Kirk Cousins paced through dropback after dropback with fellow Vikings quarterbacks long after the team wrapped up Tuesday's practice on the fields outside TCO Performance Center in Eagan. They weren't heaving deep balls, but seemingly refining the rhythm and timing of plays.
As Cousins enters his 11th NFL season — fifth with the Vikings — he does so with yet another new offensive coaching staff and playbook that also requires him to learn another football language with which to communicate. This spring, the veteran has embraced being back in school under rookie head coach Kevin O'Connell.
His homework involves flash cards, which help him study the Rams-like offense.
"Trying to memorize plays and terms and formations and protections," Cousins said. "You feel like an eighth-grader studying for a quiz in school the next day the way you go home each night and study."
Cousins has grown accustomed to change. O'Connell will be Cousins' seventh different play caller in as many seasons. The last coach to call plays for a Cousins-led offense in back-to-back seasons was then-Washington offensive coordinator Sean McVay in 2015-16.
O'Connell was Washington's quarterbacks coach in 2017 and spent the past two seasons as McVay's offensive coordinator with the Rams, giving Cousins a tinge of familiarity with the Vikings' new approach. But the quarterback still described this offseason's workload as "learning it from scratch," having only needed to pull out the flash cards two or three times prior in his career.
"This is the first time really since 2014 when Jay Gruden was hired and then back in 2012 when I was a rookie coming from Michigan State to Kyle Shanahan's offense," Cousins said. "Those were the only other two times in my career where I truly felt like I was learning it from scratch. I guess you could also say coming here in 2018 as well."
Before Tuesday's organized team activities, Cousins said he tried to further his memorization of the new playbook by spending time drawing up some of the new plays. While some plays and concepts are similar to past offenses, learning the new names for them — or "verbiage" in NFL parlance — can be the toughest part for established players, according to offensive coordinator Wes Phillips.
Cousins' experience with O'Connell and McVay can go only so far. Coaches evolve their schemes annually. The names in the playbooks change, too. Phillips, the Rams' pass game coordinator last season, referenced a package of plays for certain situations that they called the "Rampage menu" in Los Angeles, referencing the name of the team's mascot.
That wasn't very fitting for the Vikings.
"There was some talk about the Ragnar menu," Phillips said. "It ended up going to the Rage menu; that's what Rampage turned into."
Another difference for the Vikings will be what's expected of receivers, who Phillips said will have a lot on their plates.
“You feel like an eighth-grader studying for a quiz in school the next day the way you go home each night and study.”
O'Connell will often be calling more than one play in Cousins' headset. To shorten those play calls for Cousins, some of the receivers' responsibilities and adjustments will be unspoken. They'll have to know how to adjust their splits — or pre-snap alignments — and pick up on other changes through code words based on which play the Vikings settle into before the snap. That can take a little off the quarterback's plate.
"We're not going to just spell it out [in the huddle] and have the longest play calls known to man," Phillips said. "Everything is coded. Everything's got the ability to get up to the line of scrimmage and go fast, and ultimately that's what we want so we can put pressure on the defense when we choose."
Another change for Cousins is the atmosphere at work. Tensions were high, especially last year, as former General Manager Rick Spielman and head coach Mike Zimmer entered a must-win season to keep their jobs. In his opening remarks Tuesday, Cousins mentioned the "fun" of being at practice and learning from mistakes in a new offense.
He sidestepped questions about differences from the Zimmer regime, saying he has always felt a level of tension in wanting to play well.
"You always have a deep care and concern for what you're doing and as a result you feel that tension in a good way," Cousins said. "I don't think that will ever go away and I think it's never needed to come from a coach. I think it's something that comes from within to put a high standard on your performance."