On Thursday, four days after the most scrutinized loss of Kirk Cousins’s Vikings career, three days after Stefon Diggs tweeted the mouthless emoji, and one day after the receiver missed practice despite not being listed with an injury, reporters asked Diggs whether he’d requested a trade from Minnesota. Diggs neither confirmed nor denied it but acknowledged he was frustrated. He also said he was not aware of whether his agent had asked for a trade on his behalf, and NBC Sports’ Tom Curran reported that the Vikings were not interested in trading Diggs.
“There’s truth to all rumors,” Diggs said in his first public comments since mid-September. “And what I mean by that, so I can politely explain, there was a lot of speculation of me being frustrated. Of course. Being a receiver, and wanting to have success and wanting to win, if you want to win and you’re not winning, of course you’ll be frustrated.”
The Vikings are 2-2 and in last place in the NFC North after four weeks, and those losses have been particularly frustrating for everyone depending on Minnesota’s quarterback. The Vikings lost to Green Bay 21-16 in Week 2 after Cousins threw an interception late in the fourth quarter on an ill-advised pass on first-and-goal at the 8-yard line. Last week, the Vikings lost to Chicago 16-6 because the Bears shut down running back Dalvin Cook and Minnesota failed to successfully pivot to passing. Midway through the third quarter of Sunday’s game, Diggs and receiver Adam Thielen had fewer combined targets than fullback C.J. Ham. Diggs was reportedly seen yelling on the sideline in the direction of Vikings offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski and threw his gloves on the ground after one failed drive. Thielen was also visibly angry on the field, particularly on a fourth-and-5 slant that Cousins threw behind him. Cousins also missed Thielen on a deep pass in the first quarter.
Kirk Cousins just BEARly overthrows Adam Thielen pic.twitter.com/djfIDJKh2l— Sean Borman (@SeanBormanNFL) September 29, 2019
Thielen was the last Viking to leave the sideline after the game ended, according to The Athletic. After the game, he said it was “so frustrating it’s unbelievable.”
“At some point, you’re not going to be able to run the ball for 180 yards, even with the best running back in the NFL,” Thielen told The Athletic after the game. “That’s when you have to be able to throw the ball. You have to be able to make plays. You have to be able to hit the deep balls. You have to do that.”
Cousins apologized to Thielen on his podcast, though Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer was “not a fan” of the public apology. But there are still plenty of reasons for Diggs and Thielen to be annoyed. Minnesota is 31st in receiving yards, ahead of the Jets but behind the 49ers, who were on a bye in Week 4, and the pathetic Miami Dolphins. Putting up those minuscule numbers may not be part of Minnesota’s exact plan, but it’s pretty close. Zimmer overhauled Minnesota’s offense this year to focus on the running game, bringing in zone-blocking wizard Gary Kubiak as an adviser and installing a game plan that calls for passing as infrequently as possible. They are executing that plan. The Vikings are attempting the fewest passes per game in the league (24.75), are the only squad that has thrown fewer than 100 passes in four games, and are one of two teams with more run attempts than pass attempts. On the passes Cousins is throwing, he isn’t providing much value. He’s 32nd of 33 qualifying quarterbacks in ESPN’s total quarterback rating, essentially tied with the Jets’ Luke Falk. Cousins’s completion percentage above expectation (a number calculated by NFL Next Gen Stats that accounts for degree of difficulty) has him completing 1.9 percent more of his throws than expected, the 13th-highest figure in the league. Cousins is one spot behind Case Keenum, the former Vikings quarterback whom Cousins replaced in Minnesota.
As Diggs, Cousins, and Zimmer have all said, winning will cure what ails them. A win could come as soon as this week when the Vikings travel to New Jersey to face the 2-2 Giants. New York’s secondary has been shredded this year, and it wouldn’t be surprising if Cousins, Thielen, and Diggs all have their best day of the season. But if the Vikings offense can’t put up points on the Giants’ suspect defense, it will be hard for Thielen and Diggs not to wonder whether they were better off with the man on the opposing sideline.
New York is led by former Vikings offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur, whose game plans landed Diggs a $72 million extension with $40 million guaranteed in the summer of 2018 and launched Thielen from undrafted free-agent nobody to a fantasy football star. In 2017, Shurmur’s strategy for Keenum to get the ball to Thielen and Diggs was to be aggressive: Sling it to the two receivers with big catch radiuses and let them go get the ball (a strategy that paid off famously with the Minneapolis Miracle).
Two years later, that strategy is no more. Cousins is the least aggressive quarterback in the league with just 8.1 percent of his passes going into tight windows (defined as a defender being within 1 yard of the receiver when the ball arrives). New York’s Daniel Jones, playing under Shurmur, has been the second-most aggressive quarterback (25.4 percent of throws targeting tight windows). So not only are the Vikings not passing often, but Cousins isn’t trusting Thielen and Diggs to come down with the ball like the offense did with Keenum and Shurmur.
Minnesota’s run-focused game plan is curious considering the team gave Cousins an unprecedented fully guaranteed three-year, $84 million contract and signed Diggs, Thielen, and tight end Kyle Rudolph to healthy extensions in the past 18 months. Minnesota is one of 11 teams that spends over 10 percent of its salary cap on receivers and is spending the second-highest percentage of its cap at quarterback in 2019. The Vikings’ front-office plan and their on-field strategy are akin to two halves of a brain that cannot speak to each other. Making matters worse is that Cousins has failed to deliver in the handful of moments he’s been asked to. Winning will solve these issues, but another loss on Sunday could spread the frustration beyond just Diggs.
“Everybody’s frustrated right now,” Zimmer said this week when asked about Diggs and Thielen. “When you lose and you don’t play well enough to win, everybody’s frustrated. Wasn’t just those two guys.”