Kirk Cousins knows all about pressure.
He encountered it the past three seasons while starting at quarterback for the Washington Redskins, and he felt it grow the past two years as Washington placed the franchise tag on him and thus paid him $44 million in guaranteed income during that time.
But Cousins spent that time in an underdog role, yelling “you like that?!” at those he thought didn’t believe, and was able to use the doubt of others as motivation to prove he was better than many thought. Twenty-nine touchdowns and 4,166 yards passing in 2015. You like that?! Twenty-five touchdowns and 4,917 yards passing in 2016. How about that?! Twenty-seven touchdowns and 4,093 yards passing in 2017. Take that!
But as Cousins enters the final day of Vikings’ minicamp on Thursday, and thus the last day before he begins his first training camp with a new team, the pressure on the 29-year-old has changed. Where there was once doubt about Cousins, there is now a massive investment in him.
The Vikings rewarded the free agent with a three-year, $84 million contract that is fully guaranteed in March because they saw him as an upgrade on 2017 starting QB Case Keenum and are banking on the fact that Cousins can deliver the first Super Bowl championship to Minnesota.
When the Vikings open camp in their new training facility in Eagan, the pressure on Cousins is going to be massive. A solid regular season that gets the Vikings into the playoffs isn’t going to be good enough. Not with this defense and not with two receivers like Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen.
Keenum helped lead the Vikings to a 13-3 finish and the NFC title game last season after having replaced the injured Sam Bradford after Week 1. While there were doubts about how far Keenum could take the Vikings, he had the luxury of being a pleasant surprise every time he succeeded.
Cousins has no such luxury.
Cousins throws two picks during a red-zone drill in minicamp — as he did on Wednesday — and it’s not only immediately tweeted out but eyebrows are raised.
“I just try to ignore the noise and not even know what’s going on or being said,” Cousins said Wednesday when asked about how he handles the outside noise and expectations. “That’s usually the best route. I know what I’m being coached to do, I know what I have to do, so I don’t need the outside to tell me because I have accountability here and I’m hard on myself.
“I’ll always be aware of where I need to play better, and sometimes maybe that I’m not playing well enough, but I know on the inside with what I’m being coached to do I’m actually doing exactly what I’m being asked to do. Other times I know when we’ve won in games I’ve played, I didn’t play very well, but everybody’s patting me on the back because to the outside it looks like I did the right thing, and I know deep down that I’m not where I need to be yet.”
That’s the thing that Cousins has to realize. There is going to be an expectation that he is going to need to be at the top of his game on Sept. 9. That’s when the Vikings will open the regular season at U.S. Bank Stadium against the San Francisco 49ers. Cousins will need to be at the top of his game that day and every game thereafter.
The Vikings didn’t spend $84 million — he is the first player in NFL history to receive a fully guaranteed contract — to simply improve at quarterback. General manager Rick Spielman and coach Mike Zimmer won’t say it but the expectation is that they now have a quarterback who can be mentioned in the same breath with Aaron Rodgers.
Spielman, for one, has put his job on the line with this signing and there’s a good chance that if Cousins gives him the “Do you like that?!” line that Spielman and other influential members of the Vikings organization will say, “No, not good enough.”
Cousins will spend the coming weeks trying to get a break before training camp, while also being familiar enough with a new offense that he can hit the ground running.
“Last year we got to like Week 2, and because of how much I was grinding all camp and even in the summer, I felt like we were in Week 12,” Cousins said. “I couldn’t believe that we were only in Week 2 because I had treated July and August like it was game day.
“You have to pace yourself a little bit. Because I feel a little behind the eight ball and am learning the offense, I do need to be in it every day, but there also needs to be a healthy balance of getting away, catching your breath, and getting a change of scenery, knowing that when we come back at the end of July we still have six more weeks before Week 1.”
But Cousins also has to know that when Week 1 arrives there will be little to no margin for error. Cousins is no longer in the underdog role and expectations will be off the charts both in Minnesota and nationally.
The Vikings no longer are going to be considered a surprise. The only surprise will be if they aren’t contending for a berth in the Super Bowl.
This is a whole new level of pressure on Cousins that comes with a massive payday. Are the Vikings and their fans going to like how he handles it? That remains to be seen.