Captain Checkdown Or Captain Comeback: The Cousins Conundrum

Photo Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Has it been pretty? Of course not.

Have the Minnesota Vikings lived up to expectations? Certainly not, especially not the eye test.

Is Minnesota a legitimate contender in the wide-open NFC? Who knows.

But as we’ve reached the conclusion to the first quarter of the season, here the Vikings are, 3-1 and sitting atop the NFC North. That’s after taking a field trip across the pond last week to play the under-manned New Orleans Saints team missing starting quarterback Jameis Winston, All-Pros Alvin Kamara, and Michael Thomas, and three-time Pro Bowl guard Andrus Peat. For much of the afternoon, Minnesota appeared to be in complete control, particularly against the Saints’ offense. But Minnesota’s propensity for poor offensive execution in the red zone was the football version of Teddy KGB’s soundbite from the movie Rounders. If the Saints were Mike McDermott — played by Matt Damon — in this particular scenario, the Vikings and Teddy KGB finally found a way to overcome the alligator-blooded Saints.

Following a Taysom Hill rushing touchdown that gave the Saints their first lead of the game, the Vikings were tasked with completing their second consecutive fourth-quarter comeback with just under 10 minutes remaining and trailing 22-19.

After Kirk Cousins took a first-down sack, he completed 17- and six-yard completions to Justin Jefferson and K.J. Osborn to keep the drive alive. And following two-straight penalties by New Orleans on third-and-10, the Vikings finally punched it into the end zone when Jefferson scored on a three-yard jet sweep. Unfortunately for Minnesota, Greg Joseph missed the PAT, and the Vikings led 25-22.

The New Orleans McDermotts (aka Saints) wouldn’t go down lightly. Backup quarterback Andy Dalton helped lead the Saints into field goal range where Wil Lutz broke the back of Skoldiers everywhere with a 60-yard bomb of a field goal to tie it back up with 1:56 remaining.

Could Cousins and the offense do it again?

Dalvin Cook saved his best run for the final drive, bouncing outside for a 14-yard gain on first down. That set up the biggest play of the season thus far for the Vikings.

Joseph would eventually kick the go-ahead field goal, and Lutz couldn’t repeat his heroics after falling victim to the NFL’s first international double-doink.

For the second-straight week, Cousins and the offense found a way to put their struggles in the rearview and deliver when they needed it most. Winning ugly is always better than losing pretty. But Vikings fans are more than justified in feeling a specific way about this team and its quarterback right now.

Aside from the late-game heroics over the past two weeks; Cousins has looked skittish, uncomfortable, and unpoised. There are obvious timing issues with this passing game right now, where Cousins has a tendency to hold the ball too long in the pocket when receivers are winning downfield.

While he didn’t necessarily hold on to the ball too long in this particular case, Cousins misread the New Orleans corner on a critical third down from inside the red zone. O’Connell called a high-low concept with Thielen running the drag and Jefferson responsible for the corner route into the end zone. Cousins admitted in his post-game press conference that he anticipated the corner to sink on Jefferson’s corner route. Instead, the corner flashed on Thielen’s drag and forced the Vikings to bring out their field-goal unit when Cousins checked down. It’s important to note that Cousins was forced to get rid of the ball before he wanted once New Orleans’ front four created pressure on him.

This play — and quite possibly this entire game — was the perfect representation of who Cousins is as an NFL quarterback. No one should ever mistake Cousins for an exquisite ad-libber from the pocket. When pressure is coming, nine times out of 10, that old reliable checkdown is the decision the former Michigan State quarterback is going to make instead of creating a play on his own.

Asking a quarterback to play well within structure is more than fair. But having a mutually agreed upon understanding that you won’t get much of anything outside of structure brings with it an obvious ceiling. Here’s the deal: NFL defenses are good. I’m talking really good. The NFL is filled with dynamic pass rushers — such as Cameron Jordan and Marcus Davenport — that can singlehandedly make life a living hell for opposing quarterbacks. If your QB can’t occasionally create something out of nothing, the offense is going to have significant limitations.

Welcome to the Kirk Cousins experience. While it’s completely fair to want more out of him, the long and short of it is that he will never be able to consistently generate offense while playing outside of structure. But, luckily for Skoldiers, Cousins has other strengths that can be found in money time of fourth quarters.

Last season, Cousins was one of the more effective quarterbacks in the league in crunch time, with a 103.2 passer rating in fourth quarters. And over his past 20 starts since last year, Cousins has led game-tying or go-ahead drives at the end of regulation or overtime in nine of them.

Over the past two weeks, Cousins has saved his best play for last — like a true red-light performer. After four weeks, Cousins leads the NFL with two fourth-quarter comebacks and two game-winning drives.

That brings us back to the foundation of the Cousins conundrum: How far can an NFL team go when their quarterback completely lacks the ability to ad lib? Even if he is one of the best quarterbacks in recent history at giving his team opportunities to win late in games? For crying out loud, no quarterback in the league appears to be more frightened by incoming pressure/hits than Cousins (which is comically easy for someone to say while sitting safely on their couch on Sundays).

Despite his anxiety in the pocket, Cousins still repeatedly delivers for the Vikings when they need him most. If the Vikings catch some injury and/or schedule fortune at the expense of the rest of the league — like they have already this year against the Green Bay Packers and Saints — could they make a run at an NFC crown and Super Bowl berth? Potentially. The same could’ve been said about Andy Reid‘s Kansas City Chiefs with Alex Smith at quarterback from 2013-17.

Which is the exact same place the Vikings find themselves in with Cousins. This team is more than capable of making a legitimate run at the NFC title considering the way their 2022 schedule shakes out. But without said good fortune, no one should realistically expect a Cousins-led team to reach the NFL mountaintop and hoist the Lombardi trophy from inside Statefarm Stadium in Glendale.

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