When teams give up on a season, it plays out differently than fans typically want. Maybe you want them to trade away veterans, shed salaries and move to the next iteration of the franchise. The Minnesota Vikings likely won’t do that, though they’ve been trying to shed some older salaries to no avail. Their plan may look closer to Arif Hasan’s, who advocated for shutting down injured players and manufacturing more experience for young players.
The big problem, however, is how to handle Cousins moving forward. Noah Cierzan outlines the restrictive nature of Kirk’s functionally guaranteed contract. Cutting him is impossible. Trading him requires a willing partner, which would be a difficult sell considering the season Cousins has had so far. But even if moving on from him were easier, the Vikings don’t seem that interested in taking it. Spielman stuck by Cousins in a press conference during the bye week.
“You just kind of have to go back and look at the big picture,” he said. “But I don’t think anyone has lost any faith in Kirk Cousins. I expect him to come back after the bye week and play well for us.”
Counterintuitive as it may be, Spielman may have a point there. Cousins is a streaky quarterback who can ping-pong between extremes in a flash. For example, he started 2019 with arguably the worst month of his career, then immediately ripped off one of the best four-game streaks PFF has ever graded. Normally, bad games precipitate more bad games. You wouldn’t watch Kirk’s season thus far and predict good play in the future. But with Cousins, good times could be just around the corner, no matter how much evidence there is to the contrary.
Cousins’ contract is designed to incentivize stability, and a promise to stick by him through the bad times so they can enjoy the good times. There are peaks and valleys, and the Vikings have restricted themselves from reacting to those valleys. After all, they’d hate to sell Cousins at his lowest value just for him to find another hot streak in a different uniform. So far, every ounce of messaging from the organization is telling us that they are riding out the storm.
Winning a Super Bowl with Cousins is still their goal, but that doesn’t necessarily mean sitting on their hands. The Vikings can still engage in moves that try to improve upon their flaws in a more traditional way than the oft-suggested “tank and rebuild” strategy. Just because the Vikings have more faith in him than most doesn’t mean they are resigning to mediocrity.
So how do you optimize a team for Cousins? The Vikings have already done a lot of the legwork. For one, the wide zone scheme that came with Gary Kubiak plays directly into his strengths. Cousins has an extremely convincing play-action fake, and the wide zone utilizes a ton of play-action. Cousins has an accurate deep arm that’s perfect for the shot plays that come with the wide zone scheme. Bootlegs, a staple of the wide zone, mitigate pressure and keep him from improvisational scenarios. Even if the Vikings were to sacrifice Kubiak at the altar to atone for their lost season, they should replace him with someone that runs the same scheme.
Cousins has good games in him, and the Vikings have committed to maximizing those. They haven’t, however, committed to minimizing the bad games. Much like the games against Atlanta and Indianapolis, Cousins is capable of losing a game by himself. Finding a way to notch wins in the midst of a Kirktastophe is the next step in building a true contender. One method would be to bench him for a steady backup. The Vikings don’t have that, but instead, have Sean Mannion, who is meant to maximize Cousins’ strengths at the cost of an insurance policy.
Every year, plenty of viable backups hit the market for cheap. A few 2021 options would be Brian Hoyer, Joe Flacco, Jacoby Brissett, or even Tyrod Taylor. Taylor is the ideal backup quarterback with a conservative style that can limp you to the end of a game where Cousins is imploding. That doesn’t require some long-term move away from Cousins, but rather help you weather his tropical storm damage. If you can simply build a levee, you don’t need to uproot the whole city in fear of a hurricane.
The Vikings could also tweak some play decisions to help Cousins. With young quarterbacks, coaches like to start with short, easy completions to get them in rhythm. The Vikings don’t necessarily need to baby Cousins as much as they would a rookie, but starting off with simple reads could help him get into the flow of a game. He has been very successful with triangle reads, or three-level reads that ask him to read defenders and throw away from them. The Vikings use these plenty, but could lean on them even more in the first couple drives.
A check down is preferable to improvisational performance art with Cousins. The Vikings have been caught in max protection, or eight blockers, with no outlet. While more blockers would typically reduce pressure, Minnesota has pass protection issues. But even with eight blockers, there can still be mistakes. Having a tight end or running back leak out as a check down can mitigate damage in a way that he can’t as a blocker.
Consider the safety he took in Week 1. Both tight ends and Dalvin Cook have blocking responsibilities, the protection goes haywire and Cousins has no option but to crumple in the end zone. One of those tight ends could have leaked out as a check down, and given Cousins a “break glass in case of emergency” option.
Kirk Cousins is a viable Plan A, even after considering his inconsistency. But instead of going all-in on that Plan A week after week, a Plan B could convert disastrous losses into potentially ugly wins. If the Vikings must ride the waves of variance, they could at least do so with a lifejacket on.