After making the big splash of free agency in 2018 — agreeing to a three-year, $84 million contract with quarterback Kirk Cousins, the first fully guaranteed multi-year contract in NFL history — the Minnesota Vikings were a disappointment.
They finished 8-7-1, missed the playoffs and fired their offensive coordinator before the season was out.
But as they head into the 2019 season, the Vikings are hoping to do more with Cousins doing less.
‘I’ve got to unwire my brain’
A story from the Washington Post’s Adam Kilgore details how Minnesota, under new offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski (he was interim OC after John DeFilippo was fired and had the interim title removed in the offseason), will run a system that looks a lot like the one Gary Kubiak used to run.
Kubiak has been hired as assistant head coach and offensive analyst, and his son, Klint, is the Vikings’ quarterbacks coach.
Cousins ran a similar system in his first two NFL seasons, with Washington, when Mike Shanahan was coach. Gary Kubiak used to work with Shanahan.
It’s been tough to rebuild Cousins’ muscle memory, so to speak, after five years away from his first NFL system, but all involved believe it will be better for Minnesota.
“I’ve kind of got to unwire my brain to stop doing some of the things I’ve been doing for five years and go back to what I was doing,” Cousins said. “And that’s been a tough transition. I’ve instinctually gone to fundamentals I’ve develop over five years, and I’ve got to unlearn that, and do things a different way. I’m still in that process.”
More play-action planned
A big part of the plan is to integrate more play-action into Minnesota’s game plans.
Last year, Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer made no secret of the fact that he didn’t like how many pass plays DeFilippo called. While it meant that Cousins had a career season in many statistical categories, it wasn’t the best approach for the team.
Stefanski’s and Kubiak’s system will be reliant on outside-zone runs, play-action and bootlegs.
Their desire to do so is backed by data: Last year, the Vikings ran play-action on just 20.8 percent of Cousins’ drop backs, which ranked 27th among quarterbacks who dropped back 200 or more times.
But when they did employ play-action, Cousins completed 77.1 percent of those passes and posted a 116.1 passer rating, compared to a 95.2 passer rating on regular drop backs.
“There are times where I‘ve said in meetings, ‘Wow, I can’t believe I went five years in this league without that element — without that play, without that route, without that piece of the play.’ It’s such a great improvement,” Cousins said.
Changing the role
The Vikings don’t want Cousins to carry them, as he was basically asked to do last year. Teammates recognize that isn’t their winning formula.
“We can’t drop back 60 percent of the time and expect our offense to hold up and for him to stay healthy,” tight end Kyle Rudolph said of Cousins. “You want to do things that put him in comfortable and favorable situations. It’s what we did in 2017 that allowed us to be extremely successful...That’s what we’re trying to get back to.”
Minnesota is also expecting a breakout year from running back Dalvin Cook, who has played just 15 games over his first two seasons because of injuries. Last year, though he missed five games to a hamstring problem, Cook totaled 920 yards from scrimmage.
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