Is it vague report season, already?
Over the past few days, two ESPN reporters have mentioned that new Minnesota Vikings head coach Kevin O’Connell wants to work with Kirk Cousins and the team may end up working out something with Cousins’ contract to keep the veteran QB in Minnesota.
“Josh [Rosen] is our guy,” Kliff Kingsbury said, a few weeks before the Arizona Cardinals traded him to Miami.
“I had every intention that he was going to be our quarterback,” Lions GM Brad Holmes said after trading Matthew Stafford.
Anyway, let’s call the situation still up in the air, shall we?
But if O’Connell, who coached Cousins in Washington in 2017, does end up with Cousins as his quarterback for the foreseeable future, how can he make the most of the 33-year-old QB?
One thing that has to be noted first is that Mike Zimmer’s offenses got a lot of things right over the last four years. Between 2018-2021 the Vikings have thrown the sixth most touchdowns, ranked 10th in total passing yards, eighth in net yards per pass attempt and fifth in team passer rating*.
*All stats via Pro-Football Reference and Pro Football Focus
Between John DeFilippo, Kevin Stefanski, Gary Kubiak and Klint Kubiak, there were plenty of good ideas to maximize Cousins’ talents. Starting with 2021 and working backward, Cousins ranked third, fourth, third and fifth in play-action passer rating.
If you needed evidence that play-action stats are as much based on scheme as the QB, well, Taylor Heinicke led the NFL in play-action passer rating this year. Baker Mayfield, Andy Dalton and Gardner Minshew were top 10 in 2020.
So the Kubiak style wide zone/bootleg concepts worked as well as they possibly could have hoped.
The OCs from 2019-2021 were all scrutinized for needing more throws toward the No. 1 wide receiver but when Cousins targeted his top man, his numbers were phenomenal. When throwing to Stefon Diggs in 2019, Cousins had a 110.7 rating and averaged 12.4 yards per pass attempt. In two years, the Vikings’ quarterback has a 115.0 rating when passing in Justin Jefferson’s direction.
Don’t throw out the boots with the bath water. That’s the saying, right?
But there are some down sides to the Vikings’ offense with Cousins. Since 2018, they have only scored the 13th most points in the NFL. They rank 21st in third down percentage and 25th in time of possession. Only Matt Ryan has thrown the ball more times in the last four years on third-and-long (more than seven yards to go).
On those third-and-longs, Cousins has dropped back 326 times and gained a first down through the air just 94 times (28.9%). If you are wondering, league average is 26.5%. The average QB rating on third-and-7 or longer is 81.4. Put another way: Third-and-long turns the league into Daniel Jones.
Adjusting the run-pass ratio on first down is one way to avoid landing on third-and-long. Since 2018, the Vikings are exactly 50-50 when it comes to running or passing on first-and-10. First down represents the best opportunity to run play-action passes, where Cousins thrives. He has averaged 8.2 yards per attempt on first-and-10 over the last four years but there may be more meat on that bone. Lesser or equal quarterbacks have had more success, including Ryan Fitzpatrick (8.6 YPA), Jameis Winston (9.1), Kyle Allen (8.1).
It’s a scheme-up-anything down, which may explain Jimmy Garoppolo producing the NFL’s best 10.1 YPA and Jared Goff coming in with nearly equal numbers to Cousins (8.0).
Cousins has ranked 18th, 11th, 5th and 22nd in play-action percentage over the past four seasons, leaving some room for improvement. Some of that may have been dictated by playing behind in games — Cousins has the third most passes thrown when trailing over the last four years — but there’s also a chicken-and-egg question about whether they got behind by not passing enough.
Interestingly when the Vikings have thrown the ball on first-and-10, they have used Jefferson as much as anyone else in the league has thrown to their top receiver. Jefferson has 96 first down targets over the last two years while Cooper Kupp has 95 and they both rank in the top 10 most used receivers. How’s it working? Jefferson has 70 receptions for 982 yards.
That doesn’t mean the Vikings should throw the running game in the Mississippi River. Dalvin Cook averages 5.4 yards per rush on first-and-10 over the last two years. It needs a tweak, not a complete overhaul.
On second-and-long is where the Vikings ran too often. The only teams that rushed more times on second-and-long since Cousins became a Viking are the Bills, Titans, Colts and Ravens. Two of those teams have running quarterbacks. And the Vikings rank 26th in first down percentage in those situations.
Passing on second-and-10 more often isn’t likely to boost Cousins’ numbers. He has a pedestrian 7.3 yards per attempt and 97.7 rating on second-and-long but producing more points with him at the helm is the goal, not boosting his numbers.
Cousins has only produced one year in his career (2019) in which his team has a top 10 offense. As you can see in the chart below, having a top 10 scoring offense is a prerequisite to reach the Super Bowl, even if a team’s defense isn’t excellent.
One thing about the 2019 Vikings offense that stands out is the team’s success in screen passing.
Cousins gained the fifth most total yards via the screen and averaged 8.7 yards per screen attempt, second most in the NFL. Last year Cousins dropped to 5.7 YPA, which still ranked 11th.
There are other areas along the margins where O’Connell can boost his team’s chances to have an elite passing game. For example, Cooper Kupp lined up in the slot 65.5% of the time in 2021 for the Rams. Jefferson was used as a slot receiver on only 31% of his plays. Using Jefferson more in the slot could create easier completions in his direction.
The average throw to Jefferson also traveled 13.3 yards. Passes toward Kupp averaged 7.6 yards through the air. Shorter passes aren’t always better but Jefferson was used similarly to deep threats DK Metcalf and Marvin Jones.
Modern elements like pre-snap motion could be utilized more. As you can see from ESPN’s Seth Walder below, the Vikings didn’t avoid motion in 2021 but the Rams and 49ers used it all the time.
The bottom line is that there are small edges that O’Connell can improve upon from the past with coaching alone. If the Vikings can even approach the Rams’ offensive line play, which ranked No. 1 in pass blocking by PFF this year, that could give Cousins the comfort in the pocket that he’s missed since joining the Vikings in 2018.
The question that all of this raises is: Could all of these improvements along with the foundation of a good offense also work for other quarterbacks — maybe ones who are less expensive and more mobile?
If the roster and system are strong, wouldn’t that lend itself to the Vikings being in prime position to set up the next QB for success while creating cap space to build a complete roster?
These numbers demonstrate that there are parts of QB play that can’t be controlled simply by the play designer and play caller. That’s why the Rams moved on from Jared Goff to Matthew Stafford.
We’ll find out in the coming weeks whether the Vikings believe the right answer is to squeeze more out of Cousins or look elsewhere.