In an age where athletes spend an exorbitant amount of time and money spiffing their image to fit a carefully thought-out narrative, Kirk Cousins came across his persona organically.
In Washington, he earned the label of an underdog by spending three years being largely unappreciated by his own bumbling franchise.
But the moment Cousins put ink to paper on an $84 million deal with a team that went 13-3, he signed away part dark horse image. He’s no longer operating the Little Engine That Could. He’s taking over a powerful locomotive and getting paid more than any other conductor in the world.
When you run through recent quarterback history – say the last 20 years – it’s pretty hard to find a comparable player and situation to Cousins. Usually if a quarterback throws for 4,000 yards year after year, the team locks them into a long-term deal and then lives and dies with whatever comes next. Or maybe they trade that QB, but that’s rare. Franchise quarterbacks simply don’t hit the market at age 29.
Former Seattle Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck isn’t a perfectly comparable QB, but he has more in common with Cousins than most and understands the switch from unknown backup to starter with expectations. When Hasselbeck was drafted, he was a million miles from being the team’s franchise guy.
“I was drafted to the Green Bay Packers and Brett Favre was coming off his third consecutive MVP, his second consecutive Super Bowl and he was the guy and I was just fortunate to get to be in the room,” Hasselbeck, a current analyst for ESPN, told Mackey and Judd. “Andy Reid was my quarterbacks coach at the time and he said, ‘listen, I’m going to coach Brett Favre. You and the other quarterbacks…you guys just get to be in the room.’ That was the mindset.”
The Packers traded Hasselbeck to Seattle in 2001, where he immediately became the starter. If Twitter and Facebook had been around then, debates would have raged over whether he was a true franchise quarterback. In Hasselbeck’s first four seasons, he went 27-25 with an 83.7 rating (which was admirable, but not special for the era).
It wasn’t until his fourth year in the Pacific Northwest that the 1998 sixth-rounder solidified himself as Seattle’s franchise QB. He went 13-3, threw 24 touchdowns with only nine interceptions, managed a 98.2 rating and led the Seahawks to the Super Bowl.
Hasselbeck can certainly relate to Cousins, who was repeatedly questioned during his stint in D.C.
“To take over as the starter on that same team [as Griffin], you’re really going to have to win people over in the building,” Hasselbeck said. ” In my case, I got traded to Seattle and it was like now all the sudden you’re going to go be the franchise quarterback in Seattle, you’ve never played except in the preseason and you’re going to have to go win those people over and it’s a little bit tough. They’re looking at you like, who are you? What have you ever done?”
When the new Vikings QB was trying to find his way in Washington, he sought out Hasselbeck for advice on leadership.
“It’s like, ‘hey man, you just worry about football,’” Hasselbeck told Cousins. “Bill Walsh had a great coaching point: Just do things right all of the time and the score will take care of itself. I think as a quarterback, there’s so much that goes into your job, you really just focus on what you can control.”
Hasselbeck is a Cousins fan. He likes that Cousins is inquisitive and prepared. They are kindred spirits that way. And as a guy who didn’t always have the limelight or unequivocal belief from his teams, fans, pundits, Hasselback loves — and relates to — the underdog story.
“I think in Washington they didn’t really believe in him, they said, ‘go prove it, it’s going to be a one-year deal, go prove it’ and then he proves it,” Hasselbeck said. “The next year, ‘go prove it,’ and he proves it again. It’s the same thing over and over again.”
Now the “go prove it” is different. Cousins’ tenure in Minnesota will be defined by the figure $84 million and the words “Super Bowl.”
“All I can do is do what is right in front of me, I can’t win the Super Bowl today,” Cousins said in his opening presser.
That type of pressure bothers some, but it doesn’t get to everyone.
Following a breakout season in 2016 that resulted in a contract extension worth $19 million, Vikings wide receiver Adam Thielen caught 91 passes, putting his 2017 season within the top 10 in franchise history.
“I honestly don’t even think about it,” Thielen said on the Purple Podcast in April. “I take things the same way I have in the past, taking it one day at a time, trying to become a better athlete, a better football player every single day. And that even includes days that I’m not working out…trying to do things the same way I’ve always done it. Not really caring what people think of me and just trying to improve.”
Thielen said he’s simply not a reflective person. Eyes on the prize. The Vikings’ undrafted-to-Pro Bowl receiver can out-underdog your favorite underdog all day long. It shouldn’t surprise you that he admires Cousins’ mentality.
“I’ve always had a lot of respect for him and love the way he plays the game with his passion, it’s very similar to the way I play the game,” Thielen said.
But the amount of noise that Cousins is going to have in the background is nowhere close to his uncoverable receiver. According to Odds Shark, only the Patriots and Eagles have better odds to reach The Big Game. It’s also harder to play underdog when you are literally a favorite.
A D.C. tale
Cousins’ dark horse tale began in 2012 when he was selected in the fourth round despite Washington trading up earlier in the draft to pick Robert Griffin III second overall.
The former Michigan State QB quickly turned into an afterthought for D.C. football fans when Griffin combined for over 4,000 yards, scored 27 touchdowns and posted a 102.4 rating in Year 1, but Cousins was on the minds of the team’s coaching staff as early as his rookie year.
“There was kind of a divisive handling of the quarterback where Mike and Kyle Shanahan really liked Cousins and Dan Snyder and Bruce Allen really liked Robert Griffin, who was in the midst of a really terrific rookie season in 2012,” sports talk host Grant Paulsen of 106.7 The Fan in D.C. said.
When Griffin suffered a knee injury and struggled to return to the form of his debut season, Cousins battled for the starting job with Colt McCoy during Jay Gruden’s first year as head coach. Ultimately Cousins became the full-time starter in 2015, though he was seen as the best of two bad options. Prior to 2015, he’d gone 2-7 as a starter with a 77.5 rating.
But Cousins surprisingly led his team to the playoffs in ’15 and ranked at the top of the NFL in completion percentage and quarterback rating. With such a small sample of success, the team was not yet ready to buy into him as their franchise QB. They franchise tagged Cousins prior to the 2016 season.
Between the end of his Pro Bowl 2016 season and the start of 2017, things got muddy between the quarterback and the front office. The team published details of a contract offer that included $53 million in guarantees (and the ability to walk away in short order). They essentially accused Cousins of not negotiating.
“He saw when he was the backup to Robert Griffin, when Dan Snyder was reportedly paying for Griffin’s honeymoon and they were wining and dining him, how an owner treats a quarterback that they view is their guy and the Redskins did not treat him that way or think of him that way,” Paulsen continued.
By the end of 2017, it was a foregone conclusion that the two sides would not be working out a long-term deal.
“I feel like toward the end of his tenure he felt pretty respected as the numbers started to come up on their offers, but it was too little, too late at that point,” Paulsen said.
The combination of the perception of RGIII as a me-first player and the presence of Snyder – a wannabe George Steinbrenner – made Cousins into a sympathetic figure in D.C. Only under rare circumstances does a player catch that type of break. Many times, players get painted as greedy when they fight for what they are worth. See: Beckham, Odell and Bell, Le’Von. If you don’t think so, listen to the praise every time Tom Brady takes a “team-friendly” contract.
Cousins’ underdog brand is also shaped by his background. He is from Holland, Michigan, which is home to the world’s largest pickle factory. He went to a Big Ten school. Oh, and the team’s president kept calling him “Kurt” in press conferences.
The media has played a significant role, too. Every in-depth feature you read on the 29-year-old QB is dripping with underdoggery.
Just look at this set of paragraphs by Dan Pompei of Bleacher Report:
“Overlooked and underestimated has been the theme of his athletic career, according to his father, Don Cousins.
When Cousins graduated to tackle from flag football in sixth grade, he tried out for quarterback for the Barrington Broncos A team in suburban Chicago. The coach called the next day. “We’re good at quarterback,” he said. So Cousins quarterbacked the B team and won the league championship.
As a junior in high school, Cousins was told by the basketball coach that if he wanted to be on the team, he would be the third-string point guard. Cousins gave it a shot. By halftime of the first game, he was the primary point guard, and he remained so the rest of the season.”
So, yes, there was a version of RGIII standing in his way in sixth grade flag football.
Cousins has embraced his underdoggedness. In 2015 he screamed, “YOU LIKE THAT!?” at a reporter after a comeback win against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The following year he shouted, “how you like me now?” at the team’s GM after a win. In his opening press conference, Cousins was prodded about his famed outbursts.
“I have always felt a little bit underrated, a little bit overlooked,” he said.
When Cousins quoted The Good Word in his presser, he picked out a verse that perfectly fit what he’d become in the eyes of the NFL at large.
“For a long time, my family and I have prayed a verse from the Bible, Ephesians 3:20, which says, ‘And now to Him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we can ask or imagine,’” Cousins said. “That has been our prayer.”
While the apostle Paul is referring to the immeasurable power of God’s glory in Ephesians rather than the ability of a human to overachieve, you can see why the quote resonated with Cousins.
Did Washington have a point?
Whether Cousins remains an dark horse in the eyes of the NFL at large probably depends on how things turn out. If he wins in Minnesota, he’ll be showing Washington what’s what and sticking it to Snyder. If he doesn’t, then people will say they were right to let him walk.
That storyline will be bolstered by a few comments that have come out of D.C. since Cousins signed in Minnesota. Veteran cornerback DeAngelo Hall questioned whether Cousins was all-in.
“We kind of felt like the commitment wasn’t there from Kirk,” Hall said. “We obviously wanted Kirk. We franchised him because we wanted him there. It was up to ownership and the front office to kind of work those numbers out. They couldn’t get the numbers worked out so he signed franchise tags those two football seasons. Everybody in that locker room was behind Kirk, we wanted him there, but we wanted to feel like he wanted to be there as well.”
Head coach Jay Gruden was asked whether the team improved at the quarterback position by letting Cousins walk and acquiring Alex Smith.
“Yeah, without a doubt,” Gruden said at the annual meeting in Orlando, Florida. “I don’t want to compare two players, but we’re always trying to be better at every position. We got better. Alex’s experience is well-noted, and his record the last five years is what it is. You could argue that all day, but we feel very good.”
When Cousins was questioned about his losing record as a starter, he didn’t exactly take ownership of it.
“There are many reasons that you win or lose in this league,” Cousins said. “The margin for error is so small. I do believe that Washington had a lot of great pieces. They will have a lot of great pieces going forward and the margin of error is small. The difference between winning and losing is so small and it can be injuries, it can be any number of things that affect that, so I look forward to trying to win as many games as I can and hopefully rework that record that is not as good as I want it to be.”
Analysts are split on whether Cousins will prove his former organization wrong.
For author Ted Nguyen, a film junkie who writes for The Athletic, the players around Cousins are likely to make all the difference.
“[Cousins] lost a lot of receivers to free agency and injury and his offensive line was decimated toward the end of the  season,” Nguyen said on Mackey and Judd. “He was getting hit so much and so often that his accuracy really suffered, he was starting to get happy feet in the pocket. With Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs and a strong running game, he will have an improved cast around him, hopefully that offensive line can stay healthy and protect him and his accuracy will be more consistent throughout the season.”
In 2016, Cousins was blessed with a star-studded, mostly healthy, roster that included top receivers DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon along with an elite offensive line and running game that averaged 4.5 yards per carry collectively. He averaged over 300 yards per game, threw 25 touchdowns and posted a 97.3 rating.
Pro Football Focus analyst Eric Eager isn’t certain Cousins can make the jump from Cinderella to champion, even with a highly-skilled team.
“I think [the Vikings] get some consistency in that you will know that he’s going to be somewhere between the 10th and 20th best quarterback in the league,” Eager said on the Purple Podcast. “The question becomes: When should you pay for that? When you have paid the premium that the Vikings have paid for that, do you have enough to ensure that you can get him to the edges of that top 10 group where you can actually win the Super Bowl?”
Eager points out that it wasn’t just Cousins’ fantasy stats that went down when his supporting cast saw injuries and free agency exits in 2017, his PFF grades in areas like “big-time throws” and accuracy suffered as well.
“Are they going to be able to put players around [Cousins] that can perform at the level they did to make Keenum a top 10 quarterback? I’m a little bit skeptical of that. Maybe not for 2018, but at the same time, if you’re making one-year bets on winning the Super Bowl…that’s a little speculative to me.”
PFF rated Cousins the 19th best QB overall in 2017 and rated him the 17th most accurate. He was ninth overall in 2016. Alex Smith ranked seventh last year.
Is Cousins still an underdog?
The underdog story has historically been a heck of a drug for sports fans and successful people alike.
Author Malcolm Gladwell wrote, “being an underdog changes people in ways we often fail to appreciate. It opens doors and creates opportunities and enlightens and permits things that might have otherwise seemed unthinkable.”
That’s why NFL evaluators love players who consider themselves underdogs.
“One of the other things I like about [Cousins] is that he was a guy that always had to prove himself. He’s like a lot of our football team – guys who come in here work hard, do the things,” Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer said. “He bet on himself several times and won and those things are really important to me. He’s always played with a chip on his shoulder. We’re just really excited to have him. He’s going to be a great part of our offense, great part of our football team.”
And for fans, there’s no magic in the Yankees winning with Alex Rodriguez. Hollywood wouldn’t have made a dime off of Wall Street if Michael Douglas’s evil character hadn’t been taken down by Charlie Sheen.
“Another way to interpret this result is that deep down, we want the world to be fair,” Vox author Joseph Stromberg wrote in an article about scientific studies finding people preferred the underdog.
Joe E. Lewis once said, “rooting for the Yankees is like rooting for U.S. Steel.”
Usually the Yankees win. Not this time. Cousins won by signing the biggest contract in history.
But in the NCAA Tournament, the 16 seed who beats the 1 seed has four more rounds to go. No matter how much he’s getting paid, Cousins has a long way before he can call himself the favorite.
And considering Tom Brady still finds ways to make himself into an underdog — whether it’s by hanging on to his sixth-round draft status or battling Roger Goodell over deflated footballs — maybe Cousins will always be driven by the way he was treated in Washington, no matter who was right.