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Souhan: Kirk Cousins, the Vikings’ ‘Captain Quirk,’ confounds with up-and-down play

Minnesota's quarterback chameleon again showed flashes of the brilliant and the bizarre in Vikings' nearly blown win over Pittsburgh.

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Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins threw under pressure in the first quarter of Thursday night’s victory over Pittsburgh at U.S. Bank Stadium. Anthony Soufflé / Star Tribune
Anthony Soufflé, Star Tribune

MINNEAPOLIS — If the NFL were more logical and less rule-bound, Kirk Cousins would have hurriedly dressed in the Vikings locker room late Thursday night, then sprinted to catch the Pittsburgh Steelers' flight home.

Ben Roethlisberger, the battered Steelers quarterback, could have limped off into the sunset having nearly engineered the largest comeback in NFL regular-season history, and Cousins would have given the Steelers a younger, healthier quarterback for the present and future, one in the midst of the best season of his career.

The NFL would not allow that, so the Steelers or a team like them will have to wait a few months to drape Cousins in new colors.

Cousins, the quarterback chameleon, played situationally camouflaged football again on Thursday night, alternating brilliant throws and bizarre moments as if it were his job alone to keep you tuned in past the hour of rational thought and personal responsibility.

This season has descended into farce and Cousins is the guy in the writer's room with the half-empty bottle of whiskey in his bottom desk drawer who wants to see how much his editors will let him get away with.

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His long touchdown pass to K.J. Osborn was the kind of stunning, clutch play big-time quarterbacks make, and was made essential by Cousins' two logic-defying interceptions and his leadership of a team that seems to need new leadership.

Thanks in part to Cousins, the Vikings almost, in a five-day span, lost to the previously winless Detroit Lions and blew a 29-point lead at home. Had they lost Thursday, the Wilfs might have had little choice but to fire coach Mike Zimmer on Friday morning, just to demonstrate that they have standards.

Instead, Cousins made just enough good plays that he remains at the helm of a "playoff contender," which, this season, is as impressive as being labeled a "valued customer" at a drive-through coffee shop.

Evaluating NFL quarterbacks is difficult. Jimmy Garappolo almost won a Super Bowl and his team can't wait to replace him. Roethlisberger on Thursday looked like he was on his way to a rocking chair or wheelchair — maybe a rocking wheelchair? — before rallying his team for 28 points in 18 minutes.

Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson are experiencing relative struggles; Tua Tagovailoa and Taylor Heinicke are spearheading winning streaks.

So what should we make of Cousins at this crucial juncture of his Vikings tenure?

In the first 10 games of the season, Kirk Cousins threw two interceptions. In the past three games, he has thrown three.

On Nov. 14 and 21, he squared off with two of the NFL's most talented quarterbacks: young gun Justin Herbert and old hand Aaron Rodgers. He played exceptionally well in leading the Vikings to consecutive victories.

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In the three games since, he has turned in a mediocre performance in a decisive loss to the 49ers, produced an excellent stat line while losing to the Lions and played his worst game in 14 months against the Steelers.

Thursday, he completed only 14 of 31 passes against a bad defense whose best player, T.J. Watt, left the game in the first half because of an injury.

The sky might not be falling, but it is sagging. Through 11 weeks of the NFL season, Cousins was building the best statistical profile of his career. The past three weeks, he has reverted to Captain Quirk, the talented passer who too often turns into a short-circuiting robot.

Remember: Cousins ruined the 2020 season with a series of key interceptions that led directly to the Vikings' 1-5 start. Then Cousins corrected course. After throwing 10 interceptions in the first six games, he threw three interceptions the next 10.This year, Cousins continued that trend, throwing just those two picks in the first 10 games — meaning he had thrown just five interceptions over a 20-game span, a remarkable achievement.

Now he's back to being Captain Quirk, possessor of arm talent and harmfully dramatic inclinations.

The Star Tribune — startribune.com — is distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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