EAGAN, Minn. — A few days before the start of his fourth season in Purple, Kirk Cousins was named a season-long captain for the fourth straight year.
The Vikings starting quarterback earned that distinction right away when he arrived in 2018 and subsequently held that title in the two seasons that followed.
Yet even though Cousins is wearing the C on his jersey again in Minnesota, there is a different aura around the 33-year-old this season.
Maybe it's because the quarterback changed things up in the locker room at Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center, moving from one side of the space to the other.
Sure, Cousins' locker is now near a pair of offensive headliners in wide receiver Justin Jefferson and tight end Irv Smith, Jr. (who is on Injured Reserved). But he also now resides by big-name defensive players such as Harrison Smith, Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr.
In a way, Cousins has seemingly taken a leadership role on the entire team, not just the offense.
"[Jefferson] has some boxes stacked up at his locker; he's gotta clean those out," Cousins quipped with a smile. "But he's been great. Having Irv near me, some of the defensive guys, Kendricks and Barr and Harry, I love having a locker by them.
"It's been great getting to know those guys better," Cousins added.
Those who have been around Cousins for a few seasons have noticed a difference in 2021, even if the explanation remains a bit abstract.
"He has a little more swag to him this year, actually," said Vikings running back Alexander Mattison. "Being around [Jefferson] in the locker room, the lockers are switched around a little bit … he has a little more swag to him.
"He's one of those playmakers. He always has been that way," Mattison added. "He's just stepped up even more, honing in on his craft and making everyone better around him."
Cousins and Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer had watched film and chatted Xs and Os in previous years, but this year they have a standing, weekly appointment. Football is at the forefront, but improved communication has been a benefit. Each is gaining an understanding of what he sees from a particular defense.
"I think it's helpful to have a structured time every week to meet with the head coach as the quarterback. With the role I have, I think it's great to just have [a scheduled] time every week to meet," Cousins said. "I forget which week it was, but coming out of Monday or Tuesday I had a thought for him, but I knew, 'Hey, Thursday I have my time for him. We'll go over it then, we'll talk about it then,' and so I just think it just helps to have that planned time every week to go over third downs, go over our offensive plan at a high level, go over our team dynamics, whatever it might be."
Zimmer said the meeting has helped communication "both ways."
"I can understand some of the things he's thinking about during the game. I can kind of try to give him some tips on what defensive backs or alignments or front-wise, what teams are trying to do," Zimmer said. "I mean, he asks a lot of questions about defenses and defense in general.
"And I try to talk a lot about even past history things, you know? What happened when I was in Dallas or Cincinnati or whatever," Zimmer added. "He asks a lot of those things. And we talk a lot about different things. Things that may upset him, things that may upset me. I think it's been really good."
Most importantly, the benefits have made their way from the meeting room to the field. Zimmer complimented Cousins' leadership and execution.
"I think he's playing outstanding. But not only that, he's playing with a lot of confidence," Zimmer said. "He's also ... I really appreciate the leadership that he's been doing lately.
"He's very confident where he's throwing the football," Zimmer added. "He's very confident with these receivers. I think the offensive line has helped him do some of those things, as well."
Cousins admitted after a Week 3 win over Seattle that his comfort level in the organization has increased over time.
"I think it's important to be self-aware and understand how you fit," Cousins said. "In '18 I wasn't going to show up and say, 'Hey, you guys just went 13-3. I have all these good ideas, listen to me.'
"There's a little bit of, 'How do I fit into this puzzle? Now that three years have passed," Cousins added, "there's a little bit more ability to have assimilated and understand how this organization works, how you fit in that puzzle."
That approach applies to the locker room, sure. But also in meeting rooms and on the field, where he has a strong bond with Vikings Offensive Coordinator Klint Kubiak, who was his position coach for the previous two seasons.
Whatever Cousins' leadership style is now, there is zero doubt that the results are paying dividends on the field.
And while Minnesota doesn't have a winning record entering its Week 5 home game against the division-foe Lions, it isn't because Cousins has been at fault.
In Week 1, he shook off a penalty-filled start from the offense to force overtime and position the Vikings to squeak out a win, only to see Cincinnati make a field goal after a Minnesota turnover.
The quarterback did his part in Week 2, too, orchestrating a masterful final drive before a game-winning field goal attempt sailed wide and altered Minnesota's fortunes.
The results finally came in Week 3 at home, where the quarterback was nearly flawless in a resounding victory over Seattle.
"I told the team that it's the best offensive performance that I've seen in the eight years that I've been here," Zimmer said after Minnesota's first win of the season. "Kirk played outstanding."
Cousins and the Vikings offense did hit a speedbump in Week 4 against Cleveland, as the quarterback threw his first interception of the season.
He also had his lowest passing yardage total of the season with 203 yards against the Browns. And his streak of 17 consecutive games with a passer rating above 90 also came to an end.
"You just don't ride the roller coaster," Cousins said Wednesday during his media session. "You just stay level headed, don't get too high, don't get too low, and that's really the way I've done for my whole career."
But even with an up-and-down outing in Week 4, Cousins is still off to the best start of his career.
He has completed 108 of 157 passes (68.8 percent) through four games, throwing for 1,121 yards and compiling an overall passer rating of 105.6.
More importantly, Cousins has a strong touchdown-to-interception ratio — with nine touchdown passes and one interception thus far.
"It's just [Cousins'] attitude. He just has no fear," wide receiver Adam Thielen said. "He's not worried about anything other than going out there and doing his job."
Zimmer explained that his quarterback is simply playing free and fast in his third season of a similar Vikings offensive scheme.
"You know, he's always been really accurate," Zimmer said. "He's been in the offense now for a while, and I think maybe he just sees these things a little bit more clearly."
Cousins credited his relationship and chemistry with Kubiak, noting that there have been numerous instances where the play call is one that Cousins already had in mind.
"There will always be dialogue back and forth, there will always be communication, but I have always believed in, 'Coaches coach, and players play,' " Cousins said. "As one quarterback said, 'You call it, I ball it.' In other words, you give me the play, I'll go execute the play.
"There's certainly times where I'm giving feedback, but to be on the same page and really trust your coach to do his job and he can trust you to do yours is I think so important, and I think we have that," Cousins added.
The Vikings still have plenty of work to do to make a playoff run after an 0-2 start.
Yet as the 2021 season continues, it's clear now that the Vikings can turn to their starting quarterback to help them navigate the months ahead.
"He doesn't let himself get too high or too low, and I think that's what makes him so great," said Vikings center Garrett Bradbury. "Because there are some ups and downs throughout every NFL season. He's unbelievable.
"It just gives everyone confidence in seeing your quarterback playing like he is playing," Bradbury added.