While his tenure with the Minnesota Vikings pales in comparison to the gentlemen who accompany him on the Mount Rushmore of Minnesota’s Most Polarizing Athletes of the 21st Century — Joe Mauer, Zach Parise, Karl-Anthony Towns — it didn’t take long for Kirk Cousins to take up residence on the national memorial in the South Dakota of the mind.
Instead of answering the same questions that have surrounded Cousins since he stepped foot in Minnesota, we’re going to take a look at how one of the best offensive minds in the game today, Sean McVay, was able to bring out the best in Cousins during their time together in Washington from 2014-16.
Before taking the Los Angeles Rams head coaching job in 2017, McVay was a late-20s hot-shot offensive coordinator with a propensity for putting a lot on his quarterback’s shoulders. During his three years as the OC in Washington, McVay’s offenses ranked 21st, 14th, and 27th in rushing attempts. Conversely, his offenses ranked 11th, 11th, and second in passing yards. During McVay’s final year in D.C., their offense ranked third in total yards with the seventh-most passing attempts throughout the league with Cousins under center.
Make no mistake about it, Cousins’ time in Washington was a stark contrast to the run-dominant system that he currently finds himself in. Despite Minnesota’s desire to come out firing with their shiny new toy during his debut season, they ranked sixth in pass attempts in 2018, the Vikings’ offense has experienced a drastic shift over the past two seasons — and taken the ball out of Cousins’ hands. Since 2019, the Vikings have ranked 30th and 27th in pass attempts. Not exactly a vote of confidence in the quarterback to whom the team is committing $150 million.
Circling back to McVay’s final season with Cousins in Washington in 2016: Not only did Washington rank second across the NFL in passing yards, what separated Cousins from the rest of the league was his ability to drive the ball downfield effectively. According to PFF, Cousins’ 82 deep-ball attempts (passes that travel 20 or more yards through the air) ranked third-highest in the league. On top of the extended volume, Cousins was one of the most efficient quarterbacks in this regard, completing 47.6% of his vertical throws — fifth among quarterbacks who attempted 60 more deep shots. Furthermore, Cousins’ passer rating of 118.1 on long balls trailed only the MVP from that season, Matt Ryan.
While I’ll be the first to admit that I still have some questions about PFF’s grading system, Cousins’ grade of 96.2 on passes over 20 yards again was runner-up to Ryan’s MVP campaign.
The verticality of Cousins’ present-day game pales in comparison to his time with McVay in Washington. Instead of making him a league leader in driving the ball downfield, the Vikings decided to keep the training wheels on their $150 million man. In 2019, Cousins’ 61 deep balls ranked 15th among NFL quarterbacks. And last season, Cousins’ 65 vertical shots ranked 12th in the league.
I’d be remiss if I failed to mention that during his time in Washington with McVay, Cousins had the luxury of being protected by arguably the best left tackle on the planet, Trent Williams. For McVay as a play-caller, does it make it easier to dial up more frequent deep shots with Williams protecting Cousins’ blindside? No question.
However, according to PFF, Cousins has nearly the exact same amount of time to throw on his dropbacks from 2020 (3.17 seconds on all dropbacks) to his time with McVay and Williams in Washington from 2016 (3.20 seconds on all dropbacks).
While Cousins never had a true difference-making receiver during his time in Washington, the same obviously cannot be said about his time in Minnesota. While the Vikings already interfered in Cousins’ football marriage with All-Pro wide receiver Stefon Diggs, they can still right those wrongs by unleashing Justin Jefferson on more vertical routes. Jefferson’s 24 targets of passes over 20 yards ranked 13th last year during his rookie campaign, so there is still plenty of meat on the bone for more game-breaking plays out of the dynamic duo.
Ask yourselves this, Vikings fans: If Sean McVay had a receiver like Jefferson during his time with Cousins in Washington, do you think he would constantly hold his quarterback back from attacking defenses down the field?