EAGAN, Minn. -- Around the time of the Minnesota Vikings' spring offseason workouts, Kirk Cousins discovered something about his new team that he wasn’t expecting. Despite his veteran quarterback status, the seven-year NFL veteran Cousins figured it would take time before he’d be accepted as a leader. After all, he was joining a team that was coming off a 13-3 season. There were already plenty of leaders in this locker room.
"I was surprised by how much my teammates gave me that license to lead quickly," Cousins said at the start of training camp. "I thought they were going to want to have me prove myself a little bit longer than maybe I had to. They were very supportive and said, ‘No, man. It's your show. Let's go.’"
Cousins’ personality doesn’t always lend itself to him being the most vocal person on the team. At times, he says he’ll speak up and share his opinion if he feels compelled to, but Cousins considers himself more of a "reluctant" leader.
Two weeks ago in Philadelphia, Cousins was given a chance to step outside of his comfort zone. Prior to the Vikings' rematch of the NFC Championship Game against the Philadelphia Eagles, defensive tackle Linval Joseph, a locker room leader and captain, asked Cousins to break down the pregame huddle.
It was a responsibility the Vikings had rotated among several players over the first four games but had often been the job bestowed upon Everson Griffen. The Pro Bowl defensive end excelled in playing off raw emotion and expletive-laden passion to get his guys ready to run through a wall, a la the speech he delivered ahead of the Vikings' win in Washington last season, a game he missed because of a foot injury.
With Griffen away from the team dealing with issues related to his mental health, the opportunity became Joseph’s. And he passed the baton to Cousins.
"It was important because Linval asked me to, and you don’t say no to Linval," Cousins said.
Cousins, whose fiery personality is seen often by his teammates but seldom in public, dove into an impassioned pregame speech, emphasizing finishing every block, every tackle, every play, and above all else, the need to "finish the damn game."
The Vikings beat the defending Super Bowl champions 23-21. The following week against Arizona, all it took was a point from Joseph during warm-ups for Cousins to know his teammates wanted a repeat performance.
This time, the huddle was so fired up from Cousins’ message that they almost didn’t let him finish his final thought.
"Like Dan Gable said," Cousins yelled, quoting the longtime Iowa wrestling coach, "when I shoot, I score. When you shoot, I score."
The Vikings brought Cousins to Minnesota to carry this team to new heights as the face of the franchise. Cousins is the focal point of this team, its aspirations and how it will overcome the challenges in its path.
"I think people always look to the quarterback to be the offensive leader and he’s stepped in," right guard Mike Remmers said. "He’s the kind of guy that you know you can count on to get the job done."
Cousins is working to become the undeniable leader for a team that hasn’t had a consistent veteran presence at quarterback since the days of Daunte Culpepper, who was drafted by Minnesota 11th overall in 1999 and was with the franchise through the 2005 season.
Since then, the position has lacked stability with eight different starting QBs. The short and uncertain nature of Brett Favre’s time with the Vikings didn’t allow him to fully assume that veteran leadership role. Had he stayed healthy, Teddy Bridgewater, who was universally loved by the coaching staff and locker room, was on his way to assuming that responsibility for the long haul.
"There was a while I thought Teddy was going to be my guy for the rest of my coaching career and he would still be here and I’d be fired," coach Mike Zimmer said. "Then I thought Sam (Bradford) was going to be the guy. Then I thought Case (Keenum) was going to be the guy. In the offseason we did a study on really those four guys. I knew Kirk from playing against him. The thing that I love about this guy is his passion for the game, his intensity that he has. He’s come in here and taken charge as a leader."
The ability to deliver a great message is just the beginning. Over the course of three seasons (and likely beyond), Cousins’ leadership will be judged by how he handles his team when situations don’t go as planned and the accountability he shoulders, whether the blame is on him or not.
On the field, quarterback leadership is defined in areas like the two-minute drill, where 10 other players know the person under center has the wherewithal to come through in pressure situations. It’s seen in the trust the quarterback has to develop with his playmakers, much like he’s done with Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs. They have to know he’ll go back to them even if they’ve made a mistake (like the confidence Cousins instilled in Laquon Treadwell after multiple drops in Green Bay).
Cousins is growing comfortable as a leader in Minnesota because he’s doing it the way that fits his style. So far, it’s living up to expectations.
"He walks the talk," safety Harrison Smith said. "He is a guy who is going to go lay it out there, run the ball for a touchdown, dive on third down, stand in the pocket and get hit by 300-pounders. No matter what, the guy gives everything he has. He is the real deal."