Something changed in Kirk Cousins on a second-and-10 against the Buffalo Bills last week.
Kevin O’Connell dials up a screen to Dalvin Cook on the left. K.J. Osborn runs behind Cousins and Cook in motion from left to right. Cousins calls for the shotgun snap as soon as Osborn clears out from behind him and takes a couple of steps back. Buffalo’s defense jams Cook up behind the line, but Cousins looks deep left and scrambles right.
As he escapes pressure, he throws off-platform to Adam Thielen, who is open on the sideline. Cousins hits Thielen on the numbers for a big gain. A chaotic Cousins drops the snap or misses Thielen wildly. A conservative Cousins throws the ball at Cook’s feet. If Cousins were anxious, he might force the ball to Cook, creating a pass for loss or an interception.
Instead, Cousins moves off the designed screen, looks deep left, and swiftly avoids pressure to find Thielen. Notice how Thielen never runs a route on the play. He sneaks past the defender, finds an open gap in the defense, and calls for the ball. Cousins sees him and delivers on the backyard play. It’s Brett Favre to Sidney Rice stuff. But Cousins? The league should have ID’d him on his way out of Highmark Stadium.
“We had no linemen downfield on that play,” said Wes Phillips, Minnesota’s wry offensive coordinator. “That was improvised, great play by those guys but certainly not the intent.”
Phillips could pass a lie detector test. He never seems to get too excited, and his emotion hardly changed while recalling Cousins’ schoolyard scramble. Still, he’s being honest here. It wasn’t something he identified from up in the skybox and relayed to the field. Phillips says it wasn’t something they discussed in film study.
“I mean, if you happen to see a play after the fact and say, ‘Hey, maybe we can get to something that we have in,’” Phillips said, shrugging, when I asked him if he could identify that the corners were ignoring Thielen on screens in real-time and relay it to the field.
“Generally, we try not to make up a whole lot because we put in a plan, and we prepare, and the guys are kind of ready for stuff. There’s certain stuff we might add if we’ve got a lot of history with something, but we’re not usually drawing up plays in the sand, so to speak. That was just something that usually probably gets called for a penalty there, but we just happened to not be too far down the field, so we got a little lucky there.”
“It was completely improvised. The O-linemen couldn’t get out; they were getting held up or whatever by the D-linemen,” says Thielen. “Kirk did a great job and found me and got it out in enough time, and in quick enough time, that the guys weren’t downfield, so it wasn’t an illegal play.”
Phillips may not have gotten overly excited about the play, at least after the fact, but our Luke Braun certainly did. You can hear the rise in his voice as he diagrams the play for us this week. It was one of many plays he broke down in his piece that showed how Cousins is playing at a playoff level.
Braun acknowledges Cousins’ two interceptions immediately. The one where he overthrew Osborn doesn’t look as bad after seeing the film. However, the tape doesn’t help Cousins out on the second interception. On play-action, he progressed through his reads right to left and throws the ball directly to Bills cornerback Dane Jackson. After the game, Cousins told KFAN’s Paul Allen that he thought he was throwing to Justin Jefferson. Cousins also threw the ball wantonly backward to Cook on a play where he tripped on Ed Ingram‘s foot. But once Cousins settled in, he tapped into something we haven’t seen before.
Cousins moved fluidly in the pocket and threw off-base. He passed on checkdowns and made risky throws. Perhaps most importantly, he routinely showed confidence in Jefferson. Cousins indicated his confidence in his sublime receiver was at an all-time high when he threw it to Jefferson in triple-coverage against the Arizona Cardinals two weeks ago. But Cousins’ willingness to throw Jefferson a YOLO ball on fourth-and-19 and then return to Jefferson a few plays later for an acrobatic catch near the goal line paid off big-time in Buffalo.
Jefferson has progressively coaxed Cousins into throwing him risky passes, like an employee trying to get his colleague to do a trust fall on a corporate retreat. Cousins has complied recently, and the Minnesota Vikings are better for it. Why? That’s up for interpretation, but I believe it’s because Cousins is allowed to fail. He has the trust of his teammates and coaches. Therefore, he can throw two interceptions early against Buffalo and later raise his game on the road against a contending team.
I initially thought that if Cousins was going to succeed under O’Connell, it was because O’Connell could “program” him correctly. Cousins has often seemed like a football robot. His answers on specific plays are always detailed, and Cousins meticulously prepares for every game. If he hadn’t made a fortune playing football, I could see him becoming a quarterbacks coach or offensive coordinator after he retires. But where other star quarterbacks like Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, and Lamar Jackson make something out of nothing, Cousins usually faltered when improvising.
Mike Zimmer publicly pushed Cousins to take shot plays and push the ball downfield last year. But it always felt like advice that could change after one or two bad passes. Zimmer was a defense-first guy, and interceptions and turnovers put the defense in a tough spot. Furthermore, he was never a Cousins advocate. Why would Cousins believe he was allowed to take risks?
But O’Connell made it clear he wanted Cousins as soon as he took the job. O’Connell worked with Cousins in Washington and believed in his ability. He believed that Cousins could be great if he played with a quiet mind, and Cousins has delivered this season. Nothing exemplified that more than Cousins’ improvised play on second-and-10 against Buffalo. In a game with big-time implications, a man who prepares for games in a cubicle drew up a play in the sand.