When Kevin O’Connell joined the Minnesota Vikings, he talked about his strategy for getting more out of Kirk Cousins. He said he wanted “a quieted-mind quarterback”, and that he thought he could get Cousins to be that guy. At first, I was skeptical of the idea that a 10-year veteran could become a different player. But he has been in the last few games, especially last week against the Buffalo Bills.
To understand this change, we have to understand where Cousins was before. In his autobiography, Cousins outlined a lot of his personal philosophies, which enlightened us about some of his quarterbacking tendencies. You may hear national media call Cousins a conservative passer, which is a little oversimplified to my tastes. He values security. In life and in football, a bird in hand is more than two in the bush. Statistically, that would lead to empty-calorie completions that inflate his passer rating but put the Vikings behind the chains.
This explains a lot of the narratives you’ve probably heard about Kirk Cousins. People call him stilted because he rarely goes off-book, declining common sense for the sake of the predetermined plan. He “needs perfect surroundings” because poorly run routes or broken protections aren’t accounted for in that plan. He’s worse against good teams because good defenses know how to punish those sorts of plans.
If Cousins could complete it, he’d throw it, whether that completion would help the Vikings or not.
But this couldn’t be further from the truth in the last month. Credit O’Connell for quieting his mind, or credit Cousins for taking a step forward. Credit whoever you want. Cousins is playing a brand of football unlike what we’ve seen since he was at Michigan State. And that is a very good thing for the Minnesota Vikings.
You could see this switch flip in real time against the Buffalo Bills. The game started like a fairly standard Kirk Cousins game, which includes some of his favorite throws, and some of the classic blunders. But this new, improved Cousins is building off of some staples, like this fade from 20-30 yards out.
You may be wondering how I could be so high on a game where Cousins threw two bad-looking interceptions. Let’s dive into those first. The first one came over the middle on a target to K.J. Osborn. This interception looked a lot worse on TV than it does on tape, where you can see Osborn failing to get through traffic down the field. The ball comes out a little higher than you’d want, but that’s a nitpick compared to the real issue.
If you want more on that high-throw issue, here’s a free video from my Patreon from earlier in the season, and an attempt to explain it. But it’s only a tertiary issue here, the timing of this throw is where Cousins wanted it to be. Osborn was late to the appointment.
The second interception isn’t so defensible. If you heard Cousins on Paul Allen’s radio show after the game, he describes this as exactly the brain fart it looks like. Cousins worked to the other side of the play, but with pressure in his face, he mixed up who was who and threw it straight to the wrong guy. It’s reminiscent of the infamous moment last year where he lined up under the right guard.
If you wanted to squint, you could technically excuse this by saying that the interception only happened because of the failure on the front side of the play. It would be just as unfair as blaming Cousins for the first interception, but it’s a free country. It’s a bad play.
So you may have felt in this moment like this was just another Cousins disaster against a good defense. That feeling is part of why this game stands out. It shows particular gumption to take this situation and turn it into one of the best stretches of ball he’s ever played.
Cousins credits Dalvin Cook‘s 81-yard touchdown for sparking the Vikings’ comeback, but I want to draw attention to a play that came on the possession before it. Cousins had a third-and-12 situation and was presented with the exact kind of textbook read that would get him in trouble in previous seasons. The Bills play it very well, but Cousins used to throw right into the teeth of the defense anyways. Instead, he progressed onward and found a conversion.
Third-and-12 is never easy. This play shows that Cousins is no longer settling for a good-enough opportunity (a low-percentage throw to Osborn, in this case). He’d rather risk the sack and look for something that converts. It’s not the most eye-popping play you will see in this game, but in it, there is the germ of a new mentality. It only got more stark as the game went on.
Here’s a play from the Vikings’ ultimately doomed attempt at a game-winning drive, where Cousins flashes a skill for pocket movement he has previously underused.
Or consider this play, a second-and-10 screen that didn’t develop properly. The textbook thing to do in that case is to throw the ball right at Cook’s ankles and live to fight on third-and-10. But who wants a third-and-10? Third-and-10 is a very difficult situation, and the Vikings are far enough behind at this point that failing it would basically mean the game. Instead, Cousins did this:
From this point onward, Cousins played like a man possessed. Under duress, he threw a fairly reckless pass off-platform and all the way to the sideline.
This was second-and-short. There would be nothing wrong with throwing away the ball here. At this moment, the conservative decision would be perfectly acceptable, maybe even favorable. But in overtime, Cousins kept the play alive. This throw takes a ton of physical ability. Cousins’ throw had to come off-platform with torque to get the requisite velocity. Most excitingly, it did. Cousins has always had the ability to make these plays. He just needed the edge to decide to.
The exclamation point on all of this was the catch you’ll probably remember for the rest of your life. This play is more about Jefferson than Cousins, but it still shows another facet of this: Cousins’ trust in Jefferson.
For whatever it’s worth, Cousins wishes he put that ball a little shorter, and he did so with one of his classic references to a movie you totally forgot about until now.
This is a new Kirk Cousins. This Kirk Cousins is not satisfied with keeping his dignity and punting it away. This Kirk Cousins isn’t even satisfied with a third-and-10 if he can help it. I have long wondered if there was more ability hidden inside Cousins than what he was willing to use. I’m getting my answer.
To win a Super Bowl, you have to win in the playoffs. And playoff games have a few key things in common. You’re going to, with very little exception, play a good team. You’re probably going to have to go on the road, and at the very least, play one game on a neutral field. Things will be stacked against you. The playoffs are filled with elite defensive lines that will not give you clean pockets. It’s packed to the brim with the best secondaries in football that will not give you wide-open receivers. You have to make your own luck to beat a good team on the road. Cousins has proven that he can do exactly that, and I don’t think he only had one bullet in the chamber.
If you want to see more plays broken down in this way, including more Kirk Cousins highlights, you can find a 45-minute breakdown on my Patreon page.