Vikings

Let's Talk About the "Kirk Vick" Phenomenon

Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

If you were following social media Monday night, you probably noticed fans tweeting about Lamar Jackson as he rumbled for 124 yards and two rushing touchdowns in the Baltimore Ravens win over the Cleveland Browns. “Lamar Cousins,” they called him, in deference to the mobility of Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins.

OK, that was a lie. We’re not quite there yet with Cousins’ newfound mobility. Fans may continue, tongue-in-cheek, to call Cousins “Kirk Vick” or “Kirk Jackson,” but it’s never going to be the other way around.

That being said, in the bowels of Pro Football Focus analytics, on the morning of Dec. 15, there is a tasty, hilarious treat for those willing to do the digging. If one were to peruse the website’s rushing grades for quarterbacks, they would see Cousins’ name in seventh with a robust 81.2 grade — one rung above Mr. Jackson himself.

For those continuing to read through a fit of laughter, yes, this is a ridiculous stat when you consider that Jackson was sixth in the league in rushing last year and sits 10th this year as a quarterback. But there is, perhaps, one true and informative takeaway from this statistical outlier. It’s that Cousins has suddenly become a high-efficiency scrambler in a small sample size, which on Pro Football Focus, apparently, is enough to catapult you above the league’s finest rushing quarterback.

Eliminate kneel-downs and aborted snaps and Cousins has 18 rushes for 134 yards on the year, a 7.4 yards-per-carry average that is the best of his career and by far his most efficient in Minnesota.

KIRK COUSINS RUSHING TOTALS (2018-20)

2018 2019 2020
ATTEMPTS 29 18 18
YARDS 129 71 134
YARDS PER CARRY 4.4 3.9 7.4

Cousins talked half-jokingly about taking cues from Fran Tarkenton in 2019 to unlock his agility, but he had an even rougher year making plays with his feet than in 2018 when it was already deemed a problem. The narrative remained the same heading into 2020 as Cousins spoke of tapping into his athleticism, which was met with the same eye rolls that fans usually reserved for Adrian Peterson when he spoke of catching the football more.

But it seems like Cousins’ work has finally taken effect. The Vikings have had a more nimble, decisive Cousins in the pocket who has found a way to pick up 14 first downs on the ground, not far off from his 2017 career-high of 19 in Washington.

“The more times he does that, the more stress it puts on the defense and the less times they can play man-to-man,” head coach Mike Zimmer said. “Then if he starts doing it, it slows down the pass rush and everything else.”

Fans got a glimpse of a sprier Cousins in the season opener against the Green Bay Packers when Cousins ran four times for 34 yards in a 43-34 loss, including this season-long 16-yard scurry where he took advantage of vertical routes and a blitzing linebacker that left the middle of the field open.

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As evidenced by the play above, Cousins has had a decisiveness about him when running with the football. He’s never going to run in circles behind the line of scrimmage like Tarkenton (or Patrick Mahomes, to use a modern-day example) — or make linebackers miss in the open field — but his willingness to take free yards off schedule has been noticeable. If there’s a stat that reflects this, it’s PFF’s time-to-run, which signifies how long quarterbacks are holding the ball before scrambling with it. Cousins was steady at 5.24 and 5.26 seconds in his first two years with the Vikings, but that number has dropped to 4.68 in 2020.

On the second play of the game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last Sunday, Cousins feels edge rusher Shaquil Barrett (No. 58) rush too deep in the pocket, so he steps up and runs for 13 yards. Cousins had the most rushing yards in his career on Sunday, carrying five times for 41 yards.

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Cousins has lamented in the past how difficult it is to practice off-schedule plays. Quarterbacks aren’t allowed to get touched during practice, and most plays that break down are whistled dead pretty quickly. But Cousins has worked with offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak and figured out ways to practice the un-practicable.

“What you do is you try to orchestrate defensively,” Kubiak said. “I’ll go in the back end with the defense and say, ‘OK. I want you to do this and take this guy away. Kirk doesn’t know it.’ … You try to create reactions that can happen, making him go to the last guy [in the progression] or making him move his feet. It’s part of the preparation for our QB, but I think you have to give him the credit. When he came back from last year, we had kind of put together a book and said here’s some things we want to improve upon and that was a big key, making more plays with your feet and bailing us out of some bad situations or some bad calls with your movement.”

The Vikings quarterback isn’t known for his mobility, but he has been known for his durability. Vikings fans probably can’t recall a time Cousins was slow to recover from a hit because he’s usually quick to pop up. That confidence in his sturdiness has shown up when he runs the football — sometimes to his detriment. In past years, he’s been blown up by tacklers trying to gain extra yardage, and more often than not he dives forward rather than sliding.

“He needs to be a little more smooth, let’s say that, when he hits the turf,” Zimmer said Monday.

To his credit, Cousins did opt for one slide on Sunday on this fourth-quarter carry, preventing a possible lick from Carlton Davis.

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Among the bigger surprises have been the play calls where Cousins is designed to run the ball. On a key 4th and 2 at Houston, Kubiak called for a bootleg that required Cousins to race toward the sideline and turn the corner for a first down. Thanks to a big block by Riley Reiff, he got there.

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And even on Sunday, the Vikings took advantage of man-to-man coverage in an empty set on 3rd and 2. Without a single linebacker hovering in the box, Cousins used a Garrett Bradbury escort to gain 12 yards and a first down (below).

“I do think that’s been an area of improvement this year for me, but you have to keep it going, right?” Cousins said Sunday. “There’s still a lot of games left and you have to keep showing that improvement every single week. But I think as we were saying in August, I think the ability is there to do it.

“You just have to want to do it more and have it show up more. I think that was the reason to emphasize it. If that wasn’t my style of play, and there are certain quarterbacks where they’re not built to do that, then probably don’t talk about it as much and try to work on it. I think it’s there to take advantage of, so I think it’s good when you can see it showing up and helping our offense.”

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Its clear Cousins thinks of himself as a different quarterback than Tom Brady or Philip Rivers who rarely consider leaving the safety of the pocket. It was hard to believe until this season, but Cousins has shown enough wheels this season to trust that he’s turned a corner. In his last three games alone, Cousins has shown increased confidence with nine carries (non-kneel-down) for 73 yards, better than 8.0 yards per carry.

Presumably, Cousins will be the team’s starter heading into 2021, and if at age 32 he’s still able to improve his playmaking ability, that’s good news for the Vikings.

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