Kirk Cousins has never been an elite quarterback. No one should claim he ever was, regardless of the number on his contract. While he has put up great numbers for much of this year and has been the catalyst of some of the best offensive performances in recent Vikings memory, Cousins has been and always will be flawed.
Some will say he is worse than flawed. Some will say he is overrated, even bad. Fans can refute it and point to some of his throws in Green Bay or lucrative stats, but the fact is that when Cousins has the most eyes, he has struggled. To the tune of 4-12 in primetime games over his career, to be exact. For whatever reason, Cousins is a mediocre quarterback when lights shine bright.
To give him credit, saying Cousins has been a complete failure in every primetime game this year is not totally fair. Cousins went toe-to-toe with Jared Goff in week four, a game in which Goff threw five touchdowns and had a perfect passer rating. But the Vikings lost that game and Cousins fumbled on the potential tying drive in the final minutes.
Week nine against New Orleans had similar circumstances. Cousins played reasonably well, almost tripling Drew Brees‘ yardage totals. But key mistakes by his star receivers swung the game completely in the Saints’ favor and the offense never recovered.
And then there was last night. Again, there was blame to go around. Play-calling did the quarterback no favors as Khalil Mack was left in one-on-one matchups far too often. The quick passing game that has done so well for the Vikings was nowhere to be found in the first three quarters. Running the ball was a nonstarter. It was not until the fourth that John DeFilippo got the quick-hitting, no huddle offense going. By that time it was too late.
The offensive line was off, as well. While Cousins took only two sacks, the pocket failed to hold all night. Mack and Akiem Hicks got to know Cousins really well as they were in the backfield on a high percentage of passing downs.
That said, the blame for the poor offensive performance will fall on the $84 million quarterback, and rightly so. Cousins had some bad misreads and miscommunications, resulting in comically routine interceptions. He had plenty of off-target throws, most notably a deep ball to a wide open Stefon Diggs. His inability to slide the pocket effectively contrasted starkly with the quarterback on the other side, Mitchell Trubisky, who ran roughshod over the Vikings’ defense.
Simply put, for all the money Cousins is earning to get Minnesota over the hump, there was nothing in Chicago to instill confidence he will ultimately accomplish that.
The Vikings are nowhere near done with their primetime schedule. They host the Packers this Sunday night. They travel to Seattle for Monday Night Football in three weeks. And of course, every postseason game will have a national audience. With four losses already in the can and only six games remaining, there is no room for Cousins to be average. He has played like a top-10 quarterback for spurts in 2018, but the moment has been too big for him far more often than one would expect, given the paycheck and the production behind the relatively closed doors of afternoon broadcasts.
Make no mistake: the Vikings will only go as far as Cousins takes them. Remember how talented the team was a season ago? They fell short largely because their backup quarterback, who had been having a career year, came back to earth. Diggs and Thielen can be dominant, the defense can return to elite status. But unless Cousins improves in big games, particularly in the turnover department, Minnesota is going to be disappointed yet again.
–Sam Smith is the Managing Editor for Full Press Coverage Vikings and Deputy Editor for Full Press NFL. Like and Follow @samc_smith.