MINNEAPOLIS — Nine years ago, almost to the day, Kirk Cousins was benched at halftime of a football game.
It happened in 2014 when Cousins played for Washington. Before he became a meme. Before he established himself as a sure-fire NFL starter. Before he secured a huge contract in free agency with the Minnesota Vikings.
It happened in an uneventful game against the Tennessee Titans and left Cousins wondering about his future. Worrying, even.
Tyler Polumbus, one of Cousins’ former teammates, said recently that two weeks after the benching, he and Cousins were seated on a cold, aluminum bench at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis before a game. Cousins looked longingly at the field. He shook his head. He seemed lost. He had been drafted by a different Washington regime led by coaches Mike and Kyle Shanahan, who believed to their core that he could succeed, and now neither was there to lean on.
“He was all down in the dumps,” Polumbus said.
Cousins appeared to have hit a dead end. But if you know anything about Cousins’ path, about all of the supposed dead ends, you know he responded the only way he would — by making the most of the situation. He contacted veteran coaches who could enhance his knowledge of the position and hired a private throwing coach to work with him after practice.
He did everything he needed to do — and an exhausting amount more — to be standing here in Minneapolis, all these years later, commanding the offense that lifted the Vikings to a 22-17 upset win on “Monday Night Football” against the vaunted San Francisco 49ers.
Cousins, Addison guide Vikings to upset win over 49ers
“I told him on the field, ‘You’re an effing dog,’” Vikings running back Cam Akers said after the game. “He played a hell of a game tonight, man.”
Despite entering the game 2-10 in 12 previous starts on Monday night, Cousins shredded an experienced 49ers defense that came into the contest as the NFL’s third-ranked unit against the pass (according to EPA). He finished 35-of-45 passing for 378 yards (the 10th-highest total of his career), two touchdowns and an interception. With superstar wide receiver Justin Jefferson still out of the lineup, Cousins leaned on rookie wide receiver Jordan Addison, who accounted for seven receptions, 123 yards and two touchdowns — including a game-altering catch and run right before halftime.
.@espn_jordan. TO. THE. HOUSE.
— Minnesota Vikings (@Vikings) October 24, 2023
This season, Cousins ranks second in the NFL in passing yards (2,057), fourth in passer rating (101.7) and sixth in completion percentage (68.9). However, none of these numbers matter to him as much as Minnesota’s record. The Vikings are now 3-4 and appear to be climbing their way out of an early hole in the confounding NFC North.
“It’s a culmination of this team’s growth and how we’ve dealt with adversity and our belief in one another to put on a performance like that,” head coach Kevin O’Connell said.
Per usual, the performance starts with the quarterback, who on Sunday spoke about the offense. His overall message was simple: You measure yourself against the best, and the 49ers fit that billing. The way you run your motions matters in games like these. Attentiveness to details could be the difference.
“I just felt we needed to play our best games against the best defenses as an offense,” Cousins said. “I just challenged them and said to understand, ‘Here it is. This is a challenging group.’”
O’Connell believed Cousins’ teammates internalized the message. The way Cousins followed through early in the game set the tone.
“We could go on … about the way he played, individual plays where he was overcoming some circumstances,” O’Connell said. “He was moving within the pocket, trusting the protection and seeing the whole field. Against that team, that’s big-time quarterback play in my mind.”
The Vikings’ offensive scheme, O’Connell’s play calling and the offensive line all factored heavily into Monday night’s result. O’Connell and his staff knew the 49ers’ defensive front had the potential to wreak havoc. So, they constructed a game plan built around Cousins delivering the ball to his skill players quickly on early downs to avoid third-and-long situations where the 49ers could pin their ears back.
Of course, they understood the 49ers’ front of Nick Bosa, Arik Armstead and Javon Kinlaw would make following that plan difficult.
“We knew it was going to be a dogfight,” center Garrett Bradbury said.
Dalton Risner, whom the Vikings signed early in the season, filled in at left guard with Ezra Cleveland out due to a foot injury. He, Bradbury and right guard Ed Ingram held up well alongside Minnesota’s elite tackle pairing of Christian Darrisaw and Brian O’Neill. The group limited the 49ers to six quarterback hurries and zero sacks.
The Vikings matched the 49ers’ physicality on defense, too. Harrison Phillips, Dean Lowry and Jonathan Bullard mugged up gaps on the interior, limiting Christian McCaffrey to 45 rushing yards on 15 carries. His inability to get going forced San Francisco’s young quarterback, Brock Purdy, into a dropback affair, and he committed two game-altering errors.
Midway through the fourth quarter, Purdy overthrew a pass down the middle of the field that was intercepted by Vikings safety Cam Bynum. Then, on the 49ers’ final possession, with the game on the line, Purdy floated another throw over the middle. Again, Bynum leaped in the air, snatched the ball and sealed the game.
CAM CALLED GAME
— Minnesota Vikings (@Vikings) October 24, 2023
Both plays, in a somewhat poetic fashion, crystallized what the Vikings have in Cousins (and what the 49ers don’t), a 35-year-old veteran who has started 144 career games. He may not be particularly mobile, but he is ridiculously accurate. He completed nine throws Monday night that traveled more than 10 yards in the air, according to Next Gen Stats. He also contributed to the Vikings’ sublime conversion rate of 8-of-13 on third down.
“It was big, bro,” Akers said. “It was big. It was a statement game. We talked about that all week. That exact word. Make a statement. Show people that we’re serious. Show people that we are who we say we are. And it was on full display tonight in all three phases.”
Maybe the coolest part? That Cousins’ mastery surfaced in front of a man who has always believed.
For 60 minutes of Cousins’ dazzling prime-time display, 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan had the best seat in the house.
(Photo: Stephen Maturen / Getty Images)
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