Opinion: A QB in plexiglass? Vikings' Kirk Cousins baffles with COVID-19 vaccination stance

Nate Davis
USA TODAY
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Entering his 10th NFL season, Kirk Cousins' brand is pretty well established.

Pro Bowl-caliber quarterback despite entering the league as a fourth-round draft pick. Smart. Hard worker. Affable. Durable. Savvy businessman. Yet Cousins, a six-year starter, tends to come up small when the figurative money is on the table, going 8-16 in prime time games and 1-2 in postseason – both playoff losses of the blowout variety.

You'd think such a driven guy would want every advantage at his disposal while trying to dispel the notion he's not a championship-level quarterback. But the edge conferred by COVID-19 vaccines isn't one Cousins wants.

Thursday, he came off the Minnesota Vikings' reserve/COVID-19 list after being designated a "high-risk close contact" – meaning he's not vaccinated – and missing four training camp practices, an outcome Cousins characterized as "frustrating, disappointing."

Though it may ultimately be a minor setback for the team, head coach Mike Zimmer has clearly been miffed by the absence of Cousins and two other quarterbacks – rookie Kellen Mond remains on the COVID-19 list, while second-year backup Nate Stanley (unvaccinated himself) also returned Thursday – and it's easy to extrapolate this situation into a regular-season disaster for a team that's gone 26-23-1 since Cousins signed in 2018.

He remains unmoved.

Vikings QB Kirk Cousins' decision to not receive a COVID-19 vaccine has become a source of frustration for coach Mike Zimmer.

"I think the vaccination decision is a very private health matter for me, and I'm gonna keep it as such," Cousins said Thursday.

"I'm going to be vigilant about avoiding a close contact. I've even thought about should I just set up literally plexiglass around where I sit, so that this can never happen again. I've thought about it, because I'm gonna do whatever it takes."

He's willing to encase himself in plastic, but he won't get a shot or two to protect himself and other teammates – and several need it, The Washington Post reporting earlier this week that Minnesota's 64.5% rate for fully vaccinated players is the worst among the NFL's 32 teams. 

In fairness to Cousins, his decision is personal, and he's hardly alone. The U.S. only reached the 70% threshold of adults with at least one COVID-19 vaccination shot Monday, about a month after President Biden wanted to hit that benchmark – and while the delta variant of the virus rips through the country with surging frequency. (The NFL at large is now more than 90% vaccinated.)

Scientific data shows vaccinated individuals are better protected from COVID-19 – and far more equipped to weather it if they become infected – by orders of magnitude. It makes the stance of Cousins, a four-time Academic All-Big Ten selection at Michigan State who has two young sons, all the more baffling.

He famously bet on himself while with Washington, playing on the franchise tag twice, before signing a groundbreaking, fully guaranteed, three-year, $84 million deal with the Vikings in 2018 (a pact he's since extended through 2022). But it's probably folly to think determination and self-confidence will allow him to continuously sidestep COVID-19, approximately 97% of those hospitalized in the U.S. not vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Many regret that decision.

“If I die, I die. I kind of have peace about that," Cousins said last year on Kyle Brandt's podcast for "The Ringer."

"That’s really where I fall on it, so my opinion on wearing a mask is really about being respectful to other people. It really has nothing to do with my personal thoughts.”

Cousins later backtracked from those remarks.

However it was clear Thursday that Cousins, who didn't test positive for COVID-19, believes the NFL's protocols – wearing a mask and socially distancing – will continue shielding him from an aggressive strain even while he works among nearly three dozen teammates who are similarly unprotected. Cousins says he's researched the virus but admitted he's never spoken to Allen Sills, the league's chief medical officer.

"The key will be not being a close contact, that will be the focus. We have to be very vigilant to make sure that does not happen," said Cousins, noting Vikings quarterbacks have moved into a larger meeting space and that he's willing to convene under an outdoor goalpost in January – in Minnesota – to help his team return to the playoffs.

But as far as getting stuck with a needle for a team that went 7-9 last season and has no proven Plan B QB? Nope.

"I just don't understand. I think we could put this thing to bed if we all do this. But it is what it is," a frustrated Zimmer said Monday. That after Minnesota's trio of quarterbacks were shelved last weekend, leaving the team in scramble mode while relying on Jake Browning, who went undrafted in 2019 and has never graduated beyond the Vikings' practice squad.

Cousins is the only quarterback on Minnesota's roster who has played in an NFL game.

"Like I said, these guys, some of them just won't do it. I shouldn't say it, but some of the things they read is just, whew, out there," Zimmer added.

"It's their beliefs, so. I don't know if it's misinformation. It's their belief, so whatever they've heard or read or been told. Not from – maybe they don't believe what Dr. Sills and the NFL is telling them either, so."

Zimmer had apparently cooled down by Wednesday night, when Cousins claimed he had "a tremendous conversation" with his coach and that matters between them are "absolutely" fine.

Cousins was also confident the locker room won't get ripped asunder, saying, "I don't think it will be an issue."

But if he misses a game or two or more? If he's part of an outbreak for a team with some degree of vaccine reluctancy, which could lead to forfeits and missed paychecks for the Vikings and their opponents, per new NFL guidelines?

It will be definitely be an issue then, Kirk – in your locker room and elsewhere. Let's hope it doesn't come to that. And if it does, hopefully only your bank account and Minnesota's Super Bowl hopes suffer the adverse effects. 

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Follow USA TODAY Sports' Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis.

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