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Can new Vikings head coach Kevin O’Connell get more from Kirk Cousins?

The Vikings new head coach is planning to build the offense around what Kirk does best, but can he also help him improve what he doesn’t do best?

Chicago Bears v Minnesota Vikings Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

An objective assessment of Kirk Cousins puts him among the top ten quarterbacks based on his performance last season. Most of his individual metrics are top ten or better, and yet even most of his backers would stop short of calling him elite, acknowledging that there are aspects of his game that could improve, and he could also improve as a leader of the team.

Vikings head coach Kevin O’Connell sold himself to the Vikings search committee including GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah as someone who can work with Kirk and help build the offense around his strengths. He worked with him in his last year in Washington and is familiar with his game. As a former NFL quarterback, he has some insight into the role, and worked with a similar quarterback in Matthew Stafford last season, helping him to his best season performance and a Lombardi trophy. O’Connell runs a version of the Shanahan offense Kirk is familiar with both in Washington and Minnesota, but also more innovative than the Kubiak version the Vikings have run the past three seasons.

At his introductory press conference O’Connell said he was already designing systems around Cousins, looking to accentuate his strengths. There was also some reporting that he has already talked to Kirk about improving his footwork. From Cousins’ side, there was reporting that he was advocating for O’Connell as head coach, having worked with him in the past. Certainly O’Connell is a big change compared to Mike Zimmer, who apparently didn’t like Cousins all that much, didn’t really get that involved in the offense, and only began having regular conversations with him this past season at Cousins’ request. They both admitted they didn’t see eye-to-eye on everything.

In that respect, having a head coach that actually likes him, wants to work with him, has worked with him in the past, has been a quarterback, and is deeply involved with the offense is a godsend for Cousins as he enters his eleventh year in the league.

But on the other hand, after ten years in the league, what more can O’Connell improve in Cousins? At some you are who you are, no? Cousins has spent previous off-seasons trying to improve some aspect of his game, and with some success. One year it was working on taking care of the ball under pressure to avoid fumbles, another year it was trying to improve his performance as a play-maker- extending plays a little more and occasionally making plays with his feet. Last year he watched tape on his entire career as a pro, looking at what he did best and what didn’t work so well, with a view toward doing more of the former and avoiding more of the latter. But even with some improvement in those areas, and a system that is a good match for his skill set, what more can be done to further his performance?

The Baker vs. The Chef

Perhaps the chief criticism of Cousins’ game is that he’s a baker and not a chef. The analogy is based on the idea that a baker does his best work by following the recipe, while a talented chef can produce his best work by ad-libbing the recipe. A chef has that creative ability and can benefit by using it, while a baker is at his best following the recipe as written.

Translating that to football, Cousins is best executing the play as called, and sticking to the offensive framework, and isn’t so good working outside the play structure or when the play breaks down. He hasn’t often shown his improvisational skills or audibles a lot on the field.

Beyond that, Cousins seemed to shun the idea of a quarterback taking on some field general responsibilities when he said he believes in the adage that players play, and coaches coach, in response to a question about calling a timeout late in the first half after a game last season. His attitude was that’s a coaching decision, and he relies on them to make the right call in accordance with their plan.

All that suggests Cousins has a ceiling as a baker and not a chef.

So What Can Kevin O’Connell Do?

When Kevin O’Connell talked about Kirk Cousins, he mentioned helping him ‘play with a quiet mind’ more than once. There’s likely a good reason for that. In the past, Cousins was known to press at times during a game, more often in key moments, and often with disappointing results. That’s not unique to Cousins, and even elite quarterbacks can fall into that at times. But Cousins has always been fairly intense and focused on the field, and not one you often see on the field with a smile on his face or joking with players in-between plays. That’s most likely because he’s focused on the task at hand, mind running about all the different factors and reads, game situation and other dynamics, not to mention the play call.

And that’s where the ‘quiet mind’ thing comes in.

Sometimes the best thing to do in a pressure situation is to first take a step back mentally, process things one at a time, then move forward trusting in your ability and experience. Kirk has gotten a little better at that over the years, to the point where I haven’t seen him pressing much over the past couple seasons, which often leads to bad decisions. But there is still improvement that can be made in that area, especially with his level of experience, where he can be thinking less and playing more, focusing on a few key elements between plays, and trusting his experience and ability to navigate the details as they happen. Kirk is known to be very detail oriented, which isn’t a bad thing, but on the field over-focusing on all the details can sometimes do more harm than good, resulting in slower play and less reliance on instincts built up over years of experience.

Kevin O’Connell, having worked with Cousins and knowing how he operates, has a good sense of Cousins’ process and focus on the field, and can help him optimize that so he’s not as caught up thinking about too much at once, rather than keeping it simple and allowing him to play - with a quiet mind.

Coach, Relationship, and Situation Matters

It’s been reported that Kirk Cousins was not Mike Zimmer’s choice to be quarterback following the 2017 season. Whether he preferred Teddy Bridgewater or someone else isn’t as clear, but it wasn’t Cousins. That may not have been communicated to Cousins in so many words, but undoubtedly it’s something that gets communicated in other ways at least. For example, a lack of communication with Cousins over his first three years with the Vikings, and only meeting for 30 minutes weekly last season at Cousins’ request. Meetings where both Cousins and Zimmer admitted they didn’t always see eye-to-eye, tacitly admitting their relationship wasn’t a close one.

And when it comes to audibling or ad-libbing on the job, it helps to have a good relationship with the boss, otherwise you’re only asking for trouble. That point was driven home in the short and tumultuous tenure of Cousins’ first OC in Minnesota, John DeFilippo, who drew Zimmer’s ire for his play-calling and led to his mid-season firing. Zimmer may not have been much of a participant in the offensive team meetings, but he wasn’t shy about expressing his displeasure when things weren’t being done as he wanted- or didn’t go well.

Beyond that, Cousins had a steady stream of offensive coordinators over his first four years in Minnesota- John DeFilippo, Kevin Stefanski, Gary Kubiak, and Klint Kubiak. All but the elder Kubiak being rookie OCs and play-callers, and perhaps a little guarded about play-calling and not particularly receptive to Cousins audibling at the line. The rookies may have been more guarded about play-calling with Zimmer watching over and the DeFilippo example in mind, while Gary Kubiak- who had nothing to fear from Zimmer- had a system and preference against QB audibles going back over a decade.

All that, not to mention a rocky relationship with the front office in Washington before that, may have contributed to Cousins’ taking a more hands-off approach to game management decisions, and his repeating the adage, ‘players play and coaches coach’ this off-season. The situation/relationship simply wasn’t there for him to do otherwise. And the Vikings coaching staff wasn’t particularly encouraging of this either.

Enter Kevin O’Connell.

When Kevin O’Connell was in the interview process, one of his selling points was that he could work with Kirk Cousins and build the offense around him. Cousins, for his part, is reported to have advocated for O’Connell, whom he had worked with in Washington. A former NFL quarterback and offensive coach who likes Cousins, he is the complete opposite of Zimmer not only in background and sentiment, but personality type and age as well.

O’Connell’s approach with Cousins is also completely different. Zimmer left Cousins’ development to others, and really didn’t weigh in on it much. O’Connell, by contrast, is giving Cousins more control at the line of scrimmage, and appears to be encouraging him to adjust calls/plays at the line of scrimmage. Adam Thielen touched on this in his press conference last week:

“Kirk feels super comfortable with this coaching staff, with this offense, from the little bit I’ve talked to him about it... It [new offensive scheme] allows him more flexibility at the line of scrimmage. I think there is more freedom in his hands to just kinda get us in the best position to have success... and Kirk’s gonna have the ability to do that this year.”

Which gets us back to the baker vs. chef analogy.

O’Connell is leveraging not only the relationship he has with Cousins, but also the new culture fostered by both O’Connell and Kwesi Adofo-Mensah, to make Cousins more comfortable, and encouraged, to be more of a chef. Audibling at the line of scrimmage is a part of that. There may be other aspects of ‘being a chef’ that O’Connell encourages as well. Certainly there are limitations to this- Cousins isn’t Patrick Mahomes or Lamar Jackson- but as a conventional pocket passer like a Tom Brady or Joe Montana, there are things he can do to improve his game.

Consider, for example, this quote from Bill Walsh, legendary coach and general manager of the 49ers (and idol of Kwesi Adofo-Mensah) on working with Joe Montana:

Q: Is there a situation with a player that exemplifies this balance between giving explicit direction and permitting individual creativity?

A: Take Joe Montana, for example. He is a perfect combination of the two vital aspects that are necessary for developing greatness as a quarterback.

The formula for the success of the 49ers offense was a highly disciplined, very structured form of utilizing the forward pass. To make our system work, Joe had to master the disciplines to know which receiver to throw to, when, and why. The success of the team depended on Joe’s ability to work within that framework. Consequently, the job of the coach was to use drills and repetition so that Joe developed almost automatic moves and decision-making ability.

But there is an extra quality that it takes for a quarterback to become a world champion—or, in Joe’s case, the best ever. And that is an instinctive, spontaneous, natural response to situations that arise in games. Part of Montana’s greatness was that 10% to 15% of the time his spontaneous instincts would break loose and make a phenomenal difference in the outcome of a game.

It is the job of the coach to find the best of both sides. We had to have a very structured system of football, and we also wanted instinctive and spontaneous play.

Q: How do you go about the job of coaching a player like Montana to develop that kind of balance?

A: Early on, we had to encourage Joe to trust his spontaneous instincts. We were careful not to criticize him when he used his creative abilities and things did not work out. In practice, we worked with Joe repeatedly on specific plays. When he was placed in a game, we called only those plays because we knew that he should be confident that he could execute them. But we didn’t jump him the minute he would break the pattern. Instead, we nurtured him to use his instincts. We had to allow him to be wrong on occasion and to live with it.

This appears to be the approach Kevin O’Connell is taking with Kirk Cousins- fostering and encouraging instinctive play in a QB (like Montana) who was more of a baker than a chef early on. Montana developed his ‘spontaneous instincts’ to elevate his game from more of a disciplined game manager to elite quarterback, in part from the encouragement of his coaching staff. Cousins has never had that before. Now it appears he will.

To what degree that encouragement- both verbal and schematically- will show up in more elite playmaking by Cousins, remains to be seen. Some improvement may come simply from giving Cousins more freedom to audible into a better play at the line of scrimmage.

Cousins is getting a late start with this coaching approach, now entering his 11th season, but his experience should result in fewer mistakes than a young QB with this newly given freedom. For O’Connell, his willingness to foster Cousins’ instinctive play and freedom to audible at the line of scrimmage will need to be backed up by not criticizing the mistakes that happen along the way, and continuing to encourage him to develop this aspect of his game.

Playing with a quiet mind, trusting your instincts, more freedom to audible at the line of scrimmage, and a supportive environment for Cousins to develop these skills seems like as solid a coaching path for O’Connell to take with Cousins to develop more elite qualities as any. How well Cousins does with this new approach to his development remains to be seen, but so far it appears he likes it, which bodes well.


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