In his debut game Kirk Cousins justified ownership’s investment in him, and the $84 million quarterback set expectations he can lead the Vikings offense at a high level for years to come.
Cousins completed 20 of 36 passes in Minnesota’s 24-16 opening game win over the 49ers yesterday at U.S. Bank Stadium. He threw touchdown passes to Stefon Diggs and Kyle Rudolph in a game the Vikings seemed to control most of the time.
Showing a powerful arm, he even side-armed a completion while being hit. But he also threw the ball with finesse when needed. Not known for his running, he was mobile enough to avoid defenders yesterday. He was also tough enough to put his head down and dive for an attempted first down late in the game. No sliding to avoid tacklers and possible injury.
Although Cousins was ruled inches short of gaining a first down, he received the approval of Mike Zimmer after the game. The expected response might have been no way does the coach want his high-priced quarterback risking injury, but Zimmer told KFAN Radio listeners differently.
“I want him to get the first down,” Zimmer said. “That’s how our team plays. If he gets it there, we have a chance to run out the clock and win the football game.”
Cousins was a grinder both passing and running against the 49ers including 26 yards carrying the ball. For the game he threw for 244 yards and had an impressive 95.1 passer rating.
Now in his seventh NFL season, Cousins played his first six years with the Redskins before signing with Minnesota during the last offseason as a free agent. He is the Vikings’ seventh starting quarterback since the 2008 season. Meanwhile, Minnesota’s three rivals in the NFC North have collectively experienced a lot more stability at the most important position on the field.
Dating back to the 2008 season the Packers’ No. 1 guy each year has been Aaron Rodgers. Matthew Stafford has owned the starting job in Detroit since 2009. Even the lowly Bears have known continuity with Jay Cutler being the man from 2009-16. Since then Mitch Trubisky has the job.
Cousins’ predecessors are Gus Frerotte, 2008; Brett Favre, 2009-10; Christian Ponder, 2011-13; Ted Bridgewater, 2014-15; Sam Bradford, 2016 and Case Keenum, 2017. Favre was wonderful but couldn’t defeat old age. Frerotte and Ponder weren’t up to the opportunity. Bridgewater and Bradford were too fragile. Keenum, considered a journeyman until his impressive play last year, got snubbed by the front office during the offseason in favor of Cousins.
Despite the revolving door at quarterback the Vikings have managed to win four division titles since 2008. This is both an accomplishment and a gift from inept rivals. Rodgers, no worse than the NFL’s second best quarterback, is a load to compete against each season. The Lions and Bears, though, have been erratic and dysfunctional operations during the previous 10 years.
Since 2008 the Vikings have just two playoff wins and no conference titles. Cousins, with his $84 million three-year deal, will be expected to be a leader in changing that.
The teams he quarterbacked in Washington didn’t have big ambitions or results but he did create some impressive numbers. He had 4,093 passing yards and 27 touchdown passes with the Redskins last season. He is one of two quarterbacks (Philip Rivers is the other) with 4,000+ pass yards and 25+ touchdown passes in each of the past three seasons.
Yesterday Cousins led an offense that overall was okay. The Vikings didn’t have a lot of success running the ball, gaining 116 yards in the game. The highlight for the offensive unit beyond the debut of Cousins was the return of second-year running back Dalvin Cook who didn’t play most of last season after his ACL injury.
Cook had been used minimally in the preseason but didn’t show any “hangover” from his injury, surgery and rehabilitation. The Vikings used Cook as a receiver and runner on the first four plays of the game.
As compelling as the Cook and Cousins storylines were, as usual the defense was the foundation of the win. The 49ers tried to get the unit off balance with an imaginative approach that featured bootlegs, crossing patterns and receivers who might have been considered unlikely targets.
The 49ers also picked on rookie cornerback Mike Hughes. While they had some success, it was Hughes who came up with one of the game’s biggest plays when he ran a third quarter interception into the end zone for a 17-6 Minnesota lead.
Twice in the game San Francisco got inside the Vikings’ five-yard line. The best the 49ers could do was come up with one field goal, even though Minnesota was short-handed because of injuries in the secondary.
Cousins might have watched that defense yesterday and said a few “amen’s” of gratitude. It was a good beginning for the 30-year-old quarterback who no doubt would like nothing better than to build the kind of longevity that Rodgers, Stafford, and even Cutler, have earned in the NFC North.
P.J. Fleck has more than a boatload of critics and doubters but the captain of the last Golden Gophers Big Ten championship football team believes Minnesotans should get behind the second-year coach, including filling up TCF Bank Stadium on game days.
Tom Sakal, captain of the 1967 Gophers, is retired now from a career as an insurance executive. Anyone who knew Sakal back in the 1960s isn’t surprised he climbed the corporate ladder. The former All-Big Ten defensive back from Aliquippa, Pennsylvania has long been a leader, and a person with the courage to say and do difficult things including military service in the jungles of Vietnam.
Between 1960 and 1968 the Gophers won one national championship, two Big Ten titles and split two Rose Bowls. During their best stretch, from 1960-1962, Minnesota’s record was 22-6-1. Sakal’s 1967 team tied for the Big Ten title and had an overall record of 8-2. That 1967 bunch, he will tell you, could play with any team in the country.
Minnesota’s title drought of more than 50 years has bugged the hell out of Sakal for a long time. More often than not, Minnesota hasn’t even been good enough to play better than .500 football during a Big Ten season. Since 1990, for example, the Gophers have just five years when they won more conference games than they lost. The Gophers have played in one New Year’s Day bowl game during their drought.
A year ago Sakal was in town for a 50-year reunion of his 1967 championship team. He was invited to breakfast with Fleck, who has been met with criticism and indifference by a lot of Gophers fans and media. Sakal told Fleck about his frustrations with U football for half a century. Sakal talked about how tired he was of losing games over the years, sometimes by large and embarrassing margins.
“I said this has been ridiculous over the years. It’s a disgrace,” Sakal told Sports Headliners in a telephone interview this week.
Sakal said he “pulled no punches” during the breakfast conversation with Fleck. “I said you need to recruit some big-time players. You need to get these facilities built up and continue to increase (them) on this campus.”
Fleck has two recruiting classes in as Gophers head coach after being named to his position in January of 2017. He and his staff had only a couple of weeks to work on the first recruiting class but since then things have become more interesting. The Gophers, in comparison with other major college programs, have drawn higher national rankings from recruiting experts than has historically been true at Minnesota. Another distinction from the past is Minnesota is bringing in more players that other major programs wanted, sometimes even convincing a recruit to say no to a blue-chip team like Georgia.
Sakal knows the importance of gifted talent from his own experiences in college football. He was part of a much publicized 1964 recruiting class at Minnesota that brought players in from football strongholds like Pennsylvania and as seniors they formed much of the 1967 title team’s core.
Now Sakal observes what Fleck is doing in recruiting and expresses some caution but also optimism. “Everything looks good on paper,” he said.
Sakal thinks about Fleck’s personality and sees a coach who can resonate with the teenagers he is trying to recruit. “The guy runs about 10,000 RPMs a second. He just has a different personality, a different approach to things. Enthusiastic. Boy, I haven’t seen anybody like him in a long time. Those are the things that I kind of like about the guy.”
Fleck is the first to acknowledge that not everyone likes him. His Row the Boat mantra and outspoken promotion about a new culture for the program has been too rah-rah for many in Gopher Nation. More to the point for many fans is that Minnesota won just two Big Ten games in Fleck’s first season after a 5-4 conference record in 2016. The overall record slipped from 9-4 to 5-7.
Fleck’s critics include friends Sakal made at the U while playing for the Gophers. Many were admirers of the Jerry Kill-Tracy Claeys era at Minnesota but are far from on board with Fleck. Those friends say Fleck hasn’t given credit to the foundation and good things from that Kill-Claeys era including the remarkable turn around in academics among players. Kill, known for his straight talk and folksy demeanor, was particularly popular with almost all Gophers fans and he had the program on the rise until health issues drove him out of coaching.
Sakal has watched the negative reaction of his longtime friends to Fleck and he is critical of them. “It started from day one. What the hell is wrong with you guys? He (hadn’t) even stepped on campus yet. You gotta give a guy a chance.”
Sakal receives second-guessing for being open-minded that Fleck can become successful at Minnesota. “I always get blasted. There’s only one thing I know about—winning and losing. All the other side rhetoric shows that go on, I could give a crap about. They were making a big deal out of this Row the Boat, Ski-U-Mah (stuff). …All I want is to look at the (news)paper and see Minnesota 9-1, 10-0, playing in a big bowl game, going for the national championship. I could care less about this stuff.”
Sakal isn’t guaranteeing the Gophers will become a consistent winner under Fleck but he argues everyone should give the 37-year-old coach time and support before making judgments. “I personally think it will take four to five years (to establish the program),” Sakal said. “And I think it needs a thousand percent support by all Minnesotans. There is no reason, no reason whatsoever, that we can’t have a full stadium regardless of what our record is. They need to support the Gophers. …I think we can be a power again.”
The Gophers have 113 players on their roster and 60 of them—or 53.1 percent—are true freshmen or redshirt freshmen. Those are the highest numbers in the country among major college football programs.
Those figures indicate a Gophers breakthrough isn’t coming this year. Sakal agrees with others, including local and national media, that Minnesota’s win total will be around five games. But a conversation with Sakal includes hints he believes the program is going in the right direction.
Some day, Sakal said, the U may have to make Fleck among the best paid coaches in the land. “I think the Gophers are going to find out they’re going to pay for his success in the end. He’s not going to come cheap, that’s for sure.”
If so, Sakal will consider the cost a long overdue debt that was finally paid off.
Kirk Cousins isn’t known as a scrambling quarterback but he did impact some plays with his running when he was with the Redskins. This Sunday he makes his regular season debut with the Vikings and the blockers in front of him will be a reorganized offensive line that at times will be unreliable.
That line is the biggest concern about the team’s chances of making a Super Bowl run. Leaky play by that unit will shorten opportunities for Cousins to find open receivers and score points.
The Vikings rewarded Cousins in the offseason with a three-year, $84 million free agent contract. Ironically, he replaces a quarterback whose strength often is using his legs to make plays. Case Keenum, the journeyman who became a star last season and helped the team to a surprising 13-3 record, certainly doesn’t have a golden arm but he can escape the pocket and throw passes and make runs when all hell is breaking loose.
In today’s NFL of imaginative defensive schemes and athletic pass rushers, quarterbacks are often under duress. If defenders aren’t throwing quarterbacks to the ground, they are at least hurrying their throws. Keenum often avoided problems last season but the Vikings decided to move on apparently because his arm isn’t the strongest, and perhaps concern that he was a one-year wonder.
The Broncos organization, led by Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway, thought Keenum was worthy of a big free agent contract and the No. 1 assignment in Denver. The Vikings believe differently even if NFL sources might rate the collective skills and value of the two quarterbacks similarly.
Keenum is reportedly being paid $18 million this year by the Broncos. At $28 million per year Cousins will reportedly earn only about $5 million less than the Packers’ Aaron Rodgers, who most everyone ranks as the first or second best QB in the world.
The Packers are the Vikings’ biggest rival in winning the NFC North Division and Rodgers is sort of a Cousins-Keenum combo. Rodgers has a marvelous arm but also the ability to buy time in the pocket with his feet and legs. He sometimes takes off toward the boundary ready to make a last second throw or run.
Cousins is experienced and smart, and can zip the ball long and short. He can find second and third options to throw to if given the time. There will be times—maybe too many if the reshuffled line is inadequate—that he will need to escape the pocket. That’s when the comparisons to Keenum will come, fair or not.
At the end of the season, though, the most meaningful comparison will be whether the Vikings match or exceed last season’s success that included one win away from earning their way to the Super Bowl. Different styles can spell success in the high pressure world of the NFL.
Starting on Sunday, Vikings fans will see whether Cousins can “scramble” away from the shadow of Keenum.
The Vikings announced today that cornerback Jaylen Myrick, the former Gopher, has been signed to the practice squad. He was a seventh round draft choice of the Jaguars in 2017 and played five games with them last season before being released a few days ago.
Ticket King emailed customer contacts yesterday about tickets being available for Sunday’s game at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.
Warning to the defending NFC North Division champion Vikings: In 14 of the last 15 NFL seasons at least one team that finished last or tied for last in its division emerged the next season as division champions.
In the NFC North the potential team in 2018 is the Bears, who finished last in 2017 but have added star edge rusher Khalil Mack to join promising quarterback Mitch Trubisky.
It was a winning college football weekend several days ago for former Gophers assistant football coaches who worked under head coach Jerry Kill. Tracy Claeys, the new defensive coordinator at Washington State, helped the Cougars to an opening win over Wyoming, while Dan O’Brien, in his first game as head coach at St. Thomas Academy, directed a 50-7 victory over North St. Paul. Defensive coordinator Jay Sawvell is in his second season at Wake Forest and the Demon Deacons had a season opening win over Tulane. Matt Limegrover, an offensive assistant at Penn State, watched the nationally ranked Nittany Lions escape an upset against Appalachian State.
The Fresno State team that plays the Gophers at TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday night is coming off a 10 win season in 2017 and an opening 79-13 victory over Idaho last Saturday. The Bulldogs are one of the favorites to win the Mountain West Conference championship, and possibly be invited to a New Year’s Day bowl game.
Many Gophers football players sent individual notes of encouragement this summer to WCCO TV sportscaster Mark Rosen and his wife Denise who has been dealing with cancer.
After 15 seasons—separate stints of 11 and 4 years—Star Tribune Timberwolves beat writer Jerry Zgoda has decided not to continue with the assignment, opting instead for general assignments within the sports department.
Chris Hine will be the new Timberwolves beat writer.
The Minnesota United has a waiting list for season tickets as the club prepares to move into its new Allianz Field facility in 2019 after playing two MLS seasons at TCF Bank Stadium on the University of Minnesota campus. Allianz capacity will be 20,000 including standing room for 600 fans.
The United’s last regular season game at the Gophers’ football stadium will be October 22. TCF Bank Stadium has a capacity of over 50,000 and the United is promoting setting a new single match attendance record for Minnesota pro soccer. The record was established over 40 years ago at Met Stadium for a Kicks game with an announced attendance of 49,572. See the promotion #50KToMidway.
Gophers volleyball coach Hugh McCutcheon on what it’s like to have his undefeated team ranked No. 1 in the country this week: “It’s very similar to being No. 3. …”
McCutcheon remains hopeful boys’ volleyball in the state will eventually evolve from a club sport to being sanctioned by the Minnesota State High School League. Over 40 high school teams with about 400 players played against one another last spring.