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Kirk Cousins Was a Joke—Now He’s an MVP Candidate

The Vikings quarterback was nearly invisible in the team’s first four games, but he’s bounced back in the past three. If Minnesota can continue to embrace an aggressive, play-action-heavy approach, Cousins can be one of the most dangerous passers in the league.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It’s always stunning how quickly things can change in the NFL. Just a few short weeks ago, Kirk Cousins’s fully guaranteed, three-year, $84 million deal was being lampooned as one of the worst contracts in football. The Vikings passing attack had stumbled badly out of the gates and the team appeared to be hiding its highly paid quarterback while leaning on its potent run game instead. Minnesota’s dominant early-season wins against the Falcons and Raiders weren’t enough to mask passing-game issues that cropped up at key times in losses to the Packers and Bears. Through four games, Minnesota, then 2-2, sat near the bottom of the league in pass attempts (24.8 per game), passing yards (169 per game), and passing touchdowns (just three total).

Even the team’s superstar receiving duo publicly criticized the team’s strategy (and/or Cousins himself). Following the Week 4 loss to Chicago, Adam Thielen lamented to the media that at some point, “You have to be able to throw the ball.” Stefon Diggs, meanwhile, reportedly requested a trade and racked up $200,000 in fines for skipping practice. It appeared that the Vikings offense was beginning to unravel.

Luckily for Minnesota, though, the Giants were on the schedule for Week 5. Cousins and the Vikings passing attack used that as their proverbial “get right” game; the veteran passer racked up 306 yards and two touchdowns in the 28-10 win against New York—and followed that up with a pair of strong outings in the next two weeks to springboard into the MVP discussion. Cousins has tossed 10 touchdowns and just one pick in October, and in the team’s 42-30 win against the Lions on Sunday, he became the first quarterback in NFL history to tally 300-plus passing yards and a passer rating of 135 or higher in three consecutive games. He has finally found his rhythm and confidence, has gotten Thielen and Diggs more involved, and has helped transform the Vikings offense from a one-dimensional group into a balanced unit with the potential to be an unstoppable juggernaut.

The key to Cousins’s breakout performance in the past few weeks is the Vikings’ ability to find a balance between conflicting ideologies. On one hand, you’ve got a front office that fired its pass-happy offensive coordinator John DeFilippo partway through last season and then spent the entire offseason adding pieces to bolster the team’s anemic run game. On the other hand, you’ve got your $84 million man (Cousins) and an elite pair of highly paid receivers (Diggs and Thielen). Something had to give; and the Vikings, under first-time offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski and offense consultant Gary Kubiak, have found a nice compromise in the past three weeks.

The team still leans on that foundational ground game behind all-world running back Dalvin Cook, but Minnesota has seemed to tacitly acknowledge that the offense functions best when Diggs and Thielen are heavily involved in the game plan. The squeaky wheels have certainly gotten the grease during the team’s three-game win streak, and the whole dynamic of the Vikings offense changed in the process. Minnesota went from trying to limit Cousins’s impact to unleashing him on their opponents like a kraken. The results are pretty staggering. Cousins is on a heater like we’ve never really seen before.

Minnesota’s sudden shift from its conservative, run-heavy offense into an all-out aerial assault is centered on its redoubled efforts in play-action. As Rotoworld’s John Daigle points out, through the first four games of the season, Cousins used play-action on just 27 percent of his dropbacks, averaging a paltry 6.7 yards per attempt on such plays (tied for 28th out of 35 qualifiers). In the team’s past three games, that play-action rate has shot up to 45.8 percent, with Cousins averaging 14.1 yards per attempt (second) with seven touchdowns (first), no picks, and an NFL-best 157.2 passer rating.

The Minnesota offense, which has begun to perfectly mesh Kubiak’s outside zone run game with its downfield passing attack, has quickly become one of the most beautiful groups to watch. Cousins is at his best when he’s throwing in rhythm, and watching this team use well-executed run fakes to confound defenses and push the ball downfield reminds me of the rhythmic yet unpredictable movements of a murmuration of starlings. Play-action works best when everyone―the offensive linemen, tight ends, running backs, receivers, and even Cousins―convincingly sells the run; that’s how guys get so open downfield. It’s useful in the short game:

It’s effective in the intermediate zones:

And, of course, it’s deadly for attacking deep:

It even works near the goal line.

Cousins is plenty accurate throwing from straight dropback situations, too, and in the past three games, the 31-year-old passer has shown excellent touch in placing the ball over the outstretched hands of defenders.

Cousins isn’t typically hailed for his arm talent or otherworldly physical abilities, but in the past three games alone, he has uncorked a shocking number of “wow” throws―tight-window attempts that have no business being completed. Some of these are passes that only a handful of elite quarterbacks can consistently make.

The moment that best encapsulates the Vikings’ philosophical shift in the past three games came in the fourth quarter of the team’s big divisional win against Detroit on Sunday. Leading 35-30 with three minutes left, Minnesota faced a second-and-5 from its own 30-yard line; a first down would help ice the game, and a good chunk of old-school, conservative coaches of Mike Zimmer’s ilk would’ve just played it safe, ran the ball, and hoped to move the chains on the ground. Instead, Zimmer threw caution to the wind and dialed up an audacious downfield toss off of play-action that picked up 66 yards and all but sealed the win.

With the game on the line, Zimmer put his trust in Cousins and the team’s passing game, and told The Athletic’s Chad Graff after the game: “We didn’t come here to cower.” That aggressive attitude should serve the Vikings well in a very tough NFC field. Even with the team’s slow start through the air, Cousins has been one of the best passers in the league through seven weeks no matter how you look at it: He leads the NFL in yards per pass attempt (9.1) and passer rating (114.3), ranks fifth in touchdown passes (13) and fourth in completion rate (69.8 percent), is Pro Football Focus’s fourth-highest-graded passer this year (83.9), and has completed passes at 7 percent above expectation, which ranks third per NFL Next Gen Stats. Cousins’s 135.4 passer rating on deep throws (passes of 20-plus yards) ranks second, per PFF; his 92.8 passer rating under pressure is fourth best among qualifiers; his 126.8 passer rating when kept clean ranks second; and his 140.2 passer rating on play-action ranks first. He’s absolutely balling out.

Of course, as Bleacher Report’s Mike Tanier so eloquently put it this week, “Cousins has made a career out of letting you down the moment you start believing in him.” The veteran passer did benefit from playing against the atrocious secondaries of New York and Philly in weeks 5 and 6, respectively, and while picking apart a far better Lions defense on Sunday was impressive, Cousins still needs to prove his outburst in the past few weeks is no fluke. The Vikings could help with that by keeping their foot on the pedal. As tight end Kyle Rudolph told Sports Illustrated, the biggest thing that changed between the first four weeks and the past three was how the offense was built around Cousins’s strengths. Cousins has been the “same guy,” all along, said Rudolph, “but we’re actually putting him in more favorable situations. Getting him confidence early with things he’s comfortable with and very good at—play-action, boots, quick throws. Early on, our first two wins, we just ran the ball all game, never let him get in a rhythm as well.”

With a matchup against a soft Redskins defense in Week 8, Cousins has a chance to keep building his confidence—and his MVP credentials. But the Vikings’ brain trust needs to continue to embrace the aggressive, play-action-heavy personality that’s helped unlock Cousins, Thielen (who is day-to-day with a hamstring injury), and Diggs in the past three weeks. It’s getting harder to deny it: When Cousins is on, he’s one of the best in the game. If he continues to perform at this level with any form of consistency, he will make the Vikings one of the most dangerous teams in the NFL.