Vikings

What Happened the Last Time Cousins Was In A Pass-First Offense?

Photo Credit: Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Vikings hired Kevin O’Connell to modernize their offense. The Vikings were a 21st-century football team trapped in the 1990s under Mike Zimmer. After learning under Sean McVay, O’Connell has some ideas about how to maximize their scoring potential.

If the early reviews are any indication, the Vikings players like what they see. Adam Thielen gushed about the new offense during an interview on The Pat McAfee Show, and Justin Jefferson proclaimed to NFL.com’s Kevin Patra that the Vikings were no longer a run-first offense.

O’Connell has brought a lot of excitement and intrigue to the Vikings, but Kirk Cousins remains the biggest mystery of all.

Cousins downplayed the impact of switching to O’Connell’s scheme and even mentioned he was using flashcards to memorize the offense. The ultimate creature of habit, Cousins needs to embrace an offense that should give him more options and create a new level of efficiency that others have failed to bring out.

Heading into his fifth offensive coordinator since arriving in Minnesota, Cousins isn’t at fault for all of the Vikings’ struggles. But if we want a barometer of how this could go, we can look back at the last time the Vikings trusted him with a pass-first offense.

Welcome to spring 2018, when Cousins had signed his first contract with the Vikings. Zimmer had warned the Vikings about the dangers of signing a pricey quarterback but reluctantly approved John DeFilippo’s hiring. Enamored by his ability on a whiteboard and his clean Jordans, DeFilippo was going to give Cousins the keys to the Ferrari. All Cousins had to do was keep it on the road.

For the first seven games, Cousins thrived. He threw for 308.9 yards per game with 14 touchdowns and three interceptions. With a 70% completion rate, he was also maximizing his weapons. Thielen was on his way to setting an NFL record for most 100-yard games to start a season, and Stefon Diggs was capitalizing off his momentum from the Minneapolis Miracle.

Things were looking good until the Vikings had a falling out about a victory over the New York Jets. Frustrated that the Vikings weren’t running the ball more, Zimmer became more hands-on with the offense, and Cousins struggled.

Over the final nine games, Cousins threw for just 2,136 yards per game with 16 touchdowns and seven interceptions. While he still completed 70% of his passes, the offense became stagnant and reliant on short screens. Zimmer grew even angrier and fired DeFilippo after a Week 15 loss to the Miami Dolphins and promoted Kevin Stefanski.

Since then, the Vikings prided themselves on being a run-first team. Minnesota ranked fourth in rushing attempts during the 2019 season and eighth under Gary Kubiak in 2020. The Vikings showed a little more aggression under Klint Kubiak in 2021, but most of their passing attempts came as the Vikings found themselves in comeback mode.

There is an argument that the rest of the team didn’t pull its weight. Still, why didn’t the Vikings stick with a pass-first offense? And could Cousins suffer a similar fate with O’Connell?

It starts with the coaching staff. Zimmer was never keen on an RPO-heavy scheme. It got to a point where he ran defensive plays designed to blow them up in practice. The offense never got comfortable under DeFilippo, and the Vikings moved to a run-base scheme almost to protect Zimmer from himself.

The Vikings also had an offensive line that was among the worst in the NFL. Cousins’ reluctance to play outside of structure meant that pressure up the middle would result in a sack — or worse. With each fumble, Zimmer became even more upset.

The final blow came from their supporting cast, which featured Diggs and Thielen but also Laquon Treadwell and Aldrick Robinson. Bill Belichick figured out how to stop the Vikings’ offense when he doubled Diggs and Thielen in Foxborough. Suddenly, he had created a blueprint to slow Minnesota’s offensive attack down.

Also, consider that Cousins often locks into his first read. However, it doesn’t sound like that will short-circuit things this time.

O’Connell has experience working with Cousins during his time in Washington. Cousins may have been clamoring for codewords at the end of the 2018 campaign. However, a sense of chemistry should put him ahead of the curve and help him better understand the offense.

Remember, Cousins had a pair of 400-yard games when the unit was in complete chaos, so this could be a big deal.

Minnesota has also used several resources to provide a better offensive line. Brian O’Neill is one of the best right tackles in the league, and Christian Darrisaw is healthy entering his second year. Garrett Bradbury remains a massive problem at center, but the Vikings have at least created a contingency plan by signing Chris Reed.

The revamped O-line should allow Cousins to sit back and enjoy the best supporting cast of his career. Thielen remains an elite red-zone target who could be used as a deep threat, while Jefferson has somehow become an upgrade on Diggs. Irv Smith Jr. should be a more dynamic weapon at tight end, and the running game should be more efficient with a healthy Dalvin Cook.

It also boils down to what O’Connell can do as a head coach. He doesn’t have the same “Old Man Yells At Cloud” energy that Zimmer brought to the team, and with him being in charge of the offense, there’s no chance of a midseason shift in philosophy.

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