$84 Million Man Can't Be Satisfied: Kirk Cousins Is Keeping His Underdog Mindset

Dan PompeiNFL ColumnistJuly 11, 2018

Minnesota Vikings new quarterback Kirk Cousins addresses the media after he was introduced during a news conference, after signing a three-year, $84 million contract, at the NFL football team's new headquarters Thursday, March 15, 2018, in Eagan, Minn. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)
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EAGAN, Minn. — Wearing a purple helmet and working out on a practice field that didn't exist a few months ago, the quarterback calls the signals, takes the snap and finishes the red-zone drill with a perfect strike for a touchdown.

It's early summer, but you wouldn't know it from the reaction that punctuates the play. The quarterback does a deeply enthusiastic Tiger fist pump and makes a high-pitched noise that sounds like it must have come from an exotic bird.

Everything is different this season for Kirk Cousins. But even watching him at a practice months before the snaps become meaningful, you can tell: Everything is the same, too.

           

This is different

Cousins has been guaranteed a historic amount of money$84 million over the next three yearsand all that is expected of him is to play better than he's ever played and take the Vikings where they never have been.

That's all.

In 2006, Drew Brees was a five-year veteran who had started 58 NFL games and played in one Pro Bowl but was undervalued by the team that drafted him. In 2018, Cousins was a six-year veteran who had started 57 games and played in one Pro Bowl and was undervalued by the team that drafted him.

When the Vikings were considering quarterback options after finishing one win short of the Super Bowl last season, members of their front office discussed the similarities. No one says they expected Cousins to become Brees, but the potential for him to develop into something better than he has been, as Brees did, was intriguing.

Mike Shanahan, his first NFL coach, sees it. He believes we have not seen the best of Cousins, who will turn 30 in August.

"I think it's just starting for him," Shanahan says. "I think you are going to see him get better every year. That's the way he is. He has the repetitions. He has been in different types of offensive systems. He's going to help his offensive coordinator regardless of what direction he goes. He's that type of guy. Guys like him don't come around very often."

It was Shanahan who told his bosses in Washington that Cousins would beat out Robert Griffin III. And it was Shanahan who first drew a comparison between Cousins and Brees.

Alex Brandon/Associated Press

Of course, Brees' ascension was buoyed by an aggressive coach who knew how best to use his abilities. Trying to do for Cousins what Sean Payton did for Brees is Vikings offensive coordinator John DeFilippo.

The offense DeFilippo is installing is not your grandfather's system. Yes, there will be run-pass options, says DeFilippo, who was the quarterbacks coach of the Super Bowl champion Eagles last season.

"You will see a sprinkle of Philadelphia's offense, a sprinkle of Minnesota's offense from last year and a sprinkle of what I did last time I was a coordinator in Cleveland," he says. "At the end of the day, we are going to do what [Cousins] does best. What is that? He throws really well on the move. We can change launch points with him, whether in the pocket or outside the pocket. He's really comfortable with that. He's really comfortable resetting his feet, going from left to right or right to left across the field. He stays in perfect position to throw the football. And he can throw accurately and on time."

DeFilippo and Vikings quarterbacks coach Kevin Stefanski have been working on finer points with Cousins. There has been emphasis on a smoother drop, on being less bouncy and on not taking more than one hitch. They would like him to take fewer sacks. DeFilippo has emphasized making the most of unscheduled plays, as he did in Philadelphia. He's making Cousins practice 152 movements to escape and extend.

Cousins cannot meet expectations if he is the same quarterback he has been.

         

This is the same

Cousins is not concerned with expectations. And he isn't concerned with results, either.

He is concerned with the process, as he was in Washington, as he was at Michigan State and as he was at Holland Christian High School. It is a defining characteristic.

There are quarterbacks who would sign a contract like the one Cousins did and think about interceptions, losses and criticism. They would ponder failure and then create the destiny they wanted most to avoid. Others would set out to lead the league in touchdown passes or to top their previous best passer rating. And they would set themselves up for disappointment.

"When you become results-driven all the time, it's toxic," Cousins says. "I want to be process-driven. I can't control results to the level I can control the process. I have to say every day, 'What am I doing [today] to give us a chance on Sept. 20 to win the game?' But I can't win the game on Sept. 20 [today]. So, why would I waste time spinning my wheels...thinking on a game that doesn't happen for four or five months?"

From here, he is off to a two-hour appointment with his doctor in pursuit of optimal health. At some point, there will be appointments with a brain coach, a physical therapist, a chiropractor, a massage therapist, a personal trainer, a kinesiologist and a naturopath.

It's all part of the process.

          

This is different

To sell Cousins on the Vikings, general manager Rick Spielman didn't meet him in his office in Minnesota. He met Cousins in Atlanta, where Cousins was staying, and accompanied him, his wife, Julie, their infant son, Cooper, his father, Don, and his mother, MaryAnn, to Minneapolis on a private jet.

When Cousins' parents arrived at their hotel room, they found Vikings jerseys for each of them with their last name stitched on the back. Julie had a jersey waiting in her hotel room as well, and a gift basket full of Vikings swag—baby clothes, including a jersey for Cooper, a sippy cup, a toy football and glassware. For their Goldendoodle Bentley, there was a Vikings dog collar, bandana and leash. Also in the basket were Minnesota specialty items such as candles and coasters.

At the practice facility, team officials showed Cousins the locker that could be his. The nameplate read "Kirk Cousins 8." Hanging in the locker was a gift—a Vikings jersey with his name, as well as a team duffel bag with Vikings sweatpants, shorts, long-sleeve shirts, short-sleeve shirts and hats. During a tour of U.S. Bank Stadium, another Cousins locker with a jersey was waiting for him. In the locker room, one set of TVs played his highlights and the other set had a still shot of Cousins wearing a Vikings uniform.

The team also presented Cousins with an iPad that played a video highlighting the team, the ownership and the region.

"It's very different from the Redskins," Don Cousins says. "The Vikings clearly wanted him. They did everything to make Kirk and Julie and for that matter, MaryAnn and I, feel welcome and wanted. They could not have sent a stronger message."

Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

Tight end Kyle Rudolph was one of eight Vikings players who, along with team decision-makers, courted Cousins at dinner at The Capital Grille on his visit.

"One of the first things he said to me is, 'You guys went to the NFC Championship Game last year, and now I'm the new guy, so I don't want to screw that up,'" Rudolph says. "I immediately told him, 'We feel you are the piece we need to win a championship.'"

When Cousins, Rudolph and several teammates attended a Minnesota Wild playoff game in April, the cameras for the video board focused on Cousins. The crowd roared.

Cousins is appreciated. Like never before.

                    

This is the same

In the estimation of some of his former employers, Cousins never could be what Robert Griffin III could have been. The Redskins traded three first-round picks and a second-rounder to the Rams to select RGIII second overall in the 2012 draft. They chose Cousins in the fourth round, exactly 100 picks later.

In 2014, Cousins had a particularly noteworthy performance when RGIII was injured. In the postgame locker room, the story goes, Redskins owner Dan Snyder walked right past Cousins without saying a word, instead approaching RGIII with words of encouragement about his rehab.

The Redskins never made a long-term commitment to Cousins, and instead of using their franchise tag on him for the third straight season, they agreed to trade for Alex Smith in January. Smith, 34, is coming off a career year and outplayed Cousins in 2017. Over the past three years, though, Cousins had a 97.5 passer rating compared to Smith's 97.2.

At the NFL owners meetings in March, Redskins head coach Jay Gruden—who had been a consistent and sincere supporter of Cousins during their time together—proclaimed his team was better with Smith at quarterback. "Without a doubt," he said.

Mark Tenally/Associated Press

This winter, according to league sources, some in the Redskins front office put the word out on Cousins with their friends in other organizations. Among the criticisms: He turned off some teammates. He stole "You like that!" from defensive backs. He isn't good enough to win games on his own. He protects himself too much. He's too worried about completion percentage. He isn't very effective in the red zone.

Cousins has heard the knocks. He shrugs.

                    

This is different

The Vikings' home is the newest and arguably most lavish facility in the NFL. The TCO Performance Center opened weeks before Cousins signed with the team. It is 277,000 square feet of what the team calls "modern Nordic decor"—natural light, wood ceilings and stone walls—and it is brimming with state-of-the-art technology.

The Vikings play home games in what some consider the finest stadium in the league. The $1.129 billion U.S. Bank Stadium is shaped like a Viking ship, and it features a translucent roof along with the world's largest operable glass doors.

Going from the Redskins facilities to the Vikings facilities was like stepping from a former era into a future one. Redskins Park didn't even have a quarterback meeting room. During his recruitment, the Vikings offered Cousins a personal office. He turned it down because the quarterbacks room at the TCO Center has everything he needs: space for watching tape and preparing.

Cousins and his wife purchased a residence southeast of Minneapolis, not far from the Vikings facility—his first house. The last four years, he rented the Virginia townhouse of former Washington offensive lineman Chris Samuels.

In the offseason, he has learned the layout of the Mall of America, spent time with former Vikings head coach Bud Grant in his office and studied the history on the walls of the TCO Center.

                       

This is the same

Cousins is more than 1,000 miles away now, but a piece of his heart remains in Washington. As the Cousins were leaving their Virginia townhouse for the final time, Julie wept.

In their modest townhouse, they hosted Thanksgiving dinners and bible studies for teammates and their spouses. They fostered eight dogs and adopted one. It was Cooper's first home. It's where Kirk bared his soul to Julie when he was benched in 2014. Many big wins were celebrated there, too.

Cousins arrived in Ashburn, Virginia, as a 23-year-old single man fresh off of campus. He left as a battle-tested quarterback and married father. He and Julie grew with other young Redskins couples. They formed lifelong relationships.

"There is a lot more that we will miss than we can easily move on from," Cousins says. "The hardest part of leaving Washington was leaving that locker room, leaving teammates I had so much respect for. It's hard to articulate what a Jordan Reed means to you, or a Chris Thompson, or a Vernon Davis, Spencer Long. They all meant so much to me."

Denis Poroy/Associated Press

Resentment toward the front office might be understandable, but Cousins isn't feeling that.

"A narrative developed that maybe the Redskins didn't support me as much as they could have, but I think I'm here because I was given an opportunity with the Redskins and I was well-supported," he says. "They compensated me more than I ever thought I would be compensated. I owe a great deal to them. I look back on those six years with a lot of joy, a lot of gratitude and think that we'll always view our time with the Redskins as very positive, especially when we think about where it led us in life, to a place that even on my best days I never thought was really possible."

                       

This is different

Earlier in his career, Cousins worried about his future and where he would be playing. Now he will be paid between $26 million and $30 million per season over the next three years. His deal also guarantees him with something more valuable—peace of mind.

"The contract, as my agent, Mike McCartney, said, allows me to go out to the field every day and never think about money," Cousins says of the largest fully guaranteed contract in NFL history. "The money is done. I can just go play football, and that's what I love. The last thing I want to think of is, If I throw for 200 more yards, I can get a million-dollar bonus. I didn't want to do that. I can just think about how I can help this team win."

Cousins knows he will be here in 2020. In Washington, he was year-to-year every season. Even at Michigan State, transferring was an option his first two years because he was competing with Nick Foles before redshirting as a freshman and with Oklahoma transfer Keith Nichol as a sophomore.

When was the last time he knew where he would be in three years?

"Maybe freshman year of high school, I had a pretty good idea I was going to be at Holland Christian High School through my senior year," he says. "In the NFL, there always has been a cliff at the end of the season. We don't know what's going to happen. It's what I've known and gotten used to. That's OK, though. There is a healthiness to living life like that. It allows you to be very present and understand what's important now."

              

This is the same

Unlike many of his teammates, Cousins does not drive a car that makes people stop and point—unless they point at his gray, 18-year-old GMC Savana conversion van with 140,000 miles on it, which once belonged to his grandmother.

Courtesy of Virginia Tire & Auto

When he was in college, Cousins picked up golf balls at the driving range for minimum wage. When he was a young player on the Redskins, he furnished his first apartment with old furniture that teammates donated, and he moved the furniture himself along with his roommate at the time, Tom Compton. These days, he stays in his in-laws' basement in Georgia for a chunk of the offseason.

"He's still the same guy I met in 2012, when we were pinching pennies and trying to save as much as we could," says Compton, a guard who was Cousins' teammate with the Redskins and is now his teammate again with the Vikings. "Obviously, things change a little when you have that much available cash, but I still think he won't just buy something to buy it or be ignorant with his money. I think everything he buys will have a purpose."

The Cousins made one major expenditure this offseason, building a summer home on the shores of Lake Michigan not far from where Cousins spent his high school years. But it isn't "over the top," according to his dad.

Kirk says they weren't looking for fancy. "We wanted to create a place for family and friends to gather for years to come, a place our grandkids can enjoy one day," he says.

The Cousins are more interested in saving and giving than spending. They established a relationship with International Justice Mission in D.C., and they will maintain that. They're now looking for local charities to partner with.

Cousins believes God put him in the Twin Cities for a reason.

"Out of their Christian conviction, they are very committed about what they do from a giving standpoint," Don Cousins says. "And they are responsible from a savings standpoint."

                      

This is different

In an offensive meeting during the third week of the offseason program, DeFilippo was explaining how receivers should make route adjustments against a particular coverage. Then Cousins interjected with his own explanation.

"He made it even clearer than I made it to the guys," DeFilippo says.

Afterward, DeFilippo told Cousins he appreciated the way he spoke up in the meeting and encouraged him to keep doing it.

After a recent successful two-minute drive in practice, every receiver, tight end and running back surrounded Cousins on the sideline to listen to his thoughts about what they had just done.

"He's a great leader," Rudolph says. "Guys have bought into Kirk's energy and the way he prepared himself and the way he attacks it each and every day. That has trickled through our team."

It's nothing different than what he was doing in Washington, but he's more empowered than he had been. He's even already comfortable enough to tease his bosses. Whenever DeFilippo's sneakers aren't up to Cousins' standards, he can expect some good-natured jabs.

"Here, I'm known as the starting quarterback and a seven-year veteran," Cousins says. "So I'm instantly given a platform and place to lead from. In Washington, I was a fourth-round pick. I was a guy who had been benched. I was a guy who was figuring it out. I was a guy with the franchise tag. So the perception can be different."

             

This is the same

The people who surround Cousins look at him differently from the people who used to surround him. But he doesn't look at himself any differently.

"Coach [Mike] Zimmer said if I was underrated and overlooked in the past, that's not the case anymore," he says. "Certainly there is some truth to that, but I would also argue that there are many people saying I didn't deserve the contract, that I won't do well and that I'm in over my head. So I can perceive it to be the same thing all over again. I still can be underrated and overlooked, but it's just at a different altitude, if that makes sense."

Jim Mone/Associated Press

Being underrated and overlooked has served him well.

"I know in Washington, he definitely had a chip on his shoulder and was trying to prove himself every day, and I don't think he'll ever lose that," Compton says. "It's gotten him where he is now and is going to keep taking him farther."

              

This is different

Seven years into his NFL career, Cousins has been validated by the Vikings—and by almost every team that was in the market for a starting quarterback.

The Jets were willing to pay considerably more than the Vikings, according to league sources. The Cardinals and Broncos were players for his services. The Browns likely would have been bidders had they not overhauled their front office during the season. And the 49ers might have been the front-runner had Jimmy Garoppolo not fallen to them from the heavens.

To clear the way for Cousins, the Vikings discarded one quarterback who won 11 regular-season games for them last year. They cut ties with another who they chose in the first round of the draft four years ago. And they let another walk away who set the NFL record for completion percentage with them in 2016 and was named the NFL Offensive Player of the Week in Week 1 of last season.

"There is an affirmation there," Cousins says. "I feel a great sense of gratitude to the Vikings for their belief in me and giving me this opportunity. Now I want to provide a great return on investment.

"Every step of the way for me, whether it was obtaining a college scholarship or becoming a starter in the Big Ten or getting drafted—they were all rewarding, affirming, dream-come-true experiences. I think you could add coming here and signing the contract to that list."

              

This is the same

Cousins may have it all, but that doesn't mean he has to be comfortable.

He reads a quote from a notebook that the coaches gave to the offense the other day: "To be your best, you have to be willing to be uncomfortable and embrace it as a part of your growth process."

He is as willing as ever.

"If I look back at the times when I was most uncomfortable, and the most stressed and challenged, those also were probably the times of my greatest growth and development as a person and a player," he says. "So to some degree, I never want a contract to create too much comfort or a feeling of arriving. I still want to be stretched and challenged and feel uncomfortable, because that's where I ultimately can go the farthest as a player."

It is not difficult for him to make himself uncomfortable.

"I think you have to understand I wasn't brought here to just be OK and just kind of exist," he says. "I was brought here to produce and win football games and impact the city and the organization in a really strong way."

A part of Cousins never will change—the part that couldn't contain itself early this summer while wearing a purple helmet on a practice field that didn't exist a few months ago, calling the signal, taking a snap and finishing the red-zone drill with a perfect strike for a touchdown.

                     

Dan Pompei covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @danpompei.

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