The Vikings’ 2020 bye week, conducted under NFL protocols designed to limit the spread of COVID-19, kept players from leaving town for a traditional break in the regular-season schedule. It meant Kirk Cousins remained in Minnesota, for more time to block out the swirling discontent over his play and additional chances to meet with coaches about how to fix it.
“One of the differences, among several, is that the coaches aren’t cramming to game-plan for your next opponent,” Cousins said of the bye week. “You have time to visit with them, talk through things, get an understanding of … what the film and the analytics [are] showing we’re doing well, what we’re not doing well and the why behind it.”
Cousins threw 10 interceptions in the Vikings’ first six games to make his future in Minnesota a popular point of discussion last week, especially as the team’s decision to trade defensive end Yannick Ngakoue triggered rumors it could be on the way to a sell-off after a 1-5 start and before Tuesday’s trade deadline.
Cousins will travel to Green Bay this weekend in search of his first win at Lambeau Field in his third trip there, at a juncture when a victory over the Vikings’ biggest rival could at least temporarily ease some of the angst over his play.
On Wednesday, Vikings coach Mike Zimmer and Packers coach Matt LaFleur weighed in on what the quarterback needs to do. Zimmer said the Vikings’ points of emphasis start with Cousins’ footwork, and both coaches mentioned how the quarterback can get himself in trouble by predetermining where he’ll go with the ball.
“Kirk is always going to be a guy who is going to throw with anticipation,” said LaFleur, who was Cousins’ position coach in Washington. “Sometimes, that’s the product of doing business. When you throw with anticipation, you could be susceptible to some interceptions. That’s just the way it is.”
Cousins had called his interception on the first play of the Vikings’ Oct. 18 loss to the Falcons the worst of the three he threw in the game, and said Wednesday he “got too locked in” on rookie receiver Justin Jefferson.
“I wouldn’t say many of the others were predetermining and a lot of them you shrug your shoulders, too, and say, ‘Hail Marys are unfortunate; tipped passes are unfortunate,’ ” Cousins said. “You have to look at each one as its own entity and some of them, there’s not a lot you can control and some of them you can control entirely. You just study each one very critically and take what you can from each of them as individual plays.”
If there’s a common point to the interceptions he can control, Cousins said, it might be that he’s trying to look for too many big plays. At the very least, analytics would suggest he’s thrived with downfield throws while struggling with the rest of his repertoire.
According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Cousins has thrown downfield more often than most quarterbacks in the league this season. Of quarterbacks who have attempted more than 100 passes this year, only the Broncos’ Drew Lock has thrown his average pass further (10.5 yards in the air) than Cousins (9.9).
But while Cousins has succeeded on downfield throws to his outside wide receivers, he’s struggled to be consistent on throws that require more timing and touch underneath. Six of his 10 interceptions are on throws that traveled fewer than 20 yards in the air, and his completion percentage on those throws has dropped from 73.8 last year to 68.3, according to Pro Football Focus.
“I think one thing we’ve done really well as an offense is we’ve been really explosive. We’ve had a lot of big plays,” Cousins said. “The problem has been when we’re not having those explosive plays, we aren’t getting the singles. We’re hitting home runs, we’re hitting triples, but we’re not hitting as many singles.
“In my background, I’ve been a guy that’s hit a lot of singles, if you will, so maybe just trying to get back to hitting singles, even if it means we miss a home run, even if it means we don’t get the big play, [but] being consistent, staying ahead of the chains, staying out of third-and-long.”
Running back Dalvin Cook said players support Cousins “1000%,” and LaFleur backed his former pupil, saying, “I think he’s done a damn good job throughout the course of his career.”
Even Cousins suggested he’s fine without an emotional pick-me-up.
“I don’t know if we’re in a place where they feel the need to come console me,” he said. “I think we’re doing just fine. We know what we’re capable of.”
He does, however, have the eyes of the fan base and the Vikings’ hopes for a turnaround fixed on him.
“An old coach told me one time, when you don’t play as well as you hoped to, it’s, ‘What are you going to do when you get back in the huddle on Monday and they’re all looking at you?’ ” Zimmer said. “You’ve got to go in there and prove that you’re the guy. You’ve got to go back in and do it. You’ve got to go back out and fight and show everybody that you’re the guy that they can rely on. That’s what it’s really all about and what I’ve told him before. ‘If everybody is looking at you, now what are you going to do?’ ”