AP Photo/Matt Slocum
In the biggest moments, Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins is small. He’s an anchor when the franchise searches for its Aquaman.
The 34-year-old signalman personifies mediocrity in a world where elite quarterback play is more essential than ever to competing at the highest level. The game is built around superheroes posing as professional athletes. Josh Allen, Patrick Mahomes, Justin Hebert and Lamar Jackson bring Superman-like qualities to the position.
Cousins doesn’t even have exceptional natural arm talent to make up for his lack of athleticism or the precision to continually beat defenses with accurate throws based on pre- and post-snapshot readings. It lacks a single elite trait.
Still, the Vikings organization defiantly pays him massive guaranteed contracts to keep him as an offensive leader. It’s an inexplicable approach that keeps the entire organization trapped in the Phantom Zone, that is, an inescapable prison built of its own making.
The juxtaposition of the team’s performance over the first two weeks of play perfectly encapsulates the position of the quarterback and his team in the NFL hierarchy.
In Monday’s 24-10 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field, Cousins threw three interceptions and averaged less than 5.0 yards per attempt. All three turnovers came in the second half and were backbreakers.
To be fair, the first interception was forgivable. Justin Jefferson didn’t work on Darius Slay’s face and the cornerback undermined the pass at the 1-yard line. Also, defensive tackle Javon Hargrave hit the quarterback as he attempted his throw, which took something away from the pass.
The next two were much more problematic.
The cousins looked to Adam Thielen to convert a 3rd-and-7 situation. The veteran flagman did not recognize the dropper below. Instead, Avonte Maddox backtracked and did a huge overhead hold for turnover.
After Jalen Hurts threw an interception, the Vikings had a chance to cut the lead midway through the fourth quarter. Instead, Cousins saw an unblocked edge defender, faded back and to his left, and threw a lollipop into the end zone for Slay to latch onto.
It’s safe to say Cousins was pressing in a contest Minnesota never had. The Vikings were trailing by at least two touchdowns from the two-minute first-half warning all the way through the third and fourth frames.
“I thought Kirk had a fight tonight,” said head coach Kevin O’Connell told reporters. “Put it in hard places. I put this one 100% on me.”
Maybe Cousins felt he needed to make a few plays. This is where the problem lies. He doesn’t have the skills to constantly make off-platform games or create outside of the structure.
As The Athletic’s Arif Hasan previously noted, Cousins’ EPA (expected points per attempt) when trailing with 10 minutes or less remaining and in 3rd and long-term situations during of the previous seven years ranked 30th and 25th respectively. He’s not the guy in high leverage situations that many of his contemporaries are.
Cousins’ real strength is orchestrating the offense as it is constructed. When he’s in rhythm and comfortable, he can be very effective. Eight days earlier, the Vikings looked like a completely different attack.
Minnesota beat rival Green Bay Packers by 16 points. During the contest, Cousins completed 71.9% of his passes for 277 yards and two scores. But the Packers did something unexpected and made life easier for their opponents. They didn’t regularly face Jaire Alexander with Justin Jefferson, and the catcher had a good time. Jefferson caught nine passes for 184 yards against heavyweight Green Bay stares.
The cousins told reporters afterwards:
“I would be a little surprised, yes. Every time he has a game of this magnitude, not because of him, but you expect him to get a little carried away, and he sometimes will. Our coaches try to find ways to always keep him involved, and we were able to do that today. So that’s going to be kind of a conversation that we had a lot last season, and we’ll have this season every week about how he defends.
Jefferson rises to superstar status. But he has to excel against the corners of the top cover. Slay caught more direct coverage interceptions from Jefferson than the corner allowed receptions, per NFL Next Generation Stats.
Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images
“He’s one of the best in the world,” Slay told ESPN’s Lisa Salters (h/t Kimberly Martin), “but I’m also one of the best in the world.”
Of course, not everything falls on Cousins. Jefferson can play better. Several drops occurred throughout the contest, particularly a heartbreaking bobble by tight end Irv Smith Jr. that should have turned into a 63-yard touchdown.
The margin of error for Minnesota is too small. He can’t make those mistakes. The Vikings’ best players have to show up and show themselves every week because they don’t have a quarterback who can lift inferior players or overcome adversity when all around him isn’t perfect.
“We have to play better and we will play better”, Cousins declared.
That’s what a quarterback should say when speaking to the media. But the team’s problems with their current setup revolve around what Cousins can actually do.
There are more than enough talents on the roster for the Vikings to compete in each week. Jefferson will rebound after being largely shut down. Thielen, 32, may still be a factor. Dalvin Cook won’t be held to 17 rushing yards regularly. The defense led by coordinator Ed Donatell will learn by playing a mostly two-high security look Monday against a solid ground game while making a major mental mistake to return a 53-yard touchdown bomb.
The Vikings remain in transition. New general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and O’Connell wanted Cousins back to provide some stability. His signing was also rooted in fear of below average quarterback play. The 11-year veteran provides a distinct baseline. The problem is its overlap between the ceiling and the floor. As such, Minnesota remains in limbo thanks to average quarterback play.
Cousins is what it is, and that’s not enough. The franchise, meanwhile, will tread water until it finally goes another direction at the most important position in the game.
Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @brentsobleski.