Former Michigan State star Kirk Cousins, in Year 8 of NFL, outlasting his critics

By Matt Schoch
The Detroit News
Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins is in his eighth season in the NFL.

Allen Park — The latest news cycle in a topsy-turvy season for Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins is a bit of a microcosm for his career.

The Holland native and former Michigan State star outlasted another critic.

Cousins was criticized in the lead-up to last week’s game by Philadelphia linebacker Zach Brown, a former teammate who called Cousins “probably the weakest part” of the Vikings’ offense.

Three hundred and thirty-three passing yards, four touchdowns and a 38-20 beatdown later, the Vikings and Cousins were moving forward. Brown was released Monday.

The Cousins content has also reflected discontent in his own locker room this year. No matter, as the quarterback has again righted the ship, an appropriate metaphor for Captain Kirk.

“Kirk really doesn’t stay in touch with the media all that much, as far as what they’re saying or the fans or anything like that,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said Wednesday. “I think that’s probably the best way to go about it. I think he understands, and he has a chance to have a good football team around him.

“If he just plays like he’s capable of playing, then we have a chance to be good.”

Cousins and the Vikings (4-2) have a chance to put more separation between them and the Lions (2-2-1) Sunday at Ford Field. 

Cousins, 31, lasted six seasons with Washington, as a series of franchise tags made him a wealthy man. According to Spotrac, Cousins will have accumulated just over $100 million in his NFL career.

In his hometown, Cousins is doing good with it.

The Holland Sentinel reported last year that Cousins donates 15% of his base salary to the Julie & Kirk Cousins Foundation, which was $4.6 million last year, with the quarterback planning to increase the percentage each season.

The Christian-based foundation aids in disaster/famine relief, justice, promotion of human rights and community development, according to the Sentinel.

Cousins maintains a presence in Holland, building a home there that he plans to retire in with his wife, participating in an annual flag football game to raise money for Holland Christian football, and running summer football camps for teenagers at Hope College.

Compared to other future Power 5 starting quarterbacks, Cousins had a relatively modest two-year run as a starter at Holland Christian High, reaching honorable mention all-state honors after breaking his leg as a junior.

He was ranked No. 27 statewide on the Rivals recruiting list — behind quarterbacks like Keith Nichol of Lowell, Steven Threet of Adrian, Justin Siller of Orchard Lake St. Mary's, and James Stallons of Macomb Dakota.

The Spartans had recruited Nichol in the quarterback class, but he switched his commitment to Oklahoma after John L. Smith was fired. When Mark Dantonio came in, Cousins took the job, then later threw passes to Nichol when he returned to MSU.

In East Lansing, Cousins led the Spartans to four bowl games and left as the program's all-time leader in passing touchdowns (66) and passing yards (9,131), records his successor Connor Cook edged out.

Cousins was drafted in the 2012 fourth round by Washington, the same year the team drafted Robert Griffin III second overall.

Backing up Griffin, Cousins started nine games in his first three seasons before taking over full-time in 2015.

"He's had competition his whole life," said Chris Kuipers, varsity coach at Holland Christian, who helps with Cousins' youth camps. "He's used to competition, and he doesn't back down from it. He really thrives in that situation."

Cousins took Washington to the playoffs once and went 24-23-1 in three seasons at the helm, making the Pro Bowl in 2016. Cousins was designated with the franchise tag over his final two seasons with Washington, earning just shy of a combined $44 million of guaranteed money.

Despite the unanimous praise for Cousins as a person, his level of quarterbacking has sometimes had a bit of a, well, Staffordian waft: Good enough to be a NFL starter, but maybe not good enough to take you deep in the playoffs.

A win Sunday would make Cousins exactly mediocre: He’s 38-39-2 as a starter in the league — Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford is 68-77-1 in the regular season. The pair has combined to go 0-4 in the postseason.

"I think he’s been really successful," Stafford said. "Done a nice job the last couple weeks making some huge plays. (He is) throwing the ball down the field really nicely. He’s a tough guy. He’s always in there, hanging in there, taking hits, and delivering the ball.”

Like Stafford, Cousins' durability has earned respect in the locker room. But that was put to the test this season, his second in Minnesota.

Cousins threw for 98 yards in the opener and then lost two out of his three next games — both within the division — as the Vikings fell to 2-2.

His top two wide receivers, Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs, both took shots at him publicly, but Cousins responded with strong play.

Over the last two weeks, in routs of the New York Giants and Eagles, Cousins has an NFL-best 142.5 passer rating, completing 44 of 56 passes (78.6%) for 639 yards, six touchdowns and one interception.

"I don’t know if there is really anything different," Zimmer said. "I think maybe it’s just we’ve been able to have a better, firmer pocket. We’ve been able to get the ball out on time. There are so many different things involving the passing game that people don’t talk about. Receivers have been able to get open. The protection has been better. The run game is better. All of those things combined help everybody, really.”

While Stafford is 87 yards away from becoming the youngest player in NFL history to hit 40,000 for a career, Cousins is piling up some gaudy stats of his own.

His 18,848 passing yards since 2015 are fourth league-wide in that span, and he has thrown for 21,878 career passing yards. With nine passing yards on Sunday, Cousins will pass Hall of Fame quarterback Sammy Baugh for 95th all-time on the career list.

But when Kuipers asked Cousins to talk to a few dozen of his varsity football players last summer, Cousins prepared a 10-minute speech, complete with handwritten notes.

"Most guys in that situation would kind of just come in there and wing it," said Kuipers, who is returning the favor Sunday by coming to Detroit with fellow Holland Christian coaches to root on Cousins against his favorite team, the Lions.

"I just think that speaks a lot to his character, speaks a lot of what's important to him. He's always looking to make an impact. Whatever he does, he really wants to do it in an excellent way, so he doesn't commit to things unless he can do it and be excellent at it."

Vikings at Lions

Kickoff: 1 p.m. Sunday, Ford Field

TV/radio: Fox/760

Records: Vikings 4-2; Lions 2-1-1

Line: Vikings by 1

Matt Schoch is a freelance writer.