Jon Nowacki column: Vikings QB Cousins proves his mettle
MINNEAPOLIS — There was grumbling among the purple faithful this preseason that Minnesota Vikings receiver Adam Thielen might not enjoy the same chemistry with new quarterback Kirk Cousins that he enjoyed with Case Keenum in 2017 and Sam Bradford in 2016.
I remind fans of the 2008 Lions, who went 4-0 in the preseason only to become the first NFL team to go 0-16 in the regular season. It's the PRESEASON. Late-season Browns games (or Twins games) have more meaning.
Cousins hooked up with Thielen for a game-high six receptions for 102 yards in leading the Vikings to a season-opening 24-16 victory over the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday before 66,673 at U.S. Bank Stadium. In addition, Minnesota's big free-agent acquisition showed leadership and grit.
"The biggest thing about Kirk is he's a winner," Thielen said. "He wants to win and is going to do whatever it takes to win a football game. He's very critical of himself, but we as receivers have a lot of faith and trust in him to find us when we get open, and really, that's all you can ask for as a receiver."
Cousins finished 20-for-36 passing for 244 yards, with two touchdowns, no interceptions and a 95.1 passer rating.
Cousins' counterpart, 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, didn't fare as well, going 15-for-26 for 261 yards, one touchdown, three interceptions and a passer rating somewhere in the neighborhood of Spergon Wynn.
Both Cousins and Garoppolo signed megadeals that pay them in the range of $28 million per season. Keenum, meanwhile, is getting $18 million per season from the Denver Broncos. Bradford, as limited as he is on the field, signed a $20-million-a-year deal in Arizona.
That's silly money, of course, but consider this. The Broncos paid Keenum based off a career year, and the 49ers paid Garoppolo based just off five starts, albeit all wins.
The Vikings, meanwhile, are paying Cousins for an average year, as evidenced by his topping 4,000 passing yards and 25 touchdown passes in each of the past three seasons. Of the three quarterbacks, he was certainly the safest bet, and if he does anything close to that, with this defense, the Vikings will again be playing games in January, when it matters.
"Kirk's the man," Vikings fullback and Duluth native C.J. Ham said. "He was poised in every critical situation we had. He's 100 percent confident in everybody. He doesn't care who's out there, and he's definitely that type of a guy you want in the huddle."
Cousins is that type. He'd try to beat you at badminton or lawn darts. He's that guy. While not as mobile as Keenum, Cousins was certainly more mobile than Bradford, aka the Human Statue, and more mobile than some may have thought.
Late in the game, Cousins scrambled and dove headfirst going for a first down, taking a hard shot from a linebacker. While Cousins came up just short, the Vikings were able to draw the 49ers offsides on the next play, allowing them to burn valuable clock.
"Kirk is a competitor," Ham said. "That's his thing. Whatever it takes to be successful, he's willing to do. I see it in practice every single day. He competes at everything he does."
To his credit, Cousins kept talking about the plays that got away. He had a few bad throws and the receivers dropped some balls but the miscues were rather atypical. This was, after all, the opener.
"There were plays we left on the field," Cousins said. "It's NFL football. I think that if you're not really accurate and you don't have that confidence to let it rip, you're going to be holding the ball and getting sacked, or you're going to be spraying it everywhere. I was disappointed with a couple that weren't accurate enough."
Of all Cousins' throws, not one was even close to as bad as the tailor-made pick-six that Garoppolo delivered on a silver platter to rookie cornerback Mike Hughes in the third quarter, allowing Minnesota to assume control with a 17-3 lead. If Garoppolo keeps doing that, I could think of better ways for the 49ers to spend all that money.
Packers fans, including a co-worker, have made the comparison of Cousins to former Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler, but the comparison isn't fair, not on the field and certainly not off it. Cousins and Cutler have similar records in the .500 range, but Cousins played for a Washington team that hasn't ranked in the top half of the NFL in points allowed in a decade. And Cutler only had one 4,000-yard season, in 2008 when he was with the Broncos.
And off the field?
Don't get me started.
Cousins is the son of a pastor. He comes across as well grounded and humble, a stark contrast to the cocky and aloof Cutler.
After ending his news conference, Cousins signed the jersey of a young fan in attendance, but right before doing that, he said something else very telling of what kind of person he is, and Cutler isn't.
"Thanks guys," Cousins said to the media, "appreciate you."
I can't say I've seen every Jay Cutler news conference, but I'd bet my house the former Bears quarterback has never said that. And if he did, he was lying.
Jon Nowacki covers sports for the News Tribune. He can be reached at email@example.com or (218) 723-5305.