MINNEAPOLIS — For one day, at least, Kirk Cousins was worth every penny.
Enticed to Minnesota in the offseason with a three-year, $84 million contract that’s fully guaranteed, Cousins not only won his Vikings debut Sunday, he did it in entertaining and confident fashion. He spread the ball around, showing off Minnesota’s depth and versatility. He threaded passes that only his receivers could grab. He threw for two touchdowns and no interceptions.
He even slid, head first, in a bid to preserve Minnesota’s 24-16 win over the San Francisco 49ers.
“The biggest thing is he’s a winner,” receiver Adam Thielen said. “He wants to win, and he’s going to do whatever it takes to win a football game.”
That’s not to say the games mattered any less to Case Keenum. Or Teddy Bridgewater. Or Sam Bradford. Or Christian Ponder. Or Matt Cassel. Should I keep going? But since Brett Favre hung it up, no one has really known what to make of Minnesota’s offense.
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Oh, Adrian Peterson was an MVP-caliber running back — when he was in the lineup. When he was sidelined by injuries and his disciplinary issues, however, the perception was that it would be up to the defense to shoulder the bulk of the burden. The offense, and the quarterback in particular, just had to not screw it up, and a revolving door created by injuries often made that easier said than done.
The stakes were raised two years ago, however, when the Vikings opened their new palace of a stadium. And then again last year, when Minnesota reached the NFC title game. It was clear the Vikings had the resources and the weapons to make a run, and they needed to take advantage of it.
Despite not having much support and playing for an organization that is … flawed, to put it nicely, Cousins established himself as one of the NFC’s best quarterbacks with the Washington Redskins. He might not be in the same class as Aaron Rodgers or Drew Brees, but his arm strength, vision and savvy are exactly what GMs look for when they’re building teams.
Pair him with the likes of Thielen, Stefon Diggs, Kyle Rudolph and a healthy Dalvin Cook, give them an entire offseason to work together, and contending for a spot in the Super Bowl could become the expectation rather than a pleasant surprise.
“The last two years, by Week 2, we’re playing with a quarterback we hadn’t had any reps with the entire offseason,” Rudolph said. “It’s good to be out there with a guy we’ve been working with since the middle of April and we’ve kind of been able to build a rapport with, and I think you see that in a lot of the throws that guys were catching today.”
Still, giving Cousins that monster contract — and guaranteeing the whole thing — was a gamble. But from how the Vikings looked Sunday, it appears to be well worth the risk. Cousins plays with a swagger and certainty that Keenum never had, and it has rubbed off on his teammates.
Ask any one of them what makes Cousin different, and each will mention his competitiveness. Whether it’s a game, practice or charades at Thielen’s house, he will do whatever it takes to win.
“A lot of the quarterbacks we’ve had here have done really good things,” Rudolph said. “But Kirk is the biggest competitor I’ve ever been around. That third-down scramble embodies the player he is.”
After seeing an 18-point lead cut to 24-16, Minnesota got the ball back with 5:46 to play. All the Vikings had to do was grind out a couple of first downs, and the first win of the year would be in the books. Latavius Murray got one first down, but he and Cook could only get five yards on the next two plays.
That brought up third-and-5 at Minnesota’s own 37. Cousins scrambled, but instead of sliding feet first like a quarterback should, he dove to try and get the first down. On the next play, he baited the 49ers into jumping offside, and the game was over.
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“We always talk about sliding and protecting yourself, but in that situation, right there at the chains, I think you’ve got to do something,” Cousins said. “… If you can get the first down, it changes the whole game. We had played too hard to that point to just slide early and give up on that.”
Coach Mike Zimmer wholeheartedly agreed.
“When the game is on the line, we’re trying to get the first down,” Zimmer said. “Go for it. I’m all in.”
As are the rest of the Vikings. They have no choice, really, not with the money they’ve committed to Cousins.
But if he keeps playing as he did Sunday, and the Vikings keep winning, no one will question that he was worth every penny.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.
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