Kirk Cousins is never going to say it publicly, but anyone who has covered the quarterback during his five seasons in Minnesota has seen the enormous difference in his comfort level on and off the field since Kevin O’Connell replaced Mike Zimmer.
Cousins’ first four seasons were spent playing for a coach who never wanted him, at least at his price tag, and ended up creating an odd couple situation in which there was no laugh track, plenty of disdain and a near sideline confrontation.
O’Connell’s arrival after the 2021 season changed everything. A former NFL quarterback, O’Connell’s greatest selling point might have been his eagerness to work with Cousins and get the most out of him. Cousins tied an NFL record last season by leading eight four-quarter comebacks as Minnesota surprised everyone by winning 13 games and its first NFC North title since 2017.
Cousins’ overall popularity also grew as he showed a side of himself that Vikings fans hadn’t seen while Zimmer was his coach. Cousins appeared to be having more fun — winning 13 games helps, of course — and his Q-rating only grew when he emerged as a surprise star in the Netflix docuseries “Quarterback” that was released in July.
Cousins’ willingness to embrace his “uncool dad” image has made him more likable and relatable. He took part in one training camp practice this summer wearing the No. 66 that punter Ryan Wright wore last summer when it looked as if he had no chance to make the roster. The jersey was too large for Cousins, making him look 30 pounds heavier, but in the end he laughed along with everyone else. Just as he did last season when video on social media created the “Kirko Chainz” phenomenon.
Cousins might have enjoyed such moments with teammates during his first four seasons in Minnesota, but it never left the locker room. O’Connell’s presence clearly had freed Cousins’ mind both as a quarterback and as a person.
That’s what makes it interesting that as the Vikings’ opener approaches on Sunday, Cousins will be entering the season as a lame duck for the first time since signing a three-year, fully guaranteed $84 million contract in 2018. The Vikings could have tried to extend Cousins’ contract last March, but passed on the opportunity.
It remains unknown what general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and O’Connell, both entering their second season, plan to do at the quarterback position. Cousins, who turned 35 last month, could be re-signed but it appears no talks will take place until the offseason. If Cousins has another good season, he likely will want to test the free-agent market before accepting an offer.
Cousins seems at peace with the situation, likely because he went through this three times in his six seasons with Washington. He played on the franchise tag in each of his final two year with that team. However, putting the tag on Cousins for a third time won’t be an option for the Vikings.
The Vikings’ other two quarterbacks are Nick Mullens and fifth-round pick Jared Hall and it’s unlikely O’Connell sees either as a starter for 2024. Adofo-Mensah could be asked to draft a quarterback in the first round, but the Vikings are much more likely to win the NFC North again than they are to be in a position to take a top QB next April.
There doesn’t appear to be any animosity between Cousins and the Vikings’ front office or Cousins and O’Connell. But the Vikings have made it clear that Cousins wasn’t one of their key priorities this offseason. Tight end T.J. Hockenson, who had a year left on his rookie contract, just signed a four-year extension that contains $42.5 million in total guarantees.
Justin Jefferson, who has two years remaining on his rookie contract and is eligible for an extension, will be next up. Jefferson, considered by many to be the best wide receiver in the NFL, is likely to become the highest-paid non-quarterback in the league.
Jefferson, of course, might have some questions about who will be throwing him the ball in 2024. If O’Connell continues to get the most out of Cousins, the happy-go-lucky quarterback could decide to take his act elsewhere.
Judd Zulgad is co-host of the Purple Daily Podcast and Mackey & Judd podcast at www.skornorth.com