Watching Cousins: Here’s What Hurts
I have known a countless number of athletes through the years, mostly as a sportswriter. I have been in this business long enough to remember when we wrote stories on typewriters and sometimes transmitted them back to the newspaper office by telephone. Seldom do I meet a “hero” who makes a lasting impression with his or her persona.
This isn’t breaking news but there are a lot of dubious characters in professional sports. Many of them I wouldn’t choose to have as neighbors. A small number I don’t want in my county.
But Kirk Cousins is welcome to bunk at our house. Any time.
Cousins is paid $84 million to play quarterback for the Vikings. In 20 career games with the team it’s debatable whether he has been worth half that amount of money. As a result of his play and that of the team, he has been criticized and cursed. He’s been berated at office water coolers and via social media.
The Vikings, who were 13-3 without Cousins in 2017, finished 8-7-1 and missed the playoffs with him quarterbacking last season. With two touchdown passes, one interception and a subpar passer rating of 88.6 this year, the call to replace him as the team’s starter will be deafening if the 2-2 Vikings lose to the 2-2 Giants today in New Jersey.
During Cousins’ brief time in Minneapolis I have winced when he has been too slow in his progressions, or threw foolish passes. Yes, he compiled some great stats last season like completing a franchise record 425 passes. His 70.1% completion rate was the second highest in the league and second best in Vikings history. He was the first NFL quarterback to have over 4,000 passing yards, 30 touchdown passes and at least a 70.0% completion rate and 10 or fewer interceptions.
Give credit where deserved, but so far Cousins hasn’t been a winning quarterback in Minneapolis, nor with his former employer, the Washington Redskins where he was 4-19 against teams with winning records. Quarterbacks can compile all kinds of statistics but the one that matters most is winning games. Football is a team effort and many factors go into whether a team triumphs or not besides the quarterback’s performance, but no position is more important.
I have been around Cousins in the Vikings’ locker room. I heard him speak last month to the Twin Cities Dunkers group. I have listened to his speeches on Youtube and read about the charitable foundation he and his wife Julie started to benefit many worthwhile causes.
Conclusion? The man with one of pro football’s richest contracts has the kind of values and behavior that are priceless. The 31-year-old son of a preacher and a flight attendant is wise beyond his years. He is a Sunday and everyday hero even if the box score sometimes tells a different story.
And that’s what is difficult, even painful, about following Cousins these days. His character exemplifies the best in us and I want him to succeed. Yet his performance on the field, and that of the Vikings, could fail badly, if not today against the mediocre Giants, then soon.
Truth is Cousins’ football skills aren’t good enough to carry a team like a Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers or Patrick Mahomes. Also, the offensive line is suspect, and now the locker room must contend with disgruntled wide receiver Stefon Diggs who chose to skip practice last week.
Head coach Mike Zimmer said Diggs has been punished and is noncommittal about whether the star wide receiver with a $72 million contract will play against the Giants. The guess is Diggs isn’t happy about not being targeted for more passes in the offense.
Maybe Diggs should look up the speech Cousins gave at the 2011 Big Ten Conference football luncheon in Chicago. Going into his senior season at Michigan State, Cousins was asked to speak on behalf of all the players in the conference.
He told the audience being on a team was a privilege and players have a responsibility to do their best for teammates, coaches, family and fans. “Privilege should never lead to (a sense of) entitlement,” the three-time Michigan State captain said.
Don’t get the idea, though, that Cousins is preachy, or would scold Diggs. He might put his arm around his teammate and say, “Glad to have you back. Let’s get a win today.”
Cousins isn’t a judgmental guy in public. He’s more likely to apologize to a teammate or a janitor at the team’s practice facility than to criticize them. “He’s just an awesome dude. Just the way he treats people, everybody in the building…he treats with total respect,” said Sean Mannion, who is the team’s backup quarterback.
Mannion was asked last week how he thinks Cousins is handling a rough stretch that includes criticism of the starting quarterack’s work in NFC North Division losses to the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers. Mannion answered that Cousins remains dedicated to doing his best, preparing in every way he can to help the team. “The way he goes about his business, and his approach day in and day out is phenomenal,” Mannion said.
Focus might not be possible if Cousins listened to his critics including on social media. “Well, I am pretty naïve to it,” Cousins. “You know ignorance is bliss. The only time I am aware of it is when I have friends or family text me. The text they send me, you’d think somebody died. ‘Hey, man, I am thinking of you.’
“You know it’s like, boy, it must not be good out there. …But I honestly don’t see it, and so I think that helps…and you can just put your head down and go to work.”
At times this season critics claim Cousins has looked rattled on the field. Star running back Dalvin Cook doesn’t see a lack of confidence in Cousins.
“I want to get better with him,” Cook said. “I want to win football games with him. That’s my quarterback.”
Zimmer addressed the confidence question, too. “I don’t see that. I just think he needs to go play, just play the game. That’s usually what I tell him, just go play the game. Don’t worry about consequences, do what you do.”
Maybe that’s hard for Cousins—to just go play the game. He thinks about things, contemplates them. He cares deeply about who he is on and off the field. He is tuned into life and what others are experiencing. He wants to over deliver, not under deliver. With all his fame as a rich NFL quarterback, he could choose to flaunt his vanity but instead he has acted on his core values and convictions.
Earlier this year Michigan State honored Cousins with an honorary degree of Doctor of Humanities. He also gave the spring commencement address at his alma mater. In that speech he talked about how others helped him including a coach who stressed the importance of being a “great decision maker.”
Football hasn’t always come easy to Cousins who helped MSU to the 2010 Big Ten co-championship. He had only two Division I scholarship offers until MSU offered him the chance to play in the Big Ten. He made the right decision in choosing the Spartans even if at times his confidence sagged while in college.
Cousins published a book in 2013, Game Changer: Faith, Football & Finding Your Way. He frequently speaks at churches delivering inspirational messages. He is a supporter of Urban Homeworks, a nonprofit that builds affordable housing in urban areas. He and wife Julie founded the Julie and Kirk Cousins Foundation “to expand our giving opportunities and to inspire generosity in others,” according to their website.
On the website Cousin writes: “Julie and I are committed to giving 15 percent of our gross income on an annual basis and are challenged to continue increasing our giving percentage in subsequent years.” The foundation targets support for multiple causes including famine relief, justice, human rights, community development and “Bible translation.”
At the MSU commencement address the introduction of Cousins referenced what the Chicago area native might do with his life besides football. There was a reference to his considering medicine, and coaching in the past. Then a couple weeks ago I was talking to a sports industry friend about Cousins and a possible post-football career. He suggested Cousins could be the first ever commissioner of college football, a position that has been in the talking stages for awhile.
Me? I say, Kirk, go into politics. Lord knows this country needs leadership reflective of the millions of Americans who live their lives in exemplary ways.