What 'Quarterback' tells us about Kirk Cousins' future with the Vikings

EAGAN, Minn. -- Early in Episode 3 of the Netflix series "Quarterback," Kirk Cousins looked into the camera and explained what it really feels like to play that position in the NFL.

"There are games," he said, "where you think, 'This has to be the worst job alive.' You're just standing in there and you can't even brace yourself for these hits."

Among other takeaways, "Quarterback" added visceral context to the Minnesota Vikings' decision to not sign Cousins, who is in the final year of his contract, to an extension this spring. Watching Cousins get pummeled in the pocket (most notably by hits in Weeks 9 and 10 that caused rib pain and bruising) was a reminder of the outsized punishment he has already taken in his professional career.

Cousins absorbed an NFL-high 136 hits on passing plays last season due to a combination of inconsistent pass protection and his instinct to remain in the pocket rather than scramble. It was hardly an anomaly. Since he became a full-time starter for Washington in 2015, Cousins has taken 781 hits on such plays, more than any quarterback over that span other than Russell Wilson and Matt Ryan, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.

Cousins has been remarkably durable during that stretch, thanks in part to a body-work routine he detailed during "Quarterback," but he is neither bionic nor invincible.

The Vikings' decision to not extend Cousins was based on multiple elements, including salary cap considerations and the state of the roster as training camp opens next week. Yet, as Cousins approaches his 35th birthday next month, any sober-minded analysis would factor in how the cumulative effects of those hits could affect his performance and availability over the next few years.

"The key for me is not just being able to survive a game or the hits from a game," Cousins said in Episode 3. "The challenge is [whether] you can come back six days from now and do it again, and can you do it again and again and again for an entire season."

Cousins has missed only two starts since his 2015 debut as a full-time starter, one as the Vikings rested him for the 2019 playoffs and another following a COVID-19 diagnosis in 2021. By all accounts, he is incredibly tough and well-versed in strategies for remaining in a game while enduring pain.

But another revelation from "Quarterback" is that Cousins' performance and decision-making sometimes suffers -- quite understandably -- in those situations.

In the big picture, Cousins led the Vikings to come-from-behind wins on the road in the two games featured in Episode 3, at the Washington Commanders (Week 9) and Buffalo Bills (Week 10). Those stirring outcomes, however, overshadowed a handful of individual plays that would have loomed larger had the Vikings lost.

Cousins acknowledged that the pain made him "agitated" and that he tends to "block out everything else" on those occasions so he can focus on his assignments.

Against the Bills, that instinct first manifested in an interception, where Cousins thought Bills cornerback Dane Jackson was Vikings receiver Justin Jefferson, he later acknowledged. Then, on a crucial fourth-down play at the goal line, Cousins decided to call his own number on a failed quarterback sneak.

During a post-play discussion, coach Kevin O'Connell told Cousins that he had been trying to call a timeout. Cousins said he didn't hear him. A chagrined O'Connell told Cousins that "I could've given you a better formation" if he had known Cousins wanted to sneak.

None of this is unusual in NFL quarterback play, and "Quarterback" focused on similar encounters for co-stars Patrick Mahomes and Marcus Mariota. But their hit totals on passing plays were still notably lower than the 136 Cousins took last season: Mahomes took 90 in 17 starts, while Mariota absorbed 67 over 13 games.

The focus seems relevant in the conversation of a potential multi-year contract extension. Cousins is a willing and able combatant, and he mused in Episode 3 that "part of me is maybe just sick and just likes" getting hit. So far in his career, he has been able to recover and/or play through the repercussions of the violence he encounters.

But the same could be said of the executive producer of "Quarterback," Peyton Manning, when he was 35. At that point, Manning had made every start during a 13-year tenure with the Indianapolis Colts. But in 2011, a neck injury he traced to a 2006 hit became unmanageable and required multiple surgeries. He missed the entire season, prompting the Colts to release him before he eventually joined the Denver Broncos to finish his career.

None of this is to say that Cousins is headed toward a similar experience. It's simply a reminder that there are limits to the level of durability that can be achieved through hard work and extreme diligence.

There's a reason why 85% of the NFL's projected starting quarterbacks are younger than 35. The contributing factors can pile up and intensify over time, affecting performance, if not availability, and those factors almost certainly played a role in the Vikings' decision to let Cousins enter training camp in the final year of his contract.