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Kirk Cousins Is Playing Like an MVP, But What Happens Next Will Define Legacy

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterOctober 22, 2019

DETROIT, MI - OCTOBER 20: Kirk Cousins #8 of the Minnesota Vikings watches the replay during the first quarter of the game against the Detroit Lions at Ford Field on October 20, 2019 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)
Leon Halip/Getty Images

It's time for yet another State of the Cousins address.

Referendums on Kirk Cousins' value as a quarterback have become almost monthly affairs over the last five years. They are often polarizing, partisan showdowns, like local city council meetings about some controversial tax bill or zoning ordinance.

The Cousins haters washed their hands of him sometime before his 27th career loss to opponents with winning records. But NFL teams, like machine politicians, keep rehiring and lavishly paying him. And Cousins, like a clever career legislator with a knack for finding compromises, keeps playing just well enough to confound his critics while never quite living up to the expectations of his supporters.

Cousins is playing like an $84 million franchise-caliber quarterback at the moment. He has thrown for 325.3 yards per game and 10 touchdowns in three October victories, completing 75.6 percent of his passes for a 142.6 efficiency rating. Per ESPN's Field Yates, Cousins is the only quarterback in NFL history with three straight games of 300 passing yards and a rating higher than 130.0 (stats which seem custom-jiggered to look great in a campaign ad, but which are rather impressive nonetheless). 

Cousins leads the NFL this season with 9.1 yards per attempt and a 114.3 rating while also directing the Vikings to a 5-2 start. He would be on the short list of MVP candidates, except for the fact that, you know, he's Kirk Cousins, so his success simply must be attributed to (cue the attack ads):

  • A soft slate of opponents. Cousins racked up numbers against the Giants, who have one of the league's worst defenses! And the Eagles, who may have the league's worst cornerbacks! And the Lions, who, um, have a really good secondary and defense, which Cousins just torched for 337 yards and four touchdowns. But the Lions were banged up, so they count as "soft," too!
  • Receivers Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen. They once turned Case Keenum into a Pro Bowler and made Sam Bradford look like some sort of precision passing robot. Of course, Thielen was injured for most of the Lions game, but never mind!
  • The offensive line and the scheme. That's right: Cousins' success is the result of an offensive line that suddenly went from bad to awesome, and...establishing the run? Are we really suggesting this? Folks, our eagerness to discredit Cousins should not lead us to abandon our principles.

No matter how we shift credit around or explain things away, the simple fact is that Cousins has been playing extremely well for most of this season and is a major reason for the Vikings' success.

But nothing Cousins has done so far this year really matters. What matters is what he will do next.

After years of up-and-down performances, the next month will go a long way toward determining Cousins' legacy.

Kirk Cousins has averaged better than 325 yards passing in leading the Vikings to three straight wins over the past three weeks.
Kirk Cousins has averaged better than 325 yards passing in leading the Vikings to three straight wins over the past three weeks.Rick Osentoski/Associated Press

The Vikings host Washington on Thursday night. They then travel to face the Chiefs and Cowboys. Finally, they host the Broncos before their Week 12 bye. 

It's a slate of winnable games. Washington may be the NFL's worst team right now, which takes some doing. The Chiefs will likely be without Patrick Mahomes. The Cowboys are a roller coaster. The Broncos allow Joe Flacco to get sacked three times during pregame warmups.

It's also a slate of losable games. Cousins' teams are 1-12 on Monday and Thursday night games, and his former employers could bring some bad mojo with them. The Chiefs remain unpredictable and dangerous, the Cowboys appear to have regained their rhythm after routing the Eagles on Sunday, and the Broncos' defense remains formidable.

The Vikings may also be without Thielen (hamstring) until Week 9 at the earliest, per NFL Network's Tom Pelissero, and they have one of the league's thinnest benches at receiver. As a result, Cousins will have to do more than coast along in "system quarterback" mode, if that's what he has been doing so far.

If Cousins plays well and leads Minnesota to a 4-0 or 3-1 stretch before the bye, he'll prove that the last three weeks were no fluke, position his team for the playoffs and finally demonstrate that he's more than just the overpriced game manager who takes what defenses give him.

If the Vikings go 2-2 or worse in the next three games because their offense cannot deliver, it will be evidence that we're once again looking at the same old Cousins: the guy just good enough to fool you when everything is clicking, and then let you down when it matters.

Cousins has had hot streaks like the current one several times in the past. He ended the 2015 season with 12 touchdowns, 290 yards per game and a 134.0 rating in four straight Washington victories. He enjoyed a torrid four-game stretch (339.3 yards per game, 9 TDs, a 113.1 rating) in November 2016. Cousins started last season with 669 yards and 6 TDs in the first two games: a win over the 49ers and a tie against the Packers that ended with a missed Vikings field goal in overtime.

However, each surge is followed by a slump, and each slump seems to be sparked by a critical must-win situation or a chance to gain some separation from the other also-rans.

Cousins has made a career out of letting you down the moment you start believing in him. That's why he gets so many votes of no-confidence after every loss (even teammates sounded ready to abandon ship after his bad performance against the tough Bears defense this year), and why praise is carefully measured and dispersed when Cousins is performing well.

The only thing that would ultimately galvanize Cousins' legacy as more than just a quarterback who made a small fortune by racking up some pretty statistics would be reaching the Super Bowl. But he will never come close to doing that so long as he remains Mr. October, the quarterback who comes up biggest on the smallest stages. 

Though Cousins has played well in October, his struggles to beat winning teams over the course of his career raises plenty of doubts about his ability to guide the Vikings deep into the playoffs.
Though Cousins has played well in October, his struggles to beat winning teams over the course of his career raises plenty of doubts about his ability to guide the Vikings deep into the playoffs.Matt Marton/Associated Press

Cousins' inconsistency has been remarkably consistent four of the last five years. That's why he must do more than look like a superstar for a few games.

Let's see him extend his current hot streak from weeks into months, beat some tough opponents on the road, throw some touchdown passes to Olabisi Johnson or Laquon Treadwell. Then maybe we'll see a 10-win season or a second-round playoff game. Then maybe we'll talk about someone who has earned his $84 million or gotten a bum rap.

That isn't being a hater. It's just being realistic. Cousins has a long history of "proving the doubters wrong" until the unfortunate moment when he proves them right. He still has a lot of work to do to ensure that his history does not become his legacy.

So let's recognize that Cousins is playing well right now, enjoy the ride and try to keep an open mind. But let's table the "Cousins for MVP" discussion until we reconvene in a month to gauge his progress, just like we always do. Chances are, we'll have plenty to talk about. 

Meeting adjourned. 

         

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier.

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