Kirk Cousins made an appearance at the Blitz summit, a yearly coaching conference held virtually in 2021. Charles Davis asked him myriad questions that prodded deeper than your usual press conference fare. The full segment is here if you want to watch for yourself, and I highly recommend that you do (the interview starts around the 27-minute mark).
Most player pressers are entirely skippable since players are trained to divulge as little information as possible. But this one made for an incredibly insightful conversation.
Here’s a summary:
His relationship with coaches
Cousins spoke a lot about how his relationship with his coaches differs from other quarterbacks. Cousins has worked with a ton of prestigious names in the NFL, including both Shanahans, both Grudens, both Kubiaks, Sean McVay, and Matt LaFleur. He says he takes a hands-off approach with his coaches.
Still, he understands that not every quarterback is comfortable with that and encourages his teammates to be more involved than he is. A larger theme of his conversation was an understanding that everyone is different. Wherever your comfort zone is with someone else, it’s important to find it so you can work with them as smoothly as possible.
But Cousins doesn’t entirely defer on all strategic matters. QBs and coaches meet constantly throughout the week about protections, coverages, and everything else. In those meetings, Cousins talked about his tendency to poke holes. He said the best coaches in history (Walsh, Belichick, and so on) err on the side of paranoia when it comes to preparation. By bringing up fringe “what ifs” in the room, you can prepare for something your opponent thinks they’re surprising you with.
His relationship with Garrett Bradbury
Cousins answered a question that I long had about the Vikings’ protection calls. On some teams, the quarterback chooses the protection, whereas other teams delegate that to the center. Minnesota is the latter sort of team. With a rookie center in 2019, Cousins actually approached Bradbury with concern about his inexperience. But he came away with nothing but positivity about how Bradbury has handled that responsibility.
Choosing protections is an incredibly detailed process that Cousins works on in some capacity almost every day of the week. The first thing he hones in on specifically is the defensive fronts. Which fronts does that defensive coordinator prefer? And which protections will we choose to counter them?
These are subjective matters, and all parties won’t necessarily always agree. Cousins even recounted some times where he and Bradbury would overrule one of Rick Dennison’s calls if they were on the same page about it. He justified this by saying that he and Bradbury are the ones physically out there, and the ones whose reputations are on the line. Obviously, that disagreement would be resolved in the ensuing debrief, but it’s interesting how open Cousins was about it.
Interestingly, Cousins says that during a play, he won’t pay much attention to the protection. It’s one of his top priorities pre-snap to read the defensive front and adjust the protection if he needs to, but once the ball is snapped his attention focuses on the read. Perhaps that contributes to his reputation as a quarterback who is particularly sensitive to failed protections.
Part of Cousins’ Monday routine involves a scouting report he gets from Minnesota’s pro scouting department. He made a big point of fact-checking what the scouting department told him. He focuses on personnel first before he focuses on the scheme. In most contexts, he seems to prioritize The Who over The What. It doesn’t sound like he encounters much friction in his preference for talent over scheme.
The next step is to draw up ways to counter the opponent’s favorite defenses. Similarly, he prefers plays that focus on players instead of plays. He even went so far as to advocate for the simplest plays possible, if you have good talent. If you have excellent receivers, and you only ask them to run curl routes, they’ll be so elite at curl routes that it removes the need for any overcomplicated tactics.
I found this particularly interesting because of the offenses he has run in the NFL. McVay and the Shanahans are famous for giving defensive coordinators headaches with their offensive wrinkles. But Zimmer prefers more simplistic methods. To some degree, Gary Kubiak does too. Thinking defensively, Zimmer will use his best players in simple one-on-one matchups. He’d ask peak Xavier Rhodes to cover MEG (Man Everywhere he Goes). He’d design a whole pass rush around generating a one-on-one matchup for Danielle Hunter and relying on the fact that he would win.
This is neither here nor there. It’s not like there’s any consensus on these matters, but it is interesting to think about how Cousins and his philosophies mesh with his coaches, new and old.
When Davis and Cousins discussed in-game adjustments, one theme came across repeatedly: If you wait until halftime, you’ve waited too long. The myth of halftime adjustments is common on gamedays, but Cousins said halftime is more for emotional conversations. In fact, they start making adjustments on the sideline during the opening drive. After two drives, they’ll consider making wholesale changes to their gameplan if the opponent deployed something different than they planned for.
They’ll ask, “What kind of game do they want to make it?” If the defense wants to hunker down and play big-on-big, the Vikings may counter with 10 or 11 personnel (i.e. more wide receivers). If you planned for a bunch of zone defense, but they’re playing lock-down press-man, they’ll go over to the sideline and discuss what needs to change.
This is where old plays or concepts may come in. If you installed something two weeks ago, the players can still likely run it, and it might be perfect against a team copying a past opponent. You may have a man-beater fresh enough in everyone’s minds to utilize in that situation.
Davis asked Cousins about his advice to a young player trying to learn how to handle in-game processing. He talked about compartmentalizing information to make it more digestible instead of trying to absorb everything at once. To that end, he recommended three categories to sort out defensive strategies.
- First, he wants to look at the defensive front, and which protections the team needs to employ to counter them. Are your protections right? Do you need to adjust them before snapping the ball?
- Then, he says to look at the linebackers. If they’ve shifted left or right, or are threatening the line of scrimmage, your film study should tell you what that is telegraphing.
- On the back end, the corners and safeties reveal information as well.
Cousins then went on a tangent of high praise for Chicago Bears safety Eddie Jackson. He’ll line up in one place and act like he’s rolling to another — a common misdirection — only to play the coverage he was indicating in the first place. That game of cat-and-mouse between quarterback and safety is constant, and probably responsible for more of the result than we typically account for.
Cousins has three different categories of progression he can compartmentalize as well. There are “man-zone” reads, where the progression changes depending on man coverage or zone coverage. There are “shell” reads that depend on the coverage shell, specifically the safeties. And there are straightforward “1-2-3-4-5” reads that simply go from one route to the next. From there, he includes alerts, blitz counters, protections, and other add-ons that adjust for particular situations.
You should watch the whole thing down yourself, but here are some other nuggets I found interesting:
- If they prepare a play or protection, but don’t end up using it in-game, they’ll consider it more in a future game. This way, they can generate an advantage by pulling from a playcalling pool that builds as the season goes along.
- “It’s not ‘Practice makes perfect,’ it’s ‘Perfect practice makes perfect.'” You have to put as much into practice as you do into games.
- He acknowledged that Justin Jefferson had every possible excuse not to succeed, but excelled anyways. But usually, rookies need resources to succeed.
- He mentioned some rookies that feel like they’ve “made it” once they get to the NFL, and subsequently fail. The ones that stay hungry are the ones he has had the most success with.
- Cousins seemed very sensitive to burnout in-season, and always makes sure to take Tuesdays to himself to rest and recuperate. That increases his mental stamina deep into the season.