Kirk Cousins has a different look, and it's not reflected in Vikings' 0-2 start

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EAGAN, Minn. – There’s something different about Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins so far this season.

Coach Mike Zimmer sees enhanced leadership. Running back Dalvin Cook sees a fourth-quarter killer instinct. The stats show one of the better quarterbacks in the league.

That may seem unusual, considering the Vikings -- who host Seattle on Sunday (4:25 p.m., ET, Fox) -- are 0-2.

But in both losses, the Vikings found themselves in position late in games to grind out victories.

Cousins is in the midst of arguably the best two-game start of his career outside of his early-season tear in 2018. Heading into Thursday, the 32-year-old has the second-most passing touchdowns -- five -- without an interception, and he is averaging 297.5 passing yards per game (ninth), a 72% completion percentage (10th) and 62 QBR (12th). Even with a shaky start by the offensive line, Cousins is the most accurate quarterback on throws made from a clean pocket, according to Pro Football Focus.

It’s late in the game, though, when Cousins has made his mark. From 2018-20, the quarterback led the Vikings to three fourth-quarter comebacks. During the first two weeks of the 2021 season, he put the team in position for two more.

Cousins drove the offense to set up a long field goal at the end of regulation in Week 1. He had the offense primed to score inside Cincinnati’s 40-yard line in overtime before Cook fumbled. Against the Cardinals, in the waning moments of the fourth quarter, Cousins completed five passes to put Minnesota in position for a walk-off 37-yard field goal, which went wide right off the foot of Greg Joseph.

The end result is the same as last year’s 0-2 start, but there’s something different about the quarterback in these critical moments.

“He’s been playing lights out football,” Cook said. “That fourth quarter you’ve seen a different demeanor from him -- let’s go win the game.

“It’s just fun going out there and competing with him because once you see him dialed in, you see some pretty good throws coming out of his hands -- and I get the ball sometimes and that’s fun … It’s different, especially in the heat of the moment. I just feel like he’s been growing so much and he’s been growing in the backfield as far as communication and things like that.”

For an offense featuring some unknowns entering the season, Cousins’ play has been steady. The concerns over the quarterback’s vaccination status caused a stir during the preseason, but the one thing it hasn’t impacted is the way he’s carried himself around his team.

“His leadership has been a lot better this year, just the way he’s gone about his business and not just being to himself, but being around the guys more,” Zimmer said. “I think all those things are important.”

That’s the expectation for a franchise quarterback, and it’s easier for Cousins now that he’s been with the Vikings for four seasons. He’s dealt with a yearly turnover at offensive coordinator and has been around for the highs of a playoff bid and the lows of not making the postseason.

“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, my fourth season, there's a little bit more ability to have assimilated and understand how this organization works, how you fit in that puzzle.”

For the first time since he arrived, Cousins sat down with Zimmer to watch film the week of the Bengals game. He’s also shown a desire for more command of the offense and what the Vikings are doing on game days

“He’s earned that,” offensive coordinator Klint Kubiak said. “He deserves that right and he has a lot of input.”

Putting up big numbers has never been an issue for Cousins, whose performance in Arizona made him second-all time in NFL history among quarterbacks who have recorded a passer rating greater than 90.0 in 16 straight games, which dates back to Week 3 of last season.

The narrative that comes with Cousins, however, is that those numbers don’t always add up to wins, as was the case with the first game of that stretch which resulted in a 31-30 loss to Tennessee. Cousins had a chance to lead his team to victory on the final drive against the Titans, but he couldn’t.

Unlike last year at this time, when Cousins turned the ball over at an alarming rate -- 10 interceptions in his first six games, the quarterback’s accuracy isn’t in question.

“He’s taking real good care of the ball,” Zimmer said. “I think he’s done a good job of getting the ball to the right place.”

All of this comes at a critical time for Cousins, who is in the second-to-the-last year of his contract, which comes with a $45 million cap hit in 2022. The importance of putting together a strong season will play into his fate in Minnesota.