When the Minnesota Vikings hired Kevin O’Connell, it meant good things for Kirk Cousins. Getting an offensive coach was always going to benefit him. Hiring the offensive coordinator from the Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams didn’t hurt either.
But when Cousins stepped up to the microphone on Tuesday afternoon, he sounded like a convenience store employee who had just met his new manager. He discussed the difficulties of learning the new offense. He also revealed that he was using flashcards to learn the terminology. By recalling similar situations in the past, Cousins detailed his experience with change.
“This is really the first time since 2014 and then back in 2012 when I was a rookie…those are the only two times where I was really learning an offense from scratch,” Cousins said. “You have those moments in your career where you say, ‘I really have to lock in and learn this,’ but there were other years where there were changes, but they were more subtle.”
If O’Connell wasn’t aware of what he was getting into, he is now. O’Connell is a coach who wants to attack. He wants to draw upon “the illusion of complexity” and exploit the weaknesses in a defense. Cousins is a quarterback who relies on codewords and flashcards.
While that has helped Cousins become one of the most consistent quarterbacks in the NFL, it hasn’t led his teams on a deep playoff run. That makes it easy to wonder what O’Connell sees in Cousins. Still, it’s a partnership that might work.
Let’s go back to how Cousins played last season. There were times where Cousins threw caution to the wind, and it turned out in the Vikings’ favor. His pass to K.J. Osborn helped the Vikings beat the Carolina Panthers in overtime on the road. A deep bomb to Justin Jefferson helped beat the Green Bay Packers. Even a last-minute drive against the Detroit Lions set up Greg Joseph‘s game-winning field goal.
Cousins showed a killer instinct that many have begged to see in each instance. But every time we were on the verge of seeing a more aggressive Kirk, he quickly went back into his shell.
The final drive and aftermath after a win over the Packers is a good example. With time winding down, Cousins threw an aggressive pass downfield that Darnell Savage intercepted. After the play was overturned, Cousins threw a laser to Adam Thielen that Rasul Douglas nearly picked. The Vikings went on to win the game, but both plays stuck in Cousins’ mind during his press conference.
“I could point to a half-dozen throws today that were too aggressive,” Cousins sighed. “I don’t think you want to live doing that. We got away with it at times, and I keep saying the words ‘razor’s edge,’ but that’s a play where it’s an example of it. The difference between him catching that and it going the other way is very small.”
That constant battle inside Cousins’ head irritated Mike Zimmer. Although Zimmer’s desire to run the ball overrode any sort of aggressive game plan, he pleaded with Cousins to push the ball down the field.
“I want [Cousins] to keep doing it like he’s doing it,” Zimmer said the following day. “He can’t second-guess himself. If he throws an interception, that’s life. But you keep going for the jugular. It’s going to open up a lot of other areas in the running game. It’s going to open up other players.”
In the next game, Cousins threw an interception in the first quarter of a loss to the San Francisco 49ers. Perhaps it was his eroding relationship with Zimmer or a team that had given up on its head coach. Whatever the reason, Cousins lost his willingness to go downfield or be patient and wait for his other reads to get open.
According to Pro Football Focus’s QB Annual, Cousins threw to his first read 68% of the time. Those throws went beyond the first down marker 49% of the time. When he had to go to his next read, he threw past the sticks just 37% of the time, down 11% from the league average.
Meanwhile, Matthew Stafford threw to his first read 65% of the time, with 54% at or beyond the first down marker under O’Connell. When Stafford needed to go to his second read, he threw beyond the sticks 66% of the time.
Asking Cousins to do what Stafford did goes beyond his ethos. The Athletic’s Arif Hasan broke down Cousins’ attention to detail, including his recollection of an interception he threw at Michigan State. That play must be the equivalent of a dream where you show up in public in your underwear to Cousins. Therefore, it’s hard to imagine how he’ll thrive in O’Connell’s offense.
However, it’s about simplifying things for Cousins.
For everything that Cousins doesn’t do well, there are many things he excels at. Accuracy is the first thing that O’Connell mentioned about Cousins. He also has the arm that can dissect a defense from the pocket. Because he makes the occasional big-time throw, there isn’t much keeping him from being one of the best quarterbacks in the league rather than a borderline top-10 QB.
To get there, O’Connell needs to slow the game down for Cousins. The illusion of complexity should help because it creates plays that appear to be one thing but change at the very last minute.
“We’re doing a lot of things that are simple for us, but maybe a little bit more difficult for a defense to defend,” O’Connell said during his introductory press conference. “That illusion of complexity where teams think there’s a lot of offense that they’re defending. But really, we’re only doing small details here and there just to change the picture, change angles, and give ourselves an advantage wherever we see fit, both in the run game and the passing game.”
By doing things like moving Jefferson into the backfield or putting Dalvin Cook at receiver, it’s something that looks complex but turns into a play that Cousins can manage. It creates multiple options and allows Cousins to throw to an open receiver beyond the sticks.
If those secondary options are open, there’s a better chance they will get the ball. Cousins threw to open receivers 54% of the time last season. By comparison, he threw to slightly open receivers 27% of the time and made tight window throws 19% of the time. It’s true for any quarterback, but more important when it comes to Cousins.
The relationship between Cousins and O’Connell should be better than it was between Cousins and Zimmer. Even though they have a contrast in styles, O’Connell should be able to help Cousins find a middle ground.
If that happens, Cousins should be able to reach another level of efficiency, which could be what the Vikings need to take the next step.