins’ ascension to the starting role was not followed by a rich contract extension — although team president Bruce Allen said in 2017 the franchise did attempt to sign Cousins long term — and he played on the franchise tag in 2016 and ’17 before departing. Cousins helped lead Washington to the playoffs in 2016 before throwing for 329 yards in a 35-18 loss to Green Bay.

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He will be returning to Washington, or actually Summerfield, Ma., on Sunday along with O’Connell, who was in his first season as Washington’s quarterbacks coach in 2017. The Vikings hired O’Connell, who spent three years in Washington and two as the offensive coordinator of the Los Angeles Rams, in part because of his previous working relationship with Cousins.

O’Connell has done an excellent job of getting out of Cousins what he needs. The two have had some animated but not acrimonious-looking sideline discussions in recent weeks, but it’s clear Cousins is working to improve at running O’Connell’s offense, while O’Connell is making adjustments to help Cousins succeed.

O’Connell, who is only about three years older than Cousins, has to know this game means a bit more to his veteran. Cousins completed 23 of 26 passes for 285 yards with no touchdowns and no interceptions in the Vikings’ 19-9 victory over Washington on Oct. 24, 2019, but that Thursday night game was played at U.S. Bank Stadium.

This game will be Cousins’ chance to show Washington fans, and Snyder, that a quarterback many never expected to be a starter, finally could be in a position to achieve far more than just back-of-the-football-card success.

Remember, this is the guy who showed his competitive fire in 2015 by yelling “You like that?! You like that?!” at a reporter in the hallway to the locker room after leading Washington back from a 24-0 deficit to a one-point victory over Tampa Bay in Week 7.

Cousins wasn’t going to put that side of his personality on display Wednesday as he spoke to reporters, instead throwing plaudits at his former franchise. “I spent six years there, have a lot of great memories, and just think very highly of a lot of people that I’ve worked with there,” he said, “coaches and players and teammates. It will bring back a lot of memories.”

It also will stoke Cousins’ competitive fire and, used in a positive manner, that could be good news for O’Connell and his team.

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Story originally appeared on Vikings Wire