Coming into Sunday’s game against the Cleveland Browns, there was legitimate MVP talk surrounding Kirk Cousins. With a QBR that ranked second in the league and a passer rating that ranked fourth, the Minnesota Vikings’ man under center had the stats of a franchise quarterback even if it wasn’t showing in the win column.
In what seemed like an annual event, “Kirktober” had come early. With Cousins looking decisive and ready to allow his receivers to make plays. It was the type of performance fans have been hoping for since he arrived in 2018, and the best was yet to come.
Or so they thought.
Cousins’ performance against the Browns looked like a majority of his time with the Vikings. Surrounded by pressure, Cousins didn’t have time to get the ball downfield. Even when he did, it was forced into coverage and resulted in his first interception since a Week 14 loss to the Chicago Bears. So what happened?
The most glaring problem was the offensive line. In what has been an issue for the past decade, fans were fooled into thinking their issues had been solved. Klint Kubiak was scheming receivers open and using screens to allow his linemen to get into space. But neither of those things happened on Sunday.
There’s also the possibility that Kevin Stefanski knew how to attack Cousins. After being his quarterback coach and offensive coordinator, Stefanski had to have an idea of how to slow down Cousins. Stefanski had to know how Cousins processes pre-snap reads and what Kubiak was doing to bring out the best in him. That led to a barrage in the trenches and allowed the Browns to achieve a 50% pressure rate on Cousins’ dropbacks.
But the biggest reason for the postponement of Kirktober was his indecisiveness.
In the first three weeks, Cousins knew exactly where he wanted to go with the ball. The Vikings were allowing a pressure rate of 27%. Cousins’ primary reads were open. He was able to get the ball out quickly, asking less of his offensive line. Cousins’ time to attempt clocked in at 2.37 seconds coming into Sunday’s game, a meaningful improvement over the past two years. But it didn’t show up on Sunday.
With Myles Garrett, Jadeveon Clowney, and the rest of the Cleveland defense bearing down, Cousins held onto the ball for 2.51 seconds. While that isn’t a big regression toward his numbers in 2020 (2.67 seconds) and 2019 (2.83 seconds), it gave the Browns just enough time to create problems, which turned the Vikings’ quarterback into a pumpkin.
It notably showed up at the end of the game as Cousins was attempting a game-tying drive.
With eight seconds remaining, Cousins led the Vikings to Cleveland’s 32-yard line. He took the easy completion to Tyler Conklin and set up for a 25-yard throw. It was a logical throw, but the problem is that plays like that aren’t made to win the game. They are made not to lose them. By checking down to Conklin, the Vikings had time for just one heave to the end zone, which was knocked down to end the game.
It was a similar scenario 11 years prior when Brett Favre led the Vikings to a comeback victory over the San Francisco 49ers. With 16 seconds remaining, Favre checked down to Bernard Berrian to get closer for a last-second heave, but he still had 11 seconds on the clock.
In Cousins’ situation with less time, he decided to check down again to get even closer, leaving the Vikings with one shot at a game-tying throw. For Favre, he decided to let his receiver make a play, famously throwing it into the back of the end zone to Greg Lewis.
This isn’t about comparing Cousins to Favre. It’s not saying that Favre never checked down on the drive. It’s that getting to the 32-yard line wasn’t enough for Cousins to trust two of the best receivers in the NFL to make a play, but it was enough for Favre to throw it up to a fourth-string receiver.
With the Detroit Lions coming to town, Cousins will likely look like the MVP candidate he can be at times. But if he hasn’t learned to trust his weapons, Kirktober will be just a one-month thing.