Something just feels different about Kirk Cousins this season. He's posting the same big box scores as he routinely has during his career, but something has changed. What is it?
If you ask Mike Zimmer, it starts with his leadership.
"His leadership has been a lot better this year," Mike Zimmer said last week. "Just the way he's going about his business. Not just being to himself but being around the guys more."
If you ask his teammates, it's his...swag?
"Some of the stuff he says, it's pretty funny coming from him," Alexander Mattison said after Sunday's win over the Seahawks. "He's definitely kind of opened up a little bit and it's definitely awesome to see. He's just taking the reins and he's a tremendous leader."
Whatever it is, it has contributed to a strong start for Cousins. His 118.3 passer rating and eight touchdowns ranks fourth in the NFL and his 78.2 QBR ranks second behind Matthew Stafford. Cousins also ranks in the top eight in passing yards, yards per attempt and hasn't thrown an interception since last December, but like everything else in his career, it's gone beyond the box score.
"He [just has] no fear," Adam Thielen said. "He’s not worried about anything other than going out and doing his job. I think he’s a guy that now is able to be in the third year of this system and be around a lot of us players and he just kind of trusts us.”
Cousins lit up the Seahawks' for 323 yards and three touchdowns but it was how he did it that was different. On one occasion, Cousins casually chucked a shoe that wouldn't stay on his foot.
On another, he made an incredible throw off his back foot to K.J. Osborn that he admitted looked like "a flash of purple." The play went for a first down to help keep Russell Wilson on the sidelines.
This doesn't sound like the quarterback who was criticized for holding onto the ball in Cincinnati, but maybe it was the game-tying drive late in the fourth quarter against the Bengals that helped Cousins flip the switch.
Cousins has been more decisive when getting rid of the ball this season with Pro Football Focus charting 2.37 seconds per attempt. That time dropped from 2.67 seconds in 2020 and a league-high 2.83 seconds in 2019. With the ball out of his hands, the offensive line has been asked to do less and ranks fourth in PFF's pass-blocking efficiency.
That gives the receivers a better chance to make plays, which results in a new and improved Cousins. Unless you ask him, of course.
"I try to be the same guy [and] be consistent," Cousins said. "I'm always trying to build relationships and stay connected with teammates but I assert myself when it makes sense to do that."
But those relationships have also been forged with a more relaxed approach in the locker room. Cousins moved his locker this past offseason to be next to Justin Jefferson and Irv Smith Jr. While it's unlikely Cousins will be rocking some wraparound shades, it has definitely had an effect on his "swag," even if he admits to having none.
"Kyle Shanahan told me that my swag was having no swag," Cousins explained. "He told me as a rookie to never change...I kind of like it that way. There's a hint of truth to that joke, so it is what it is."