Kirk Cousins Deserves More Autonomy At the Line of Scrimmage

Photo Credit: Jim Dedmon (USA TODAY Sports)

From Tom Brady to Taylor Heinicke, most NFL quarterbacks have the authority to change a play at the line of scrimmage, call timeouts, or initiate a hurry-up offense. Yet, for whatever reason, you’ll hardly ever see Kirk Cousins do any of this.

As a matter of fact, it seems like he actively avoids it.

“I just let Zim handle the timeouts,” Cousins said after the Minnesota Vikings’ loss to the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday night, “because I never know quite what the coaches want to do with what they’re thinking, a play ahead or what that may be. So I was just gonna let them handle that and call the next play if one came in.”

Cousins was asked about his decision not to call timeout with 20 seconds left in the first half. Instead, he went to the line and called a play that let precious time run of the clock. By the time the play was over, there was only a second left. It’s mind-boggling that an established NFL quarterback who gets paid over $30 million a year has to defer to his head coach on timeouts.

Cousins is an intelligent quarterback. He got a 33 out of 50 on the Wonderlic. Not only is that higher than his predecessor, Teddy Bridgewater (20), but it also exceeds Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, and Russell Wilson, who all scored a 28. Cousins’ football IQ has only increased as he’s gotten older. It also helps that he’s played in the same Shanahan-esque scheme for most of his career.

There’s no reason why Zimmer shouldn’t grant Cousins the authority to make adjustments on the fly. He has a lot of experience in the Shanahan offense, which emphasizes play-action to keep defenses off-balance. He should know immediately if a play is destined to fail. Cousins is capable of turning what would’ve been a negative play into a positive one. As a pocket passer, his biggest strength outside of arm talent should be his mind. If you can’t outrun trouble, you better be able to outsmart it.

Oh, and did I mention how he’s making over $30 million a year?

As frustrating as this is, don’t blame this lack of initiative entirely on Cousins. This is an issue that goes back several years.

To better understand this, let’s look back at the beginning of the Zimmer era. Norv Turner was his offensive coordinator, and he had 30 years of coaching experience in the NFL. Naturally, he had a lot of authority and influence on how the offense was to be run. It was a time when Zimmer wasn’t focused on his offense’s identity. He had no experience handling things on that side of the ball and deferred the decision-making to Turner.

“Since Norv has been here, I’ve given him almost 100%, total free will in everything that they’ve done offensively,” he said at the time.

Turner wasn’t the only person who had a considerable amount of autonomy. Bridgewater was allowed to change plays at the line of scrimmage as a rookie. A great example of this is Minnesota’s overtime win over the New York Jets in 2014. Bridgewater saw that the Jets were about to bring pressure so he changed the play to a Jarius Wright screen pass.

This isn’t an endorsement for Turner. But he had over 30 years of experience and was confident in himself. Turner called plays from the booth and took a hands-off approach, giving Bridgewater room to make changes if necessary.

Over the next few years, the Vikings would see a cast of several offensive coordinators take command, all of whom ran different schemes with their own quirks. This helped give Zimmer a good idea of what he wanted his offense to look like. He needed something that would complement his stingy defenses. He wanted an offense that revolved around establishing the run and ball control. Keeping the ball out of opposing offenses’ hands and allowing his defense to rest is essential for a defensive-minded coach like Zimmer. Once he found out what paired best with his defensive philosophy, any autonomy or decision-making powers a play-caller or quarterback could have were discarded.

Things have changed a lot since Zimmer’s early days as head coach. Klint Kubiak is the Vikings’ offensive coordinator. Zimmer promoted him at the age of 34, which makes him among the youngest OCs in the NFL. He doesn’t have the same level of experience to fall back on, meaning he’s unlikely to push back on Zimmer.

So long as Zimmer is around, Cousins won’t have much autonomy. That’s a shame because you can’t have a successful offense if everyone’s not on the same page. Given that the Vikings’ defense has been inconsistent and is now stricken with injuries, it seems like things are going to get worse before they get better.

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