- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 23, 2019

ASHBURN — Inside the Redskins’ locker room earlier this week, Landon Collins sat on a stool and referenced the narrative that has followed Kirk Cousins throughout his career. The safety explained how when he was with the New York Giants, he never knew which Cousins he would face across the line of scrimmage against the Redskins — the guy who could dissect a defense like a surgeon or the quarterback who would crumble under pressure.

It’s a story the Redskins knew all too well, and one the Minnesota Vikings have been baffled by since signing the quarterback to a three-year, $84 million fully guaranteed contract in 2018.

But when Cousins faces his former team Thursday for the first time, he’ll do so in the midst of the hottest stretch of his career.

After three straight stellar performances, Cousins leads the league in passer rating (114.3) and the Vikings look like a legitimate Super Bowl contender. The Vikings have tailored to Cousins’ strengths, relying heavily on play action to take shots deep down the field.

“Right now he’s playing like a Pro Bowl Kirk Cousins,” Collins said.

By the end of Cousins’ tenure with Washington, his departure felt inevitable. The Redskins were reluctant to give Cousins a market-setting contract, and many in Washington questioned whether the Michigan State product wanted to stay. After the team put the franchise tag on him for the second time, Cousins and his agent didn’t even bother to negotiate.

Instead, the Redskins traded for Alex Smith, Cousins went to Minnesota and Case Keenum, Minnesota’s former starter, landed in Denver for a year before being traded to Washington.

It was a quarterback carousel that has, so far, failed to deliver on expectations for all three franchises, including Minnesota.

Cousins, Keenum and Smith all got paid. But Smith suffered a career-threatening injury with the Redskins, Keenum struggled in Denver and now again in Washington and Cousins led a team with Super Bowl aspirations to a disappointing 8-7-1.

But over the last three weeks, the Vikings seem to have found a formula that gets the most out of Cousins — a blend of coach Mike Zimmer’s run-first approach with the 31-year-old’s ability to hit intermediate and deep throws. With a solid offensive line, Cousins leads the league in average time to throw — 3.05 seconds per attempt.

After racking up 306, 333 and 337 yards through the air in wins this month, the Vikings no longer appear to be a team in danger of coming apart at the seams.

That wasn’t the case a few weeks ago when receiver Stefon Diggs appeared to want out of Minnesota, receiver Adam Thielen took a shot at Cousins in a postgame interview and Cousins apologized to Thielen on a podcast, all of which can be traced back to the offense’s struggles.

“When he was here, he was a great teammate and a great QB in my eyes,” Redskins cornerback Quinton Dunbar said. “We know we’re facing a good challenge.”

Of course, the Redskins understand better than anyone how different Cousins can look from one performance to the next. Tackle Morgan Moses said if the defense can get to Cousins and rattle him, he’ll “cough the ball up a little bit.” Cousins has fumbled a league-leading 47 times since 2015, the year he became a full-time starter.

Yet for all the skepticism that surrounds Cousins, the Redskins haven’t been able to find stability at the quarterback position since he left. First-rounder Dwayne Haskins — labeled the future of the franchise — is not ready to start against NFL defenses, according to his coaches.

There’s also this: The Redskins have had six different quarterbacks under center in the 23 games since Cousins’ departure.

“It’s a funny situation, I guess,” running back Chris Thompson said. “There was a lot of stuff going on when he was here being franchise-tagged twice when we all know he wanted to get a long-term deal done but we weren’t able to. … With injuries, it’s been a whole lot since then, but that’s part of the business. Things happen, obviously.

“I made it known back then when Kirk was here — we both talked about playing together for years. But things happen.”

For his part, Cousins said he was “grateful” for his time with Washington when speaking to reporters Tuesday in Minnesota. He noted how he had to wait two-and-a-half days once the draft started before the Redskins took him in the fourth round.

Cousins also said he was thankful for being able to start. He supplanted Robert Griffin III as a starter, setting up the rest of his career.

“I was given an opportunity to start when there weren’t many people outside of that building who thought I should,” Cousins said. “They stuck by me when there was a stretch there, we were 2-4 and many people thought it should be over for me to be playing, and then we had that comeback game against the Buccaneers, and I yelled the words ‘You like that!’ and kind of never looked back.”

• Matthew Paras can be reached at mparas@washingtontimes.com.

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