In Kevin Stefanski’s 13 seasons with the Vikings before he became offensive coordinator, he worked under five different play-callers, including three in three years from 2016-18. The team used 15 different starting quarterbacks in that time, before handing the job to Kirk Cousins last year.
If the past seven weeks of relative offensive tranquillity for the Vikings — an October in which things seemed so according to plan, a November in which Cousins and the Vikings have knocked down narratives — has seemed like something of an oasis, they should.
As the Vikings reach their off week as one of seven NFL teams with at least eight wins, it’s easy to forget how tenuous it all seemed at the end of September, when Adam Thielen vented about the Vikings’ lack of passing success in the locker room at Soldier Field, and Stefon Diggs incurred more than $200,000 of fines for skipping several days of meetings as his frustrations with the offense bubbled over.
In the Vikings’ only loss since then, to Kansas City in Week 9, they allowed a 91-yard touchdown run and fell by a field goal as time ran out. Cousins’ name has crept into MVP conversations, as the result of a seven-game run in which he’s completed 73.3% of his passes for 2,020 yards and 18 touchdowns against one interception.
In doing so, he’s already made himself one of the surest things to play quarterback for the Vikings since General Manager Rick Spielman and Stefanski both entered the building in 2006. Cousins’ 27 starts for Minnesota are the fourth-most by a Vikings quarterback since then, and his 27-game starting streak is tied for the second-longest, behind Brett Favre’s 31 in a row in 2009-10. Cousins’ next win will be his 17th for the Vikings, tying him with Favre and Teddy Bridgewater for the most by a Minnesota QB in the same stretch.
Cousins has thrived in a scheme that brings back much of what he enjoyed in Washington, and resembles what two of his former coordinators are doing as head coaches: Kyle Shanahan for the 49ers and Sean McVay for the Rams. According to Sharp Football Stats, the Vikings have put Cousins under center 72% of the time, more than any QB in the league (with the 49ers’ Jimmy Garoppolo second and the Rams’ Jared Goff third).
He has thrived on play-action, when he’s thrown 12 of his 18 TDs, according to Pro Football Focus. His red zone production — long seen as a flaw in Cousins’ game — has rarely been better; the Vikings have the NFL’s fifth-best red zone TD percentage, after Cousins had quarterbacked teams that ranked eighth, 16th, 29th and 21st in his first four years as a starter.
During the week, he operates under the tutelage of a staff that includes Stefanski, a former Super Bowl-winning head coach (Gary Kubiak) and offensive coordinator (Rick Dennison), and Kubiak’s son Klint, whom Stefanski eagerly wanted as the Vikings’ quarterbacks coach.
“We’ve got a lot of eyes on Kirk,” Gary Kubiak said. “You’ve got Klint in there, you’ve got me in there, you’ve got Kevin who’s coached quarterbacks and Rick Dennison who’s coached quarterbacks. I think as coaches you’re always trying to find out what your guy does best, how you help him play at his best.”
Rewards of victory
It’s worth pausing for a moment to appreciate the Vikings’ current state of relative stability on offense, both for how rare it’s been and how much it could change in the coming weeks.
For as impressive as Cousins has looked (especially while operating without Adam Thielen for the past month), he’s been the first to say he needs — and wants — to win big and make a deep playoff run to ensure his future in Minnesota. He’s only started one playoff game in his career, throwing for 329 yards and a touchdown in a loss to the Packers after the 2015 season. The Vikings currently have a 92.9% chance of making the playoffs, according to ESPN Stats and Information, so they’re in good position for Cousins to get that opportunity.
If he plays well in the playoffs and the Vikings make a run, he’ll put himself in line for a new contract once his current deal expires after the 2020 season (and potentially help Spielman and coach Mike Zimmer, whose deals are also up after 2020, do the same). A strong finish and impressive playoff performance, though, could put the Vikings at risk of losing Stefanski, who was a finalist for the Browns’ head coaching job last year and could be an attractive candidate for agent Jimmy Sexton to pitch to teams this offseason.
“I’m sure, if we continue to have success, that he will get an opportunity someday down the road, whether it’s next year or down the road at some time,” Spielman said on Tuesday. “I think when teams have success, the first place that other teams are looking are those type of [guys], why they’re successful.”
Enjoying the moment
If Cousins reverts to the mistake-prone play he’s shown in big games during previous years — and particularly if it leads to the Vikings missing the postseason or losing their first playoff game — Vikings ownership could have a tough decision on its hands about how much longer it wants to continue down its current path. One way or the other, the next few weeks, starting with a Monday night game against Seattle, could put change on the horizon.
For now, though, the Vikings can take their respite with something they’ve rarely enjoyed in recent years: a healthy, stable, productive quarterback who seems to work in close cooperation with the people designing the scheme and calling the plays. It’s as valuable a commodity as there is in the NFL, and after years of tumult at both quarterback and offensive coordinator, the Vikings have a pairing they would seem to want to keep.
The weeks to come will reveal exactly what they can do with it.
“I think Kirk’s always put up some good numbers. You go back and look at his career, he’s done that,” Gary Kubiak said. “I think he’s really bought in to what we’re trying to be as a football team, and as a group, I think Kirk knows he’s on a really good team. We can win a lot of ways when we show up on Sunday.”