Once a narrative sticks to a quarterback, there's not much he can do to fix it.
In the social media age, Tony Romo was the first QB who was stuck with the steady drumbeat of negativity, no matter how well he played. A dropped field-goal snap in a playoff game, a couple more postseason disappointments and poof, it was set. Romo wasn't a winner, whatever that means.
Romo retired and handed the baton to Kirk Cousins.
Cousins has been a good quarterback for the Minnesota Vikings. That sentence alone caused plenty of eye rolls and chuckles, but it's true. In four Vikings seasons, Cousins has averaged about 4,097 yards and 31 touchdowns per season. His TD-to-INT ratio is 124-36, which is very good. His passer rating is 103.5. Only three quarterbacks who qualify have a better career passer rating than 103.5 in NFL history. Maybe Cousins hasn't been great, but he has been very good.
Cousins hasn't won enough for some people, but that's not entirely in his control. He didn't have anything to do with a defense that finished 27th and 30th in yards allowed the past two seasons. He wasn't responsible for a coaching staff that was hadn't adapted to the modern game. Putting all the blame on Cousins for the Vikings not winning seems misguided.
Yet, in an unscientific Twitter poll by Phil Mackey of SKOR North early this offseason, only 16 percent of more than 3,300 people who responded wanted the Vikings to extend Cousins' contract. More than 68% thought he should be traded. Even Cousins' new general manager said this offseason the team didn't have a Tom Brady or Patrick Mahomes, and that makes winning a championship much harder.
“[The Super Bowl] is more likely to win if you have that quarterback,” Vikings GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah said in an interview with USA Today's Jori Epstein. “It’s very unlikely to have that quarterback.”
Cousins in many ways is the best example of football analysis and debate in the modern age, especially when it comes to quarterbacks. If you're still into giving total credit or blame to a quarterback for every win and loss by a team, Cousins isn't your guy. You're blasting him at every chance and saying he's never won a big game, though that's not entirely true. If you point out that Cousins has been pretty good, even with the pressure of a fully-guaranteed contract that reset the market, you just don't get football and are too hung up on analytics (though his analytically-based GM didn't exactly jump to his defense either).
It's exhausting debating Cousins. Imagine how Cousins himself feels.
Kirk Cousins is coming off a strong 2021
Cousins was good last season. Full stop.
If you trust Pro Football Focus, the top four passing grades last season were Joe Burrow, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Cousins. That's a breakout star, the two quarterbacks who got the most votes for NFL MVP, and a guy everyone trashes.
Maybe you prefer Football Outsiders. Cousins was seventh among quarterbacks in DYAR (defense-adjusted yards above replacement), which takes into account situation and opponent.
If you like traditional stats, Cousins was fourth in passer rating, ninth in touchdown passes, ninth in yards, eighth in yards per pass and second in interception percentage.
You probably don't want to hear this, but Cousins was a top-10 quarterback last season. Maybe a few ticks higher than No. 10, too.
It doesn't matter. Cousins can throw for 5,000 yards and 40 touchdowns this season — cue the "stats are for losers" crowd, though it still doesn't make much sense that it would help the Vikings win if Cousins purposely threw for fewer touchdowns — and it wouldn't move the needle. Your opinion on Cousins is set, unless he makes a deep playoff run. To change anything, Cousins needs to win in the playoffs, which has as much to do with new coach Kevin O'Connell and a defense that has cratered the past couple seasons. Win a Super Bowl, then get some credit. If that happens, the same people who rip Cousins for padding his stats will cite those numbers as a case for Cousins having a great career.
That's the life of an NFL quarterback. It's not fair, but it's probably not changing either.
Cousins set up for a great season
The good news for Cousins is despite the fan base that mostly wanted him traded and the new GM who came out and said he wasn't elite, he has a chance to have a great season.
Kevin O'Connell is the opposite of Mike Zimmer, an old school coach who didn't seem to like or respect Cousins all that much. O'Connell brings in new ideas, has an offensive background and seems to genuinely want to get the most out of Cousins.
"I want him to feel as involved as he's ever been in an offense and how we build it and how we're going to try to attack opponents and I think that's very, very important," O'Connell said, via SiriusXM Radio, via NFL.com. "If him and I are on the same page he can be an extension of me and vice versa, I can be an extension of him to our football team in a lot of ways that only enhance his ability to just authentically be himself, lead us and then just go play, because he's a talented guy, man."
But it goes back to the expectations and narrative. Cousins should have a great season throwing to Justin Jefferson, Adam Thielen, KJ Osborn, Irv Smith Jr. and Dalvin Cook, and if the Green Bay Packers win the division, or even if the Vikings win the division and get bounced right away in the playoffs, it won't matter much. The cycle will continue.
Cousins knows it.
“The next level really is all about winning,” Cousins said in 2019, according to the St. Paul Pioneer Press. “I’m pretty much a .500 quarterback in my career so far, and I don’t think that’s where you want to be, and that’s not why you are brought in or people are excited about you. If I don’t play well, if I don’t have gaudy statistics, but we win multiple playoffs games, the narrative will be I went to the next level.”
Since that quote, Cousins is 1-1 in the playoffs, never advancing past the divisional round. At least he understands that, to many, going beyond that is the only way he'll break the narrative that he hasn't escaped yet.