MINNEAPOLIS – Kirk Cousins wanted to hit Adam Thielen on a quick in-breaking route, and after seeing his wide receiver make his move, the Minnesota Vikings quarterback cocked his arm back to throw and started pushing the ball forward. But no sooner than I had, I located the cornerback and realized the Packers defender had not played the route as he expected.
If he threw the ball, Cousins was either going to lead Thielen into a situation where he would have got leveled, or even worse, his pass would have been intercepted. So, I've re-holstered, as he likes to call it. Cousins pulled the ball back, reset, pivoted and hit tight end Kyle Rudolph for an 11-yard gain and a first down.
Disaster averted Chains moved. Hope preserved.
The play – one of the many key sequences in Minnesota's 24-17 win over NFC North rival Green Bay on Sunday night – was exactly the display of poise and execution that the Vikings have needed from their quarterback. It was the kind of play that Cousins delivered far too infrequently in an ugly loss to Chicago one week earlier. But that Sunday Sunday night, and many others like it, reflected one of the points of emphasis offensive coordinator John DeFilippo passed to his quarterback during the practice week.
"When you hold the football in your hands," Cousins said, relaying a message from the week, "you hold the livelihoods of a lot of people in that building and their families. And as one coach told me many times, ball security is job security. Yours and mine. "
Message received. Cousins rebounded from the Chicago debacle and delivered the type of performance that the Vikings sought when they gave him a three-year, fully-secured, $ 84 million contract in the spring. He completed 29-of-38 pass attempts for 342 yards and three touchdowns. Most importantly, Cousins did not turn the ball over. The Vikings, as a result, picked up a much-needed victory over the Packers to improve to 6-4-1 and remain in contention for a Wild Card berth.
With his performance, Cousins quieted the critics who spent the week questioning his abilities and whether the Vikings had erred in giving him such a rich contract. For now, at least.
But Cousins also delivered the kind of performance that his teammates and coaches totally expected of him.
"You know how the media is," wide receiver Stephen Diggs said in the midst of a post-game scrum. "When we're playing great, they build you up. If things happen, they're going to tear you down, but we have 100 percent in the guy. He's proven why he's as good as we say he is. We're behind him all the way. "
Diggs, who had eight catches for 77 yards and a touchdown, did not stand alone in his assessment and declaration of support. Felly wideouts Thielen and Aldrick Robinson, left guard Tom Compton, tight end Kyle Rudolph and coach Mike Zimmer all echoed Diggs.
Cousins' stellar play did not surprise them because they see how hard he works behind the scenes.
No stranger to criticisms because of his time in Washington where every throw, miscue and contract decision drew intense scrutiny, Cousins did not flinch as the same talking heads and fans that in the spring heralded him the missing link, suddenly expressed reservations about his abilities and worth.
He has trained himself not to listen to the critics. He has also trained himself to intensely self-scout and to remain consistent in his approach.
So, Cousins returned to work after the loss to the Bears carrying himself with the same purpose and focus as he always does.
"He takes every game pretty personally and pretty serious. … He's the same guy every day, "Compton, Cousins' teammate and friend since their rookie season in Washington in 2012, told USA TODAY Sports. "He does not really – if he is frustrated – he does not really take it out on anyone. He's just intense and wants to win so bad, so every little thing matters. "
As Robinson – another player drafted by Washington in 2012 and now reunited with Cousins in Minnesota – explained to USA TODAY Sports, "When he wants something in a certain way, he wants it that way. That intensity to get things right comes out. He's very specific about how he wants things and how he wants it to work. "
That means getting an extra receiver or two to join him for post practice drills as Cousins tries to improve his timing or accuracy on previously challenging throws. It also means conversations with teammates and coaches about breakdowns, and additional film study sessions.
All the extra work gives the Vikings confidence that Cousins will get this thing right. It fuels the Vikings' belief that although they're 6-4-1 and could not catch Chicago (8-3) for the title division, their ultimate goal of contending for a possible Super Bowl remains.
"He (rebounds) because he prepared for the worst-case scenarios and he knows that everything does not turn out perfectly, so he also plays football," Diggs told USA TODAY Sports. "He's not out there robotting. He knows guys are trying to get open on the outside for him and do their job, so he plays football. He's just a baller. "
A common discussion in the Vikings quarterback room involves the importance of reacting favorably to the unexpected.
"What are you going to do if (the called play) is not there? What's your exit strategy? '"Cousins explained. "Is it to run, is it to progress? Is it to find an outlet? So, many times our plays are designed for certain coverages and we spend time about if we do not get that coverage, then what are you going to do? It takes time and you build up that inventory of experiences and you start to learn where all the bones are buried in those plays, coach (Kevin) Stefanski likes to say, and then you are able to not get fooled as easily and Be ready for the tough scenarios that get thrown at you. Just about anyone can handle the easy looks but you've got to be great when it's a tough look. "
Cousins and the Vikings firmly believe that he's doing just as he said: stockpiling experiences so he can draw upon them, avoid repetitions of disaster plays and games, and deliver positive results. Doing so is a must. Because with matchups against formidable foes like New England, Seattle and Chicago remaining on the schedule, the Vikings need Cousins to remain cool under pressure and dance like he did against Green Bay, but on a consistent basis.
Follow USA TODAY Sports' Mike Jones on Twitter @ByMikeJones.
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