The minute quarterback Kirk Cousins signed his $84 million fully guaranteed contract with the Minnesota Vikings, he became a marked man. The impact of the expectations seemed to weigh on him early this season, as the Vikings stumbled out of the blocks to a 2-2 start. The offense, Cousins specifically, struggled during the stretch. In the first four games, he threw for just 735 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions. Given Cousins’ contract, it was the most expensive 735 yards one could imagine.
Cousins must have checked his ATM balance and was reminded of his worth because since then, the Vikings have been on a roll. Now 5-2 after a three-game winning streak, the Vikings offense has put up scores of 28, 38, and 42 points. Cousins has ripped off three consecutive 300+ passing games with 10 TD’s to just one interception. The streak hasn’t just been hot; it’s been historic. Cousins became the first quarterback in NFL history to record at least 300 yards passing and a QB rating of 135 or higher in three consecutive games.
Minnesota is one game out of first place in the NFC North with the NFC East’s last-place Washington Redskins coming to town for a prime time Thursday night match-up. It begs the question: How did Cousins turn things around so quickly? We can look at off-field incidents, offensive trends, and PFN’s Offensive Share Metric (OSM) for the answers.
Response to criticism
After the Week 4 loss to the Chicago Bears, frustration among Cousins’ teammates began to show. During a post-game interview, wide receiver Adam Thielen said, “…you have to be able to throw the ball…you have to be able to hit the deep balls.” Thielen was on to something. The Vikings put up just six points on offense, and the defense held the Bears to 16 points. It was the type of game where one or two big plays might have resulted in a different outcome for the Vikings.
Rather than run from the indictment, Cousins faced the criticism head-on. During his weekly KFAN radio show, Cousins was asked if he took offense to Thielen’s comments. It was a decisive moment that could have fractured the team. Instead of defending his poor play, Cousins owned it and went as far as to publicly apologize to his receiver, saying, “I really want to apologize to him because there are too many opportunities where we could have hit him on Sunday.”
Two weeks later, Cousins faced a new round of criticism, this time from a former teammate. Before their Week 6 game with the Vikings, former Redskins teammate and then-current Eagles linebacker Zach Brown called Cousins the weakest part of the Vikings offense. He went on to tell ESPN, “You just want them to pass the ball. You want Kirk Cousins to get it in his hands.” The remarks did not end well for Brown. Cousins responded by throwing for 333 yards and four TDs. The next day, the Eagles released Brown. Talk about the last laugh.
Eagles are releasing linebacker Zach Brown according to @adamschefter
— John Clark (@JClarkNBCS) October 14, 2019
The play-action pass
Running back Dalvin Cook is finally healthy and performing the way the Vikings hoped he would when they drafted him in the second round of the 2017 draft. In the team’s first four games this year, Cook averaged 131 total yards per game and scored five rushing TD’s. The Vikings have started taking advantage of that.
In the last three games, Cousins has completed 32 of 42 passes for 592 yards and seven TD’s on play-action passes, good for a QB rating of 157.2. Cook is currently the NFL’s leading rusher with 725 yards, and offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski has finally found a balance that has both Cook and Cousins producing at an elite level.
We can also use PFN’s Offensive Share Metric (OSM) to analyze the Vikings offensive before and after Kirk Cousins’ turnaround. The Offensive Share Metric breaks down who is playing a significant role in the production of an offense. The formula goes beyond traditional statistical analysis to show a player’s contribution to their team based on individual factors only that player can control. It is graded on a 100-point scale, though perfection is virtually impossible to achieve as it would mean a player threw the ball, then caught it and somehow also rushed with it simultaneously. Anything over a grade of 40 is considered an elite performance.
The Vikings offense was so anemic in Week 1 that only Cook qualified for an OSM score at all. In churning out 120 total yards, he scored a 25.77 OSM grade, third-highest among running backs in Week 1. Thielen’s frustration was understandable, as he saw OSM grades of 32.21 and 30.29 in Weeks 3 and 4. After a quiet start, WR Stefon Diggs exploded in Week 4 with seven receptions for 108 yards, good for an elite OSM grade of 46.58, fifth-best among receivers that week. As the grades indicate, some players were stepping up, but the Vikings offense couldn’t put it all together in a balanced fashion.
In Week 5, Cousins’ first of three impressive performances, the beleaguered QB scored a 37.26 OSM grade. Thielen scored an elite 42.95, showing that the duo was starting to gel. The trend continued the following week when Cousins 47.48 OSM grade was the best among all quarterbacks. Thielen was elite again with a grade of 42.42, while Diggs also scored an impressive 34.74.
Last week the Vikings offense added a new wrinkle, getting the tight ends more involved. Rookie Irv Smith Jr. and veteran Kyle Rudolph both scored elite grades. Smith scored a 41.37 in his best game of the year, a five-catch, 60-yard performance. Rudolph had an almost identical stat line of five receptions for 58 yards and a TD, good for an OSM grade of 40.6.
Cook’s OSM grades of 14.01, 15.50, and 12.90 during Minnesota’s three-game winning streak puts him in the top half of the league among RB OSM grades and reflects the balance the Vikings offense has found, rather than the higher numbers suggesting his carrying the offense.
Is it sustainable?
So far, it has been a tale of two seasons for the 2019 Minnesota Vikings. The first, a four-game stretch where the offense was out of sync and Kirk Cousins faltered mightily. The second, a three-game winning streak where the team found balance and Cousins put up historic numbers. A Thursday night home game against a woeful Washington team should keep the Vikings streak going at least one more week. Not to mention some added motivation as Cousins faces his former team.
The better litmus tests will come in Weeks 10 and 13 in road games against Dallas and Seattle. For now, at least, the Vikings have found the perfect balance on offense, using the play-action pass to shred opposing defenses at a historic pace. Look for more of the same on Thursday night.