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Bleacher Report – Vikings

Is Kirk Cousins still an underdog?

By Matthew Coller

Kirk Cousins had the perfect brand and he didn’t even need a marketing team to help him craft it.

In an age where athletes spend an exorbitant amount of time and money spiffing their image to fit a carefully thought-out narrative — whether it be as a leader or winner or upstanding citizen or even, in the case of LeBron James 2010-2014, a villain — Cousins came across his persona organically.

Some players use social media, carefully selected interviews and outlets like the Player’s Tribune to get their controlled message across. All Cousins had to do was spend the last three years being generally unappreciated by his own bumbling franchise.

Half of the story begins in 2012 when Cousins was drafted. Grant Paulsen, a D.C. radio host at 106.7 The Fan with a front row seat for the Dan Snyder bleep show, said that Cousins’ underdog story wouldn’t exist if not for the New York Yankees of this quarterback situation, Robert Griffen III, who was selected No. 2 overall the same year Cousins was picked in the fourth round.

“There was kind of a divisive handling of the quarterback where Mike and Kyle Shanahan really liked Cousins and Dan Snyder and Bruce Allen really liked Robert Griffin, who was in the midst of a really terrific rookie season in 2012,” Paulsen said on the Purple Podcast. “I think sometime thereafter there were hard feelings between Cousins and the highest ranking officials in the building, after they fired Kyle Shanahan, who Cousins loved. And Mike Shanahan, who Cousins is still very close with. So that relationship was rocky and tenuous.”

None of the things Cousins did between 2012 and 2015, when he earned the starting job, were particularly out of the ordinary. Cousins competed hard to try to win a job, like anyone should. He worked with a quarterback guru. Most good quarterbacks do (or have). He studied like a madman, as is the requirement for the position. He kept binders. He sought advice from veterans, stars, successful business people are celebrities. Who wouldn’t? He caught a break that RGIII went bust. Every underdog needs a good bounce, just ask the 1980 USA hockey team, who scored a fluke goal on the world’s greatest goalie, Vladislav Tretiak.

But the combination of RGIII’s me-first perception and the presence of the wannabe George Steinbrenner of the nation’s capital made for the perfect portrayal of The Man. And Cousins was going to stick it to said Man.

Paulsen continued:

“He saw when he was the backup to Robert Griffin, when Dan Snyder was reportedly paying for Griffin’s honeymoon and they were wining and dining him, how an owner treats a quarterback that they view is their guy and the Redskins did not treat him that way or think of him that way.”

The other half of the story is Cousins’ background, which has played into the narrative, too. He is from Holland, Michigan, which is home to the world’s largest pickle factory. He went to a Big Ten school because Michigan State was the best school to offer. Cousins didn’t request to be drafted in the fourth round for branding purposes. Oh, and the team’s president kept calling him “Kurt” in press conferences.

Every in-depth feature you read on the 29-year-old QB is dripping with underdoggery.

Just look at this set of paragraphs by Dan Pompei of Bleacher Report:

Overlooked and underestimated has been the theme of his athletic career, according to his father, Don Cousins.

When Cousins graduated to tackle from flag football in sixth grade, he tried out for quarterback for the Barrington Broncos A team in suburban Chicago. The coach called the next day. “We’re good at quarterback,” he said. So Cousins quarterbacked the B team and won the league championship.

As a junior in high school, Cousins was told by the basketball coach that if he wanted to be on the team, he would be the third-string point guard. Cousins gave it a shot. By halftime of the first game, he was the primary point guard, and he remained so the rest of the season.”

For goodness sakes, there was an RGIII standing in his way in flag football.

There hasn’t been a concerted effort from Cousins to pump up that narrative, but he seems to have fallen in love with it. In 2015 he screamed, “YOU LIKE THAT!?” at a reporter after a comeback win against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The following year he shouted, “how you like me now?” at the team’s GM after a win. In his opening press conference, Cousins was prodded about his famed outburst. His default answer: Underdog story.

“I have always felt a little bit underrated, a little bit overlooked,” he said.

Deeply religious — which, like it or not, fits the underdog bill — Cousins even quoted the good word in his presser.

“For a long time, my family and I have prayed a verse from the Bible, Ephesians 3:20, which says, ‘And now to Him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we can ask or imagine,’” Cousins said. “That has been our prayer.”

While the apostle Paul is referring to the immeasurable power of God’s glory in Ephesians rather than the ability of a human to overachieve, the quote is impressively in line with the brand that Cousins’ never tried to create. And you can see why it stuck out to him.

The underdog story has historically been a heck of a drug for sports fans and for successful people. Author Malcolm Gladwell wrote, “being an underdog changes people in ways we often fail to appreciate. It opens doors and creates opportunities and enlightens and permits things that might have otherwise seemed unthinkable.”

There’s an immeasurable number of folks who have used their underdog status as a driving force, whether it made sense or not. Just in football, a few examples come to mind in a millisecond. Hall of Fame running back Thurman Thomas used to watch the tape of him dropping in the draft every night before a game. Tom Brady still burns with anger over being picked in the sixth round. How about Kurt Warner, grocery clerk? Stefon Diggs decided to go to Maryland despite being a five-star recruit in part because he wanted to play for an underdog program.

Turns out, NFL evaluators love players who consider themselves underdogs.

“One of the other things I like about [Cousins] is that he was a guy that always had to prove himself. He’s like a lot of our football team – guys who come in here work hard, do the things,” Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer said. “He bet on himself several times and won and those things are really important to me. He’s always played with a chip on his shoulder. We’re just really excited to have him. He’s going to be a great part of our offense, great part of our football team.”

And for fans, there’s no magic in the Yankees winning with Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira. Hollywood wouldn’t have made a dime off of Wall Street if Michael Douglas’s character hadn’t been taken down by Charlie Sheen or if the Cleveland Indians lost in Major League.

“Another way to interpret this result is that deep down, we want the world to be fair,” Vox author Joseph Stromberg wrote in an article about scientific studies finding people preferred the underdog.

People root for Cousins and not RGIII because they believe it’s proof of justice that the nicer guy with the harder road ultimately came out on top. Projecting hope, maybe. Joe E. Lewis once said, “rooting for the Yankees is like rooting for U.S. Steel.”

Usually the Yankees win. But not this time. Cousins won by making it out of D.C. and signing a contract worth $84 million guaranteed with the Minnesota Vikings, who went 13-3 last season.

But that leaves us with a question: Is Cousins now the Yankees?


When you run through recent quarterback history – say the last 20 years – it’s pretty hard to find a comparable player and situation to Cousins. Usually if you throw for 4,000 yards year after year, the team locks you into a long-term deal and lives and dies with whatever comes next. Or maybe they trade you. QBs don’t hit the market at age 29 (hence the $84 million guaranteed).

The closest situation might be that of Elvis Grbac, who signed a $30 million deal with the Baltimore Ravens in 2001 following a four-year stint with the Kansas City Chiefs. Baltimore hoped that he’d make them even better than their Super Bowl-winning team with Trent Dilfer at the helm. Instead he went 8-6 as the Ravens’ starter, lost in the second round playoffs and retired the following season at age 31.

But there’s a few problems with the Grbac comparison. He wasn’t nearly as good as Cousins aside from one year. It was closer to the Vikings with Case Keenum. The team simply didn’t believe he’d continue to play a top-notch level. In the three years prior to Grbac’s Pro Bowl 2000 season – that just happened to land in a contract year – he threw 38 touchdowns, 33 interceptions and posted a 75.5 rating. You could have predicted Grbac would regress. That really doesn’t match up to Cousins’ three strong seasons in D.C.

Former Seattle Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck isn’t a perfect comparable, but he has more in common with Cousins than most. For starters, when Hasselbeck was drafted, he was a million miles from being the team’s franchise guy.

“I was drafted to the Green Bay Packers and Brett Favre was coming off his third consecutive MVP, his second consecutive Super Bowl and he was the guy and I was just fortunate to get to be in the room,” Hasselbeck, a current analyst for ESPN, told Mackey and Judd. “Andy Reid was my quarterbacks coach at the time and he said, ‘listen, I’m going to coach Brett Favre. You and the other quarterbacks…you guys just get to be in the room.’ That was the mindset.”

Matt Hasselbeck was one of many people Kirk Cousins sought out for advice during his time with Washington

The Packers traded Hasselbeck to Seattle in 2001, where he immediately became the starter. If Twitter and Facebook had been around then, debates would have raged over whether he was a true franchise quarterback. In Hasselbeck’s first four seasons, he went 27-25 with an 83.7 rating (which was admirable, but not special for the era).

It wasn’t until his fourth year in the Pacific Northwest that the 1998 sixth-rounder solidified himself as Seattle’s franchise QB. He went 13-3, threw 24 touchdowns with only nine interceptions, managed a 98.2 rating and led the Seahawks to the Super Bowl.

Hasselbeck can certainly relate to Cousins, who was repeatedly questioned during his stint in D.C.

“To take over as the starter on that same team [as Griffin], you’re really going to have to win people over in the building,” Hasselbeck said. ” In my case, I got traded to Seattle and it was like now all the sudden you’re going to go be the franchise quarterback in Seattle, you’ve never played except in the preseason and you’re going to have to go win those people over and it’s a little bit tough. They’re looking at you like, who are you? What have you ever done?”

When the new Vikings QB was trying to find his way in Washington, he sought out Hasselbeck for advice on leadership.

“It’s like, ‘hey man, you just worry about football,’” Hasselbeck told Cousins. “Bill Walsh had a great coaching point: Just do things right all of the time and the score will take care of itself. I think as a quarterback, there’s so much that goes into your job, you really just focus on what you can control.”

Hasselbeck is a Cousins fan. He likes that Cousins is inquisitive and prepared. They are kindred spirits that way. And as a guy who didn’t always have the limelight or unequivocal belief from his teams, fans, pundits, Hasselback loves – and relates to – the underdog story.

“I think in Washington they didn’t really believe in him, they said, ‘go prove it, it’s going to be a one-year deal, go prove it’ and then he proves it,” Hasselbeck said. “The next year, ‘go prove it,’ and he proves it again. It’s the same thing over and over again.”

Our perspective-providing DC radio host Paulsen feels that Cousins’ exit from Washington wasn’t so much about whether he had proven to be a good quarterback, rather that the team waited too long to acknowledge it.

“I feel like toward the end of his tenure he felt pretty respected as the numbers started to come up on their offers, but it was too little, too late at that point,” Paulsen said. “He had already established himself as a Pro Bowl statistical passer in terms of the numbers he was putting up and he’d emerged as one of the five leading passers in all of the major categories so at that point you can’t really put the toothpaste back in the tube.”

Back to our question.

Fundamentally speaking, some will argue that a person who was given more guaranteed money than anyone in history can’t claim underdog status anymore. After all, how can you claim to be under-appreciated when you can also buy seven helicopters without taking out a loan?

Even if there are some who don’t believe Cousins is worth the money, but that doesn’t really do it either. Could Alex Rodriguez claim underdog status simply because some people didn’t think he was a good clutch hitter? Some people think LeBron James isn’t good at basketball, others think the earth is flat. That doesn’t make James or our planet underdogs.

It might come down to whether you believe Cousins has already won by signing his contract. Rodriguez won a World Series, James went back to Cleveland and won a title, the earth has been photographed from space a million times. But the monkey on Cousins’ back is still there. The question in D.C. wasn’t whether he could throw for 4,000 yards, it was whether he could win. He made the playoffs once in three years and was quickly dispatched and left Washington with a sub-.500 win-loss record.

Kirk Cousins with Mike Zimmer, Rick Spielman and Mark Wilf. Credit USA Today

When Cousins was questioned about his record – which is a pretty flawed way to analyze a quarterback, but a quick poll of several football analytics experts found that it should be part of the equation – he didn’t exactly take ownership of it.

“There are many reasons that you win or lose in this league,” Cousins said. “The margin for error is so small. I do believe that Washington had a lot of great pieces. They will have a lot of great pieces going forward and the margin of error is small. The difference between winning and losing is so small and it can be injuries, it can be any number of things that affect that, so I look forward to trying to win as many games as I can and hopefully rework that record that is not as good as I want it to be.”

“We kind of felt like the commitment wasn’t there from Kirk,” Hall said. “We obviously wanted Kirk. We franchised him because we wanted him there. It was up to ownership and the front office to kind of work those numbers out. They couldn’t get the numbers worked out so he signed franchise tags those two football seasons. Everybody in that locker room was behind Kirk, we wanted him there, but we wanted to feel like he wanted to be there as well.”

The post Is Kirk Cousins still an underdog? appeared first on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.

Source:: 1500 ESPN Sportswire

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