Egan, Minnesota. In his first team meeting as coach of the Minnesota Vikings, Kevin O’Connell did what coaches usually do: he played a movie. It was the spring of 2022, and O’Connell wanted everyone – players, assistant coaches and staff – to know how he felt about the starting quarterback he inherited.

He picked a game from the Vikings’ 2021 game at the Los Angeles Chargers, where Kirk Cousins ​​countered a furious pass to hit wide receiver Justin Jefferson. After showing it on the big screen, O’Connell paused the video.

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“I remember him telling everyone in this room that it takes a special ability to sit here, look down the barrel, get punched in the face and shoot with accuracy,” Cousins ​​said. “He inspired me in front of the whole team. It was quite a funny moment where I sat and thought, “Wow. He’s kind of just complimenting me and cheering me up.” It was cool. He did it for a few other guys too. He didn’t just single me out. But those moments just strengthened you as a person and as a player.

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“You feel like he’s not just building a football team. He builds people.”

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The moment helped rekindle the relationship between coach and quarterback, who are central to the Vikings’ 13-win season. Using the sunny personality that Vikings owners Zigi and Mark Wilf have been looking for since firing former coach Mike Zimmer last year after eight seasons, O’Connell — himself a former NFL quarterback — created the strangest but most effective season in Cousins’ 11 years. career in Minnesota and Washington.

O’Connell trusted Cousins ​​to make as many assists per game as he ever did (37.9) in his seven seasons as a starter. However, Cousins ​​finished with some of the worst records ever, including a career-high 14 steals and a career-lowest overall quarterback rating of 49.9.

But Cousins ​​did well late in the game, scoring eight comebacks in the fourth quarter and a total of 11 one-point wins (an NFL record) to help advance to the playoffs starting Sunday against the New York Giants at US Bank Stadium. (4:30). pm ET, Fox). At the urging of O’Connell, Cousins ​​targeted Jefferson at a level that provided one of the most productive seasons for a receiver (1,809 receiving yards, sixth in NFL history). Along the way, Cousins ​​felt liberated enough to reveal new levels of his quirky personality, paternal humor, and dance moves in public.

“I wanted Kirk to understand what he will mean to us not only this year, but also in the future,” O’Connell said of this video clip from the first team meeting, “and what he has achieved in this league, which will allow to make sure that our entire dressing room and coaching staff understood what I thought of him at that moment, and that was on the first day.

“And every time I have an opportunity in team meetings, after a game, after a breakdown at the end of practice, I never want to miss the opportunity to let Kirk know that I trust him, my faith in him as our leader and our quarterback.” .

In separate interviews with Sportzshala, Cousins ​​and O’Connell described the painstaking effort they made to create, maintain and strengthen a relationship that began in 2017 when O’Connell was Cousins’ quarterbacks coach in Washington.

Cousins ​​worried so much about O’Connell’s schedule as a notorious player, new head coach, husband and father of four children, including a daughter who was born in November, that he waited to be invited to one of them. – one film study. Once a dad himself, Cousins ​​said, “He needs to take a nap when the season is over.”

Meanwhile, O’Connell showered Cousins ​​with a torrent of compliments, displaying what Cousins ​​called a “warm, outgoing, affirmative” personality. One of O’Connell’s fears seems to be the occasional insult.

For example, during a recent outdoor practice session, O’Connell felt compelled to tell Cousins ​​that he was good at throwing the ball. After the next game, according to Cousins, O’Connell added, “I didn’t mean to say that you usually throw badly, but simply because it’s very cold today.”

The effect, whether intentional or accidental, was for Cousins ​​to be better equipped for unexpected twists at the end of close games.

“It just feels like things had to go a certain way for him to perform at a high level,” said former Vikings linebacker Ben Leber, now a Twin Cities media personality who covers games for KFAN-100.3 FM. “Then you combine it with an old-school authoritarian approach like [Zimmer’s] and you take a guy who thinks in a linear way and make him tense up. You go from linearity to rigidity. Now, looking at it with fresh eyes, this may not be the best way to deal with such a person.

“Kevin O’Connell seems a bit like a tech entrepreneur who comes with the optimism, youth and free spirit to say, ‘We’re going to be aggressive, but we’ll let you play for free.’ We’re going to encourage everyone to enjoy what you do and enjoy the risk. You have this guy who comes in with a great smile and such a nice personality, but underneath all those cosmetic layers is this aggressive guy who says, “Let’s let’s take a chance and let’s make it so that I’m not going to scold you and hold you by the fire on Monday morning when we watch a movie and make you feel bad.”


EASY HISTORY would go something like this: Cousins ​​and the Viking offense thrived under a coach with a friendly, upbeat demeanor and an offensive background after years of grinding under a grumpy, authoritarian, defensively minded one.

Cousins, for example, don’t think it’s appropriate.

“It’s just a lazy story,” he said. “I’ll tell you this: every year I got better as a player under Coach Zim. I had to go to two Pro Bowls under Coach Zim. better… I feel like Coach Zimmer gave me everything I needed to succeed and his style really matched what I was used to when I played at Michigan State and had huge success with Mark Dantonio.

“The defensively minded head coach was very disciplined and was going to look at it through the eyes of a defensive coach. I saw how well it worked. quarterback with that attitude. I think it really helped me in a lot of cases.”

The Vikings were 33-29-1 in games that Cousins ​​started under Zimmer, who was unavailable for comment on the story.

Cousins ​​himself admits that, from an individual standpoint, the 2022 season is far from his best. He agrees that his public persona has blossomed, but attributes this to factors other than Zimmer’s departure.

First, he says, it’s just how much the Vikings won. Cousins ​​entered the season with a record of 58-59-2 as an NFL starter. Their 13-4 record in 2022 represents his second double-digit season win total of his career.

The other one is just used to fitting into the profile of an NFL quarterback.

“When I played early in my career, in my first year here, in my early years in Washington, I was still trying to figure out who I was in the league,” said Cousins, a fourth-round draft pick in 2012. “What am I capable of? What is the best way to play? What do I need to be successful?

“But as the sample size got bigger and bigger, I could quite calmly say, ‘Look, this is who I am. I know who I am. I know what I need to do to prepare, win, stay healthy, succeed, and I don’t have to reinvent the wheel, change or fix anything. I know my recipe for success. .”

The most public manifestation of this comfort, of course, was the appearance of Kirko Chainz. Beginning with a transatlantic flight home from London after a 28-25 win over the New Orleans Saints in Week 4, teammates began putting their chains around his neck during the in-flight celebration. The cousins ​​understood and accepted the gentle mockery that followed. Cousins ​​was ribbed for tucking a white T-shirt into his sweatpants one week, but agreeing to take the shirt off completely the next.

But those who spent the season around him noticed many other new glimpses of his personality in public. He spices up his weekly press conferences with stories about a neighbor who plows his driveway in exchange for tickets. He shut up Andrew DePaola’s bagel shop, which is about to open. He thanked his wife Julie for “dressing me up” by placing his game clothes, including a Scandinavian printed blazer in week 15, on their bed before leaving for the team hotel.

And he told a long story about how he called left tackle Christian Darrissow that told as much about Cousins ​​as it did about his young teammate. It looks something like this:

While warming up for a game in 2021, Cousins ​​noticed a video board interleaved with trivia about Viking players. It notes that Darriso played first base at the age of 10 in youth baseball.

Cousins ​​found the randomness of the nugget hysterical and began referring to Darriso as a “criminal dog”, a reference to Baseball Hall of Fame first baseman Fred McGriff. “You know, Crime Dog, ‘CD’, same initials,” Cousins ​​said as an explanation for Darrisow, who is 23 and had no idea who McGriff was.

But Darriso was the first Viking player to wear a chain around Cousins’ neck, marking a turning point in the development of a fierce defensive line and admiration that Cousins ​​experienced from younger players on the roster. More recently, Jefferson defended Cousins ​​from criticism on social media and was still on edge when asked about it later.

“It’s just that people don’t show the amount of work he’s done,” Jefferson said. “Everyone wants to joke about him and stuff like that, always want to talk about him, but his numbers show otherwise.”

Before Minnesota’s Thanksgiving game against the New England Patriots, Adam Thielen took Cousins ​​aside to cheer him on. “You…