EAGAN, Minn. — Back in March, during the Minnesota Vikings’ courtship of Kirk Cousins, the quarterback allowed himself a rare moment of vulnerability with one of his prospective teammates, tight end Kyle Rudolph.
In six seasons with the Washington Redskins — the last three as a highly productive starter — Cousins always maintained a strong front. He kept his head down and worked in the shadows. When in the spotlight, poise, professionalism and a positive demeanor were his calling cards.
But during his talk with Rudolph, while considering Minnesota’s monumental contract offer, Cousins uncharacteristically let his guard down.
“He told me, ‘You guys made it to the NFC championship last year! I don’t want to mess that up,’ ” Rudolph recalled to USA TODAY Sports on Tuesday, the first day of the Vikings’ mandatory minicamp.
“I explained to him, ‘Yeah, but we didn’t achieve our ultimate goal. We want to win championships, and you’re going to be a big part of that.’ “
Minnesota officials agreed: Cousins would not disrupt the flow of a team that went 13-3 in 2017 (while relying on journeyman quarterback Case Keenum) before falling one victory shy of the Super Bowl. Vikings brass believed Cousins, who’s eclipsed 4,000 yards each of the past three seasons and is known for his accuracy and quick release, would elevate the franchise to championship level. Washington’s 26-30-1 regular season record under Cousins and 0-1 postseason mark mattered not — the red-carpet welcome and the three-year, fully-guaranteed, $84 million contract serving as evidence.
Excitement is now building within the organization and across the Twin Cities, where Cousins’s No. 8 jersey hangs everywhere from sporting goods stores and malls to airport gift shops.
Pressure hangs in the air as well, but good luck getting Cousins to divulge the magnitude of that weight.
“I feel like pressure has been thrown out there for so long, that I just laugh,” Cousins told USA TODAY Sports with a wide smile as he leaned back in an office chair after Tuesday’s practice. “This is the NFL. The 90th guy on the team is under pressure because he knows he could get cut. Everybody is under pressure, but it’s just different.
“I’ve felt pressure, every day, all six, seven years in the NFL. This year is no different. I’ve just gotten to the point where it’s — that’s life. So, I don’t think of pressure now. I just go play.”
Judging by Cousins’ body language (relaxed yet purposeful) as he navigated the practice field, it certainly looked like the former fourth-round pick has mastered dealing with expectations — at this time of year anyway.
Now he finds himself in a situation completely foreign to his time in Washington. Despite overtaking one-time Redskins golden boy Robert Griffin III in 2015 and leading the team to a division title while posting prolific passing statistics, Cousins never enjoyed a full embrace from his original squad. The front office questioned his worth and difference-making ability. Some teammates rallied behind Cousins, yet others always peered at him with a critical and wary eye.
The ultra-aware Cousins always understood the situation. Sure, owner Dan Snyder and team president Bruce Allen beamed and slapped him on the back when he led Washington to the playoffs. But lowball offers, lack of outward appreciation (like that frequently showered upon Griffin) and blame Cousins received for team shortcomings — as opposed to the excuses once made for RG3 — always signaled to him that the Redskins never were (nor ever would be) all-in.
The Vikings definitely are. But the good vibes of spring last for only so long.
“It’s obviously great to be in a position where they believe in you and want you. But at the same time, I can say a lot of positive things about our time here, but it’s been two months, and I haven’t played a game yet,” Cousins admitted. “We’ve got to win football games.
“Whether you get a pat on the back or told how great you are or not, you’ve got to win, because the rest doesn’t last for very long. It doesn’t mean a lot to me in April or May. I say let’s win in the fall.”
That requires a firm foundation. So, Cousins has spent these months and weeks getting to know his teammates and an offense now directed by new coordinator John DeFilippo.
In April, Cousins hosted receivers Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen in Atlanta, where he spends his offseason, for throwing sessions, golf and to watch the NCAA basketball championship. Cousins and Rudolph have attended playoff hockey games, concerts and also hit the links. Cousins takes his offensive linemen to dinner. Earlier this month, he got on the grill at the extended-stay hotel that had housed him and numerous teammates and cooked for them on his last day there before moving into his new home.
And on the field, Cousins has brought an intensity that has fueled teammates.
“He’s a chill guy, but he’s a teamer. He’s for his team,” Pro Bowl cornerback Xavier Rhodes told USA TODAY Sports. “He’s got no problem sitting down and talking to everybody and anybody. And on the field, he plays us just like he did before he came here. He’s extremely accurate. Puts the ball where it needs to be. No receivers open, he’s running, diving into the end zone, jumping up celebrating. He makes every practice game-like.”
Cousins “fits in effortlessly,” and “the locker room gravitates to him,” as Rudolph described it, because he hasn’t tried to force his way into a leading role.
“It’s just self-awareness,” the quarterback explains. “Just being aware enough to know where you fit but also understand that they know how to win and have won for several years now, and I don’t have to speak my mind or lead unnecessarily because they already have a good group doing that. Coach Zimmer has done a very good job of leading, so I look to him first and foremost. I’m just excited to contribute what I can and do my part.”
That entails distributing the ball to a talented cast led by Rudolph, Diggs, Thielen and running back Dalvin Cook while capitalizing on the support provided by last season’s top-ranked defense.
“It’s very freeing for me,” Cousins continued, “because, like I said, I just have to do my part instead of thinking I have to do more than that.”
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