By: Ellis Williams
Every football fan knows Kirk Cousins is the Vikings quarterback.
Since joining Minnesota in 2018, they've seen and heard effusive praise from his ardent supporters, as well as the acerbic barbs from some sports pundits and other critics.
Those who have seen Quarterback, the Netflix docuseries that debuted July 12, know him like they never have before.
The access provided by the show added a depth of knowledge about Cousins, from the amount of preparation he puts toward trying to be at his absolute best to his family commitments.
Cousins' passion for playing the position began as a wish in middle school. His living of that dream is chronicled through various moments, including the highly conspicuous joy he and teammates experienced at Buffalo, as well as the physical pain he endured to help finish off one of the wildest games in NFL history.
The photo and video of Justin Jefferson's sensational one-handed catch belong to the ages, replaying in people's minds, but the grit by Cousins to get the ball there wasn't fully known until that episode of the eight-part series.
Quarterback chronicled the 2022 season through the eyes of Cousins, Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes and former Falcons quarterback Marcus Mariota, who signed to become the Eagles backup this season.
It's likely that most who watched admire Cousins, a 12-year NFL veteran, more than they did before the series, thanks to his down-to-earth likeability and dedicated pursuit of excellence.
Quarterback allowed viewers to join Cousins in the training room and hydrotherapy cold tub, and during in-home visits from his chiropractor and masseuse. It also peeked into Cousins' mental preparation. He's constantly pushing to learn more. He records play calls and studies them on drives home and meets regularly with Vikings Team Clinician Dr. Brownell Mack.
Cousins has established his process over the years, becoming a creature of habit, implementing processes along the way to try to master details of a team and offense.
His start to 2023 has shown benefits of working in the same system with the same play caller (Head Coach Kevin O'Connell) for the first time in consecutive Vikings seasons, but the team success lagged as Minnesota opened 1-3.
He leads the league in completions (108), ranks third in yards (1,214), and ranks sixth in passer rating (104.4).
For the first time in their careers, Cousins and Mahomes are scheduled to square off. Cousins and the Vikings visited the Chiefs in 2019, but Mahomes did not play due to injury.
After winning NFL MVP honors for the second time, Mahomes powered through an ankle sprain suffered in the AFC Playoffs to lead Kansas City to Super Bowl LVII and won his second Super Bowl MVP award last season.
Viewers were able to see some of the keys to Mahomes' success, including the body work he does with full-time coach Bobby Stroupe. It prompted Cousins to hire Chad Cook, a body coach he's worked with in the past, on a full-time basis to supplement the work he already does with Minnesota's Health and Performance staff.
Now 35, Cousins wants to prolong his career for multiple reasons and continues to do everything he can to be his best at every step.
And as Quarterback detailed, he's all in for his team, his family and himself.
"I used to sit there in middle school, look up at the stars in the summer, see a shooting star, and [it was], 'Everybody make a wish.' My wish was to be a pro quarterback," Cousins said. "So, I'm going to do all I can to maximize that. Shame on me if there was more out there to get, and I didn't do all I could. Even if it ends after this year, I want to walk away with peace of mind; I gave everything I possibly could and left nothing out there. I believe whatever you do, you work at it with all your heart, and that's what I'm trying to do. Certainly, I'm trying to play long enough for my boys to remember it and be a part of it.
"Being a starting quarterback in this league is a privilege and it's a platform. You get an opportunity to use that to impact people," Cousins added. "I might never have an opportunity, as big a platform as I have now, to impact people, so let's maximize this platform that we have right now to really use what I have to impact people, rather than the other way around, which is so tempting in this league. To use the people around you to get to where you want to go. Let's use where we are and the platform we have to go impact people. I want to make the most of that."
Time rewards those who endure it.
Cousins did not become a full-time starter until his fourth season with Washington. Selected with the 102nd overall pick in 2012, Cousins started just nine games before his 27th birthday.
After finishing his rookie contract and playing the 2016 and 2017 seasons on the franchise tag, Cousins joined the Vikings in 2018. He has been climbing Minnesota's all-time quarterback records since. Last season, he passed Daunte Culpepper in passing yards and touchdowns. Two weeks ago, he passed Tommy Kramer for the second-most passing touchdowns.
He enters today's game in the NFL's career top 20 all-time for touchdown passes (263) and in the top 25 for passing yards (38,354) and completions (3,357).
"I think staying healthy is a big part of that. I mean, it's hard to do if you're not on the field … because it's difficult to stay on the field," Cousins said. "This league, the NFL [stands for] 'Not For Long.' So if you can stay out there, you put yourself in a position. And that's why I went out there and wanted to hire [Cook], because I thought, 'I want to separate myself with the ability to stay on the field.'
"There's a lot you can't control," Cousins added. "I think a deal like what [Aaron] Rodgers went through [with his Achilles injury in Week 1] is kind of a freak deal. But to a degree, if you can stay on the field and feel good, it can lead to some great football. So that's really a big focus of mine: being out there for my team and my teammates."
Cousins plans to play high-level football for as long as possible. He works with Cook several times each week at his home. Together, Cook and Cousins train to quickly recover after games and to continually push his physical limits as he ages.
Extending his career also increases the chances both of his sons, Cooper (6) and Turner (4), remember his playing career. Throughout his 140 NFL starts, Cousins hopes he has learned to cope with the highs and lows of game days. But he said his wife Julie is the true judge of that.
"I hope my boys find something they're as passionate about as I am about football, but I hope it doesn't torment them the way football torments me," Cousins said. "This league will beat you up. It'll test you, and it takes grit. It takes toughness. And that's another trait I want to see in my boys. I've gotta model it for them on a daily, weekly basis."
Though he still resembles the same fiery Michigan State competitor he was more than a decade ago, Cousins has become one of the faces of quarterbacking longevity. The only active quarterbacks who have played more regular-season snaps than Cousins are Matthew Stafford, Andy Dalton and Russell Wilson. Stafford (age 35), Dalton (35) and Wilson (34) started in Week 1 of their respective rookie seasons.
Rarely does longevity at one position not include changes to surroundings.
O'Connell is the first play caller Cousins has had to start consecutive seasons since Sean McVay was his offensive coordinator in 2015 and 2016. Cousins' statistics this year convey the lasting benefits of continuity. He likened his grasp to that of a student in advanced level collegiate class.
"When I say you start to know where all the bones are buried [in the offense], that's what I'm talking about," Cousins said. "You love those 400-level discussions. Getting to a place in my career where you can start to have them is exciting."
All week, the Vikings defense prepared for ways to contain four-time All-Pro Travis Kelce. The Chiefs defensive meetings likely shared a similar game plan: "Stop No. 18."
Alongside most game-changing pass catchers is a dependable thrower.
In part thanks to Cousins, Justin Jefferson is rewriting NFL receiving records. His 543 yards lead the NFL. In Week 2, he became the NFL's fastest to 5,000 career receiving yards, hitting the mark in his 52nd career game and redefining what it is for a human to have an orbit.
Jefferson said he is "glad" Quarterback showed who Cousins is to others.
"Everybody got to see who Kirk really is and stuff behind the social media," Jefferson said. "I'm glad they came out with that to see the difficulties – the things that Kirk goes through and the struggle that it is throughout the season. I feel like it was a great series on him."
Cousins, Mahomes and Kelce were among players who appeared in the NFL's "You Can't Make This Stuff Up" ad campaign that playfully leaned into a pop culture meme that claims the league is scripted. They joined actors at a "table read" for the league's 104th season to brainstorm outrageous ideas.
"Yeah, it seemed like people liked seeing Kirk in that light, which, really – it's just Kirk. I think that was my favorite thing about watching it," safety Harrison Smith said. "He's never fake about who he is – he just is who he is. He just goes about his business, and if you like it, that's cool, and if you don't, that's whatever, too. It's nice to see, you know, I think people appreciated a lot of things about him after watching that series that maybe they didn't know beforehand. Especially kind of his toughness and the things he does in that regard."
Determined to Fight
One of the elements Quarterback best captured was the price of weekly NFL excellence.
No position pays a steeper tax than a franchise's signal caller. Cousins was hit more than any QB in the NFL last season. Quarterback alternated between crunching hits and Cousins' efforts to recover from weekly injuries accrued by standing in the pocket staring down fierce NFL defenders.
"I think people kind of appreciate a lot of things about him after watching that … series that maybe they didn't know beforehand," Smith said. "Especially his toughness and the things he does in that regard. … He never is fake about who he is. He just goes about his business."
Quarterback showed Cousins grimacing through pain during Week 10 at Buffalo last November.
As Cousins walked to the sideline, O'Connell asked if Cousins was OK.
"No!" Cousins shouted. "I'm hurt."
Those blows haven't stopped Cousins from doing his job. He has not missed a game because of injury in his eight years as a starting quarterback.
Even if the hits keep coming, a part of Cousins is addicted to everything football offers. The competition, the highs, the lows, and even the hits. All of which are a part of the journey.
"It's very important for me to just stay in the present, embrace the process and enjoy fighting to win even more than just chasing the win. And kind of enjoy the challenge," Cousins said. "And when you enjoy the challenge, then through the ups and downs that are inevitable through an NFL season or an NFL career, you're able to sort of enjoy every day, cherish every day and get better every day. My perspective will be to just enjoy the fight. Enjoy the challenge that it is every week."