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Can old-school football tactics save Kirk Cousins and Vikings’ $84M gamble?

·Senior NFL writer
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EAGAN, Minn. — Kirk Cousins’ eyes widen, his shoulders shrug.

The starting quarterback of the Minnesota Vikings’ response to the question — is it annoying that people keep pointing out certain things you can’t do? — offers a clue that Cousins, after seven years in the NFL, is aware, but largely dismissive, of the discussion that’s held in some NFL circles about his game.

“Saying what you can or can’t do is, let’s be honest … I mean, I guess I don’t mind it if it’s true,” Cousins told Yahoo Sports this past week with a laugh. “People say, ‘Aw, you know, he’s not Aaron Rodgers or he’s not Patrick Mahomes,’ and I probably say, ‘Well, I don’t disagree, you know? I’m probably not.’ I don’t think that I’ve done the things on tape that they’ve done.

“I guess what may get frustrating is when they say things that aren’t true.”

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MINNEAPOLIS, MN - AUGUST 18: Kirk Cousins #8 of the Minnesota Vikings looks on during the second half of the preseason game against the Seattle Seahawks at U.S. Bank Stadium on August 18, 2019 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The Vikings defeated the Seahawks 25-19. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)
Kirk Cousin is all smiles about a revamped Vikings offense. (Getty Images)

Cousins declines to go into detail about what he thinks is untrue. But you don’t have to make a large leap to wonder if the 31-year-old is alluding to the perception that he can’t lead a team to the Super Bowl partly because he can’t make all the throws.

“I’m not gonna go on tooting my own horn, but you can go back and watch the tape — they’re there,” Cousins said. “But at the end of the day people have gotta watch the tape and decide for themselves what they think, and I’m not gonna change their opinion. The eye in the sky don’t lie; you’ve got to put it on tape and let people make their decisions from there.”

Though Cousins, a former Pro Bowler, boasts a solid career touchdown-to-interception ratio of 129-65, the three-year, fully guaranteed $84 million contract he signed before last season — which made him the highest-paid player in NFL history on a per-year basis — shined a spotlight on his flaws, starting with his 34-37-2 record as a starter, which is further marred by his 4-25 record against teams with winning records.

And when the Vikings went 8-7-1 last year after going 13-3 and reaching the NFC championship game the season before, it added fuel to that fire of doubt, despite the fact Cousins set career-highs in touchdown passes (30) and completion percentage (70.1) while throwing for 4,298 yards and only 10 interceptions in his first year with Minnesota.

“Well, if you told me we were gonna sign a quarterback and he was gonna have those kind of stats, you’d think that would equal wins,” Vikings general manager Rick Spielman told Yahoo Sports, when asked what Cousins’ floor is as a quarterback. “The quarterback’s always gonna get blamed for it, but there were a lot of other circumstances that were involved in that, as well.”

Circumstances the Vikings believe they’ll rectify this season with an emphasis on the run game and play-action. This decidedly old-school approach is a bold move in today’s pass-happy NFL, one that has teammates and coaches excited about Cousins in 2019.

“When you break him down from a statistical standpoint, everything with the play-action and stuff, he’s one of the top quarterbacks in the league at it,” Spielman said. “Last year we didn’t do that; we didn’t play, particularly, to his strengths.”

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - DECEMBER 30: Kirk Cousins #8 of the Minnesota Vikings hands the ball off to Dalvin Cook #33 in the first quarter of the game against the Chicago Bears at U.S. Bank Stadium on December 30, 2018 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Adam Bettcher/Getty Images)
Kirk Cousins projects to be handing the ball off more to Dalvin Cook this season. (Getty Images)

Vikings bucking passing trend?

Due to the cumulative effect of passing friendly rule changes over the years, teams are throwing the ball more than ever in the NFL, often to great success. The Vikings were a part of that, as Cousins notched those aforementioned gaudy stats with Minnesota throwing at a 64 percent clip last season, which was 10 percent higher than the previous year under coach Mike Zimmer.

Zimmer was not pleased with this development, and after Week 14, with the Vikings sitting at 6-6-1, he fired offensive coordinator John DeFilippo, who had been on the job only 10 months. DeFilippo’s replacement, quarterbacks coach Kevin Stefanski, quickly embraced Zimmer’s run-first attitude, as the Vikings — who promptly started using more two tight-end personnel — ran at a 50 percent clip in the three games he guided the unit as Minnesota finished 2-1.

“We’ve always been a top-10, top-five defense and last year, Coach Zimmer stated we were on field four minutes longer than we’ve ever been per game,” Spielman said. “ I think we know the formula of how we win, how we built this team; and we’ve just got to get back to that.”

The Vikings are hopeful a stronger offensive line will help them run the ball and control the clock. At the forefront of that effort is 2019 first-rounder Garrett Bradbury, an athletic center whose presence allowed them to move Pat Elflein back to his natural position of guard.

These moves, plus the ongoing maturation of right tackle Brian O’Neill and the presence of veteran left tackle Riley Reiff and right guard Josh Cline, give Minnesota hope that running back Dalvin Cook — who Spielman says has “a chance to be pretty special this year” — will explode.

And when the Vikings do throw, they’ll also have the luxury of doing it while using play-action concepts from an offensive coaching staff that is now outrageously adept at it.

“I think the way he’s being coached with Coach Zimmer and Kevin Stefanski and the Kubiaks, and watching how they’re handling him out at practices now, it’s making a difference,” Spielman said.

Gary Kubiak’s strong influence

When Cousins first heard the Vikings were hiring Gary Kubiak — the former head coach of the Denver Broncos and a bonafide play-action guru with over 20 years of coaching in those systems— to be an offensive adviser in January, he couldn’t have been more thrilled. Kubiak, after all, is a master of the same system Cousins learned under Mike Shanahan in Washington when he first broke into the NFL as a fourth-round pick in 2012.

And even with Stefanski — who finished as a runner-up for the Cleveland Browns’ head coaching job — coming back, he had zero concerns about how the two would work with each other.

“Kevin’s a great listener, a great question-asker, I knew he could learn a lot from Gary and he told me so,” Cousins said. “And Gary, likewise, is not going to be overbearing on Kevin; he’s going to let Kevin lead and be the coordinator. So it’s a really good partnership and I think we’ll get the best possible outcome as a result of the two of them putting their heads together to get our system.”

Though the two had never worked together, Kubiak, 58, had long respected the 37-year-old Stefanski’s work, dating back to his days as the Broncos’ head coach, when he studied young coaches in his spare time.

Now the two spend lots of time together — Kubiak estimates they’re around each other from 5:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day — figuring out how they and quarterbacks coach Klint Kubiak (Gary’s son) can maximize their $84 million quarterback.

“Kevin’s the boss — I’m his helper,” Kubiak said.

“I’m sure he’s sick of me at this point,” Stefanski said with a hearty laugh. “It’s just a great dialogue because he’s been there, done that, and I haven’t. We, as an offense, couldn’t be more lucky to have a guy that’s been there, done that.”

Stefanski’s and Kubiak’s systems are similar and so is their verbiage. And there’s little doubt in either of their minds how Cousins projects with the run-game and play-action — which the Vikings called only 21 percent of the time last season, the 25th-most in the league — as an emphasis.

“We’ve seen he’s adept at that game,” Stefanski said.

Don’t ask about Cousins’ ceiling

Over the past month, teammates have noted how comfortable Cousins — who has even started to scramble a little more — looks in the offense.

“We had a quasi-scrimmage the other day, and he pulls up on a boot going to his left and just throws a ball right on the money,” tight end Kyle Rudolph told Yahoo Sports. “And that’s not a throw that a lot of guys in this world can make. His playmaking ability, you see it shine through time and time again [with] some of the throws that he makes.”

Receiver Adam Thielen, who forms one of the league’s best receiving duos with Stefon Diggs, agreed, adding that their chemistry has been increasingly on point.

“You can definitely tell that this system fits him, and you can definitely see that he’s starting to understand us as players more — and that’s how it is anywhere, the more time you’re in the same building around the same guys,” Thielen told Yahoo Sports.

Cousins will have no shortage of targets, either. In addition to Diggs and Thielen, the Vikings spent a second-round pick on “move” tight end in Alabama’s Irv Smith Jr., an athletic, 6-foot-2, 242-pound H-back type who can complement the 6-foot-6, 265-pound Rudolph in the bevy of two-tight end sets the Vikings will likely run.

“You have a guy that has an unbelievable catch radius that catches everything in a crowd [in Rudolph] and hopefully a guy that can create some mismatches [in Irv],” Spielman said.

Add that to an improved running game and a superbly schemed play-action game that is being custom-fit to a quarterback who — regardless of what his detractors might say — believes in his ability to make game-changing throws, and you have the recipe to improve on the league’s 20th-ranked offense.

When asked what his ceiling is, Cousins again shook his head and politely declined to say, exactly. But his eyes did widen, one last time, as he spoke with cheery conviction before walking away.

“I’ve got to go out and play well and create a ceiling that’s high, hopefully,” Cousins said. “But the only way I could talk about that is by my play on the field.”

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