As the season kicked off, this quarterback’s popularity had reached unprecedented heights. He had become a fixture in numerous commercials and occupied a prominent place in the public consciousness. He had solidified his role as the franchise’s poster boy and was due for a fresh contract.
All eyes were fixated on what his team’s decision would be, but they opted to let the season unfold before committing to a new deal.
You might think I’m talking about Kirk Cousins and the Minnesota Vikings heading into this season. However, this narrative takes us back two years and revolves around Cousins’ Week 1 adversary, Baker Mayfield.
Following the 2020 season, Mayfield, a former No. 1 draft pick, had Cleveland firmly under his spell. He had just led the Browns to their first playoff triumph since the days of Vinny Testaverde. Mayfield thrived under the guidance of first-year head coach Kevin Stefanski.
All the pieces were in place for Mayfield to have an enduring tenure in Cleveland. His commercials had become Sunday afternoon staples, and his “dangerous” persona endeared him to fans as much as it puzzled them. However, as his contract extension came due, the Browns opted to wait and see if he could replicate his success.
Reflecting on the 2021 season, it’s clear where things went awry. Mayfield sustained a shoulder injury early in the season. Rather than taking a break, he soldiered on in an attempt to support the team and secure his new contract. Odell Beckham Jr. (and his father) grew frustrated with Mayfield’s failure to connect with him downfield, and rumors of conflicts with the coaching staff began circulating.
The Browns stumbled to an 8-9 record, and an offseason report indicated they were seeking a more mature presence in the locker room. Eventually, Deshaun Watson joined Cleveland, and a few months later, Mayfield was traded to the Carolina Panthers.
This trade set off a whirlwind in Mayfield’s career, transforming him into a journeyman quarterback. Stops in Carolina, Los Angeles, and now Tampa Bay have filled his past year with new cities, systems, and teammates—numerous variables beyond Mayfield’s control.
When asked about fellow No. 1 overall pick Bryce Young recently, Mayfield drew from his experiences and pointed to the one crucial factor that might have kept him in Cleveland.
“When it boils down to it, it’s all about wins and losses, but regrettably, you have to overcome numerous obstacles,” Mayfield stated. “There’s a lot happening simultaneously, so how can you focus solely on winning and losing?”
So, what does Mayfield’s journey have to do with Cousins’ situation? Actually, quite a bit.
Cousins has achieved significant success in his career, especially with the Vikings. Over five seasons in Minnesota, Cousins has eclipsed 4,000 passing yards four times and recorded 30 touchdowns on three occasions. With some statistical analysis, you can even draw parallels between Cousins and legendary quarterbacks like Dan Marino, Peyton Manning, and John Elway.
Cousins’ success reached new heights last season when he orchestrated eight fourth-quarter comebacks and embraced his “nerdy” persona. “Kirko Chainz” became a hit with both teammates and fans, and the Vikings secured their first 13-win season and division title since 2017.
“I think Kirk is an exceptional QB,” Mayfield remarked this week. “He’s had a long career, so I don’t consider him to be undervalued. That might be the public perception, but I believe he’s an outstanding QB who distributes the ball effectively to his playmakers, leads the offense, and is an exemplary leader and person. His reputation resonates throughout the league.”
Despite the Vikings falling short in the playoffs Wild Card round, Cousins’ popularity continued to soar during the offseason. His rendition of serenading Kelly Clarkson at the NFL Honors has garnered 924,000 views on YouTube. Additionally, his stock rose further when he appeared in the Netflix docuseries “Quarterback.”
Similar to Mayfield a few years ago, there was a case for awarding Cousins a lucrative contract extension. However, the Vikings held off, keeping their options open.
Reviewing Cousins’ career trajectory, it’s somewhat puzzling why the Vikings didn’t grant him the typical one-year, secure extension they had in the past. This decision reflects the belief that Cousins must surmount the obstacles around him to secure victories, much like Mayfield.
Since his 2012 draft selection, Cousins has navigated more hurdles in his career than a parkour expert. He started as a fourth-round pick by the Washington Commanders, a team that had chosen Robert Griffin III as the second overall pick in the same draft. Even after securing a starting position, he still faced skepticism, which led to his famous “You Like That?” catchphrase. Yet, it wasn’t enough to secure a long-term commitment from the Commanders.
Cousins joined a roster that had reached the NFC Championship Game in 2017, but more challenges awaited. John DeFilippo clashed with head coach Mike Zimmer, and the Vikings parted ways with DeFilippo midseason. The offensive line struggled, and the defense aged. Multiple offensive coordinators came and went, and his relationship with Zimmer appeared to be on the brink of disaster.
Hiring Kevin O’Connell provided some relief for Cousins, but the obstacles persisted. He had to adapt to another offensive scheme, contend with a rib injury, and help the Vikings recover from early setbacks. He even triumphed in a prime-time game. However, the ultimate challenge—a fourth-and-eight situation against the New York Giants—proved insurmountable.
Without a contract extension, Cousins now finds himself in a position similar to Mayfield’s two years ago. If Cousins can guide the Vikings to a level of success they haven’t experienced since 1987, there’s a strong likelihood that the team will invest in their quarterback again. However, if he falls short, Cousins may be seeking a new team this year.
But don’t just take my word for it; ask Cousins himself, who acknowledged this when speaking to reporters this week.
“If we win football games, everything else will take care of itself,” Cousins asserted. “Let’s focus on what we need to do to win, and there won’t be much else to think about or be concerned with if we’re winning football games.”
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