The broadcast angle of an NFL football game betrays us. It cuts off the deep part of the field and leaves us with questions we can’t answer. When the Minnesota Vikings check down incessantly, as Kirk Cousins did against the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday Night, we have to wonder why. Was it the coverage? Were there open people downfield? Did Cousins fail to read plays? Were the play calls bad? Did the receivers fail? We can’t see anything on TV, so if the broadcast does not grace us with a downfield view, we’re left with an incomplete puzzle.
So let’s wade into the weeds and try to figure it out for ourselves. In doing that, we not only dole out blame, but more importantly, we can try to propose a solution.
In the game against Dallas, the Vikings’ passing offense shriveled into a conservative, stifled mess. It’s difficult to overstate just how slowly the Vikings trudged through that game. It wasn’t a matter of running the ball too much, necessarily; that’s a conversation to have another day. Instead, it is a failure of the passing offense.
The Vikings threw remarkably short throughout that game, extending a trend that has held them back all season. The average Cousins pass traveled 5.4 yards downfield. Expanded throughout a season, that would shatter NFL norms. Cousins’ average depth of seven yards ranks 29th of 30 eligible quarterbacks, ahead of only Jared Goff. But even that doesn’t quite illustrate the extreme degree of conservatism we saw from the passing offense.
Twenty-two of Cousins’ 35 passes landed behind five yards. He did not throw past the sticks on a single third down. But this is a team game. While quarterbacks hold a lot of the responsibility for the passing game’s success, there are other factors. We should determine whether or not these failures are Cousins’ fault before asking him to change the way he plays.
Dallas pressured Cousins on 16 of his 39 dropbacks (per PFF), including some scrambles. That’s a pretty bad rate. However, the Vikings have effortlessly produced worse. We can forgive some of Cousins’ checkdowns by blaming the pressure. But even if each of those 16 dropbacks accounted for a checkdown, it doesn’t explain all of the short passes. Further, we have to expect the quarterback to overcome pressure some of the time. If we chalk up every pressured play as a ruined play, we aren’t expecting enough from our $31 million signal-caller.
There’s also the play calling. The Vikings ran several screens and short throws, most of which were countered easily by Dallas’ speedy defense. The days of seven-step play-action bombs are long gone. Instead, the Vikings’ bootleg game almost always targets the shortest part of the route concept. Part of that is the way defenses play bootlegs in 2021, which has evolved significantly since 2019. To a degree, the offense is designed to throw short. It’s meant to overcome poor offensive line play, but the Vikings may have overcorrected.
Both pass blocking and play design deserve their share of the blame. But to be specific, we have to watch each play individually. And when flipping on the tape, we can see Cousins’ role in this. We can pile up every missed opportunity, then sort out plays that aren’t Cousins’ fault. Once we’ve removed screens or other plays that do not have a deep option, plays where pressure was insurmountable, and plays that otherwise did not allow Cousins to throw deep, we are left with these 11 missed opportunities.
This is entirely subjective. If you wanted to, you could do the same exercise I did and come away with more or fewer qualifying mistakes. Quibble over the tally if you want to. Otherwise, let’s look at the patterns that lead to these missed opportunities.
Let’s Break it down
You may think I’m asking for the quarterback to do too much on his own, but it’s fair to hold Cousins to the highest standard. His contract encourages that, and so does his skill set. Cousins is an immensely talented quarterback. He has one of the league’s strongest and most accurate arms and more than enough mobility for the modern NFL. We know how many eye-popping throws Cousins can make. There’s nothing wrong with expecting him to flex that muscle.
Some things can’t be solved with a high-level adjustment. Some plays are simply mistakes that Cousins needs to avoid. Even giving Cousins the most benefit of the doubt possible, there are still plays we cannot excuse in the above compilation.
Concerning pressure, we can decide to blame Cousins more for unpressured plays than for pressured ones. But how much do we expect our $31 million quarterback to overcome a little pressure now and then? By my book, I expect quarterbacks to use every inch of pocket space they have before checking down or bailing out. Some pressure is insurmountable, but there is an advantage to be gained by the quarterback on the smaller pressures.
A common critique of Cousins is that he is unwilling to break the pre-planned structure of the play. Cousins doesn’t deny this. He defends it as an aspect of his game. Making preparations ahead of time and leaning on those preparations can expand the number of things Cousins can focus on during the play. He’s a big fan of managing his mental bandwidth. But that aspect can have some unintended consequences and leave meat on the bone.
There are some structural tweaks we can make to try and encourage more deep passing. In high-low concepts with a long option and a deep option (and sometimes one in between), the quarterback either reads the play short-to-long or long-to-short. This has oscillated back and forth over the decades. If you’re running timing-based concepts, you have to read short-long. By the time the longer throw has developed, the shorter throwing window will have expired. If your concept is not timing-based, you have the luxury of peeking at the deep ball before reading the shallow part of the field.
But by simply tweaking the assignment of the shallow receiver, we can kill two birds with one stone. We can get some utility out of that player in the backfield, with an extra dedicated chip or any brand of influence on a defender. That hides the offense’s true intention until later in the play. We can allow Cousins to read deeper throws before shallow ones without asking him to abandon structure. Most importantly, we can do all of this without sacrificing Cousins’ outlet if things go wrong.
Still, it’s not all the fault of the play design. This is a third-and-eight play. Osborn is open in the sense that he can get a completion, but he has a minimal chance to get the first down. Cousins should have come off of his first read in this instance. He is often too willing to throw a completion, even if that completion will not achieve the goal of the play.
The Vikings are leaving yards out there. Both play design and pressure aren’t the root causes of the problem. They’re failures to paper over the root cause of the problem. Kirk Cousins is at the root of the Vikings’ offensive struggles. For as talented as he is and as high-flying as the offense has been, Cousins is constantly liable for a game like Sunday night. Moving forward, the Vikings can further tweak their offense around Cousins. But ultimately, the onus is on him. Cousins simply has to play better.