Kirk Cousins sent an open invitation this offseason to Scott Kuhn, the Vikings’ pro scout who has the title of Director of Analytics.
The Vikings quarterback wanted to know if there was a trend — data about his fumbles, performances in prime-time games or effectiveness off play-action passes.
Over Memorial Day weekend, Kuhn sent him a summary that spit out a simple answer for why Cousins’ quarterback rating spiked last season from a 99.7 on average to 116.1 on play-action throws.
“Play action is just effective, period,” said Cousins, ranked 28th in play-action ratings last season. “You got to call it more.”
That’s what Vikings coordinator Kevin Stefanski has done this spring, including Wednesday’s practice that was the second of a three-day minicamp ending the offseason program.
At least every other Cousins pass started from under center, with the ball extended to a running back before a rollout throw. Head coach Mike Zimmer wants to run the ball, and the offensive coaching staff is meshing a balanced attack not dissimilar to what Cousins learned during his seasons in Washington under Sean McVay and Kyle Shanahan.
It’s how the Vikings want to respond to the latest narrative — finding “the next level” for their $84 million quarterback. Not necessarily by throwing for more yardage or touchdowns, Cousins said.
“The next level is all about winning,” Cousins said. “I’m pretty much a .500 quarterback in my career so far and I don’t think that’s where you want to be. That’s not why you are brought in or people are excited about you.”
Cousins was a top-10 quarterback in 2018 by many statistical measurements, including completion percentage (70.1), touchdowns (30) and passer rating (99.7). But he wasn’t one of the final 12 quarterbacks leading a playoff team.
“If I don’t play well and I don’t have gaudy statistics, but we win multiple playoff games this year, the narrative will be I went to the next level,” Cousins said.
Enter Stefanski, assistant head coach Gary Kubiak and the new playbook they hope can provide a similar recipe to how the 2017 Vikings ran the ball well, controlled clock and took play-action shots with Case Keenum.
The Vikings drilled play-action passes relentlessly on Wednesday, pairing handoffs to Dalvin Cook and Alexander Mattison with similarly designed pass plays faking those carries. Cousins found some completions, but there were plenty of misfires from him and the other quarterbacks on the depth chart.
“It’s definitely a work in progress,” Stefanski said. “At times, it’s good and at times it’s bad. The best thing you can do is watch our defense — if they believe it and the sell is legit, you’ll get a reaction from our linebackers and our front seven.”
The Vikings offense won’t be “pigeonholed” into being a one-trick pony, Stefanski said, but the first-year coordinator then noted Zimmer’s decree for more play action after seeing how play-action offenses like the L.A. Rams dismantled his Vikings defense last season.
This is the time of year when coaches throw new concepts and plays against the wall to see if they stick.
Play action is not going to fall off the coaches’ white boards in Vikings meeting rooms with so much practice time devoted to all 11 players, from receivers to offensive linemen, selling the run before Cousins turns to pass.
“Any quarterback should be getting a lot of play-action opportunities just for the nature of what it does to the pass rush,” Cousins said, “creating explosive plays and giving you outlets in the flat that are good, easy throws for productive gains.”