EAGAN — The Minnesota Vikings have had a different primary quarterback each of the previous four seasons, two of which resulted in division titles.
Teddy Bridgewater and Case Keenum led the Vikings to the top of the NFC North in 2015 and 2017, respectively, while Sam Bradford and Kirk Cousins commandeered disappointing eight-win seasons in 2016 and 2018.
While each of those passers had varying skillsets — and changing coaching staffs drawing up different gameplans — one stark contrast exists between the two subsets: The Vikings’ offense was better with mobile quarterbacks.
The letdowns in ’16 and ’18 resembled one another as a faster start gave way to a dismal finish, stoked in part by the quarterbacks’ inability to work around middle-of-the-road offensive lines that allowed frequent pressure.
With new offensive line coach Rick Dennison, the Vikings hope their protection up front is better in 2019 than it was the year prior. They also hope Cousins can rediscover the mobility that he’s shown glimpses of in the past, a desire that Cousins voiced after his final practice before Sunday night’s preseason game versus Seattle.
“I always felt like [making off-schedule plays is] a missing element in my game,” he said. “The ability to not only run for yards but run around and then make throws. I was talking with Fran Tarkenton this winter and Fran said, ‘Kirk, I only ran a 4.90 40 [yard dash]. I wasn’t fast, but I ran around to then be able to throw.’ I play with rhythm and timing, so I’m not trying to play off schedule all the time, but I think I have the ability to run around a little bit and I think I have the arm to make those throws.”
Tarkenton, the legendary scrambling Vikings quarterback of the 1960s and ’70s rushed for over 2,500 yards and 22 touchdowns in his Minnesota career. And his uncanny ability to outmaneuver defenders and turn broken plays into long throws downfield became viral YouTube material.
Cousins may not have the agility to mimic Tarkenton — nor should he try if he wants to stay in good graces with his head coach. But there is room to improve his mobility, and there are indications that Cousins has it in him.
From a rushing standpoint, Cousins was far from a statue in his three years as Washington’s starter. He scored 13 rushing touchdowns in those three seasons and rushed for 28 first downs, excluding sneak attempts. Seventeen of those first down runs came in 2017, his final year with the Redskins. But that mobility rarely showed up in Year 1 with the Vikings. Cousins rushed for four non-sneak first downs, fewer than NFC North counterparts Matthew Stafford (5), Aaron Rodgers (18) and Mitch Trubisky (25).
Vikings fans have seen how a quarterback’s mobility level can help or hurt a team. Bridgewater’s 15 first-down runs in 2015, and Keenum’s 12 in 2017 helped mitigate some of their limitations as passers like arm strength and deep-ball accuracy. Sandwiched in between, Bradford delivered just three first-down runs in 2016 as he took the sixth-most sacks in football. When faced with 3rd and 6 or longer — a situation where defenses typically bring the most pressure — the 2016 Vikings had the third-lowest first-down percentage in football. Minnesota was ninth-lowest with Cousins a year ago.
So when Cousins faced a 3rd and 9 on Minnesota’s first drive of the preseason opener against the Saints and decisively took off running for a first down, it was a refreshing sight for Vikings fans and the team’s coaching staff.
“I think it’s a positive in his game because he has the ability to leave the pocket when people play a lot of man and those type of things and keep us on the football field,” said offensive advisor Gary Kubiak. “So it’s something you talk about all the time. You don’t know how often it is going to happen in a game, but obviously you’ll be a good third down team if your quarterback has the ability to do that.”
In terms of throwing the football, Cousins and his Vikings predecessors since 2015 have all been poised when coping with pressure in the pocket, at least according to one Pro Football Focus metric. Bridgewater finished second in adjusted completion percentage under pressure in 2015, Bradford finished first in 2016, Keenum fifth in 2017 and Cousins first in 2018.
But escaping that pressure to make throws on a consistent basis is where Cousins wants to see improvement. That’s a difficult skill to simulate in a training camp setting where plays are whistled dead once defenders get close to the quarterback, who is wearing the red no-contact jersey.
“That’s why you say you don’t really know a lot about yourself until you get into live bullets,” said Cousins, “because with a red jersey, we’re going to argue back and forth all day long that, ‘Oh he was sacked,’ and ‘No, I wasn’t, and I would have slipped out of that and I spun away.’ That’s kind of the ongoing banter between the offense and the defense all training camp long and OTAs. It’s been hard to train, because you aren’t really getting hit so you don’t know when you can realistically escape pressure and when you have to say, ‘Hey I was sacked there, and I can’t get away with that.’
“You kind of just have to learn it in live bullets, and time will tell if I’m going to do that or not. Again, there are a lot of guys that are going to be in the Hall of Fame who didn’t have that element to their game. You don’t necessarily need it, I just think it’s an added bonus. Our coaches have said, there’s probably more there in your game than you have let on.”
If there’s a modern quarterback that resembles Tarkenton, it might be Sunday night’s opponent Russell Wilson, who made 27 first-down conversions with his legs in 2018 while also throwing the most touchdowns (10) of any quarterback when under pressure.
Cousins doesn’t have the elusive gene like Wilson. But as Vikings fans have observed, it helps to have a passer that occasionally wriggles out of tough spots. That’s one of Cousins’ major resolutions in his second Minnesota season.
“It’s just a matter of doing it,” said Cousins. “It’s so important that it’s instinctual. When the ball is snapped, you can’t say on this play, ‘I’m going to give up on my read and just run around.’ It has to be when the play breaks down. That’s the hard part, training your body and mind to do that.”