Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins still encounter serious trouble enjoying his success

Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins still encounter serious trouble enjoying his succes

Kirk Cousins’ passer rating was 107.2 against the 49ers, in a game that began with Joe Buck and Troy Aikman quipping on the ESPN broadcast about the quarterback’s 2-10 Monday night record and ended with Justin Jefferson sneaking up behind Cousins to put a “SportsCenter” Top 10 chain around his neck after the Vikings’ 22-17 victory.

It was the third-best passer rating of Cousins’ career on Monday night. His best two marks came in a pair of October 2017 losses, in Kansas City and Philadelphia, in what turned out to be his final season in Washington.

Other than his 1-3 record in playoff games, Cousins’ Monday night record is perhaps the statistic cited most often in narratives about his lack of success in big games. He brought the Chiefs game from 2017 up on Wednesday, as a kind of counterweight to the praise he’s received after his performance in the Vikings’ win over the 49ers on Monday night. Even after he threw for 378 yards (his most on a Monday night) and beat a team with a winning record for the first time on a Monday, he remained too fixated on process to take the chance to clap back at his critics

“I walked off the field [after the loss to Kansas City in 2017] saying, ‘That’s as good as I’ve ever played.’ So I’m just not going to buy into the narratives,” he said. “That’s not how I evaluate myself. The narratives can be what they are, but I know better. And then there’s also a little bit of, when I got 100 text messages after the game, from people I hadn’t heard from in potentially years, I’m like, ‘Oh, there is a little bit more of a microscope on Monday night.’

“You sort of see the overreaction the other way, too, where I’m saying, ‘Just the same way that wasn’t true in 2017, this isn’t true either.’ It’s somewhere in the middle.”

That Cousins ran the offense as effectively as he did, though, helped the Vikings beat a 49ers team that hadn’t allowed more than 386 yards in a game all season. Cousins threw to open spots in the 49ers’ zone coverages, facilitated the offense at the line of scrimmage during hurry-up periods and took advantage of clean pockets from a protection unit that used chip blocks from T.J. Hockenson, Josh Oliver and C.J. Ham to help the offensive line keep the 49ers without a sack.

He seemed more in command of the Vikings’ offense against the 49ers than he had in his first game without Jefferson a week earlier in Chicago, and helped first-round pick Jordan Addison establish career highs for targets (10), catches (seven), yards (123) and touchdowns (two) in a game. The smooth night, Cousins said, is a product of the confidence he has during his second year in the Vikings’ system with Kevin O’Connell.

As the Vikings install the game plan during practice or go through their final preparations the day before a game, O’Connell said, he’ll often give Cousins the floor to tell the offense exactly what he wants on a certain play.

“That is when, as a coach, you start sitting back and say, ‘The ownership part is all coming together,'” O’Connell said. “Monday night, the comfort in calling the game, just knowing the way Kirk was prepared, [is] really the driving force behind us moving the football.”

It wasn’t enough to keep the quarterback from his normal postgame critique. He thanked Addison for taking the ball away from Charvarius Ward for a 60-yard touchdown on a post route Cousins threw behind the receiver. The Vikings, Cousins said, hadn’t practiced the play much against the blitz the 49ers sent at the end of the first half; the quarterback didn’t lead Addison far enough away from Ward. “I find in my notes saying, ‘Man, I’ve gotta take him all the way to the hashmark,’ and when I went to throw that football, I had no feel for doing that.”

There were several other plays Cousins stewed over after he drove his son Cooper home from the game. The Vikings scored 22 points, but settled for a pair of short field goals, leading Cousins to believe they should have had more.

He smiled wide when Jefferson sneaked up behind him with his postgame chain — “The grills kind of gave it away right away, but that’s him,” Cousins said. On Wednesday, he credited the receiver, whose locker is next to his at the Vikings’ practice facility, for helping him see there’s another way to play the game, “where you can just kind of go out there and have fun.”

The approach doesn’t figure to be Cousins’ default, though. He said it’s part of the reason he’s still in the league, 12 seasons after Washington took him with a fourth-round pick. Even with a chance to answer his critics, he found himself answering to one evaluator who might never be fully satisfied: himself.

“I think that self-critique is why I’m still standing here talking to you guys at Year 12, at 35 years old,” he said. “I also think it’s why sometimes you feel like this game’s a grind. Because you’re never really just going out there shrugging your shoulders and playing careless. You’re playing with so much care that you’re always evaluating and critiquing, and that’s kind of the balance I’m trying to find.”

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