Saints defensive end Cam Jordan was asked an innocuous question this week by NFL Network’s Rich Eisen: Which version of Vikings running back Dalvin Cook would show up in Minnesota’s visit to the New Orleans Superdome on Sunday? Jordan instead wondered aloud about which Kirk Cousins would show up. Eisen asked what he meant, and Jordan laughed.
“At times, you know, he is supposed to be a very proficient quarterback,” Jordan said.
And at other times not so much?
“Uhhh,” Cameron said. “I’m gonna stick to the first statement.”
Jordan didn’t need to finish the thought. Cousins is 0-9 on Monday Night Football, 0-1 in the playoffs, 1-11-1 as a Viking when trailing in the fourth quarter, and 6-29 against teams with winning records in his career. When Cousins was in Washington, his team franchise-tagged him twice, low-balled him on a contract, and then let him leave in free agency—a nearly unprecedented move for a healthy starting quarterback in his 20s. Washington’s then-president, Bruce Allen, constantly referred to him as “Kurt.” The man has no juice.
This Sunday will be the biggest game of Cousins’s career. If Minnesota isn’t competitive in New Orleans, general manager Rick Spielman and head coach Mike Zimmer could both be fired. Cousins is two years into his three-year, $84 million guaranteed contract, and he was specifically hired to win these playoff games. If he can’t, new management may not get him a new deal (and even old management might hesitate). The front office could also jettison a third or more of the team’s defensive starters, retooling Minnesota’s team on the fly. Another flatline Cousins performance could end this Vikings era in disappointment. But the game is also an opportunity to change his reputation as someone who fails on big stages.
The first month of the season did not go well for Kirk as he adjusted to the play-action-heavy offense installed by offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski and adviser Gary Kubiak. Cousins threw a bad interception late against the Packers to seal a loss in Week 2. The Vikings were nearly shut out in a 16-6 loss to the Bears in Week 4, and seemed to be unraveling. Receiver Adam Thielen said the team had to throw the ball. Cousins apologized to Thielen on his podcast. Zimmer said he didn’t like Cousins apologizing and “maybe he should get off the podcast.” Receiver Stefon Diggs tweeted the mouthless emoji and, when asked whether he was frustrated with the offense, said, “There is truth to all rumors.” Four weeks into the season, Minnesota looked doomed, and Cousins looked like a goner.
Then they fixed everything (sometimes learning a new offense takes a bit). For the next two months, Cousins was one of the best quarterbacks in football. In the middle eight games of the season, Cousins led all quarterbacks in touchdowns (20), passer rating (120.7), and adjusted yards per attempt (10.1). He ranked third in passing yards (287 yards per game) despite having the 15th-most pass attempts. His touchdown-interception ratio was 10-1. The Vikings went 6-2 in that stretch, and one of those games was a 37-30 loss to Seattle when Cousins led two fourth-quarter touchdown drives on Sunday Night Football. Minnesota’s next two performances were so dominant—it combined for a 59-17 score against the Lions and the Chargers—that Cousins didn’t need to do much to extend its record to 10-4. A 10-4 quarterback who ranks among the top three in yards-per-attempt and completion percentage above expectation does not need MVP buzz, but a little respect would be nice. Cousins got zero and just above zero, respectively.
The Vikings helped Cousins improve by doing what they said they were going to do: go heavy on zone-running and heavy on play-action passing. In 2018, Cousins used play-action on 20 percent of his dropbacks, no. 27 among all quarterbacks. This year Cousins used play-action 30 percent of the time, no. 6 among quarterbacks, and also gained a full yard extra per pass attempt in the process. That gave the Vikings coaching staff the exact balance they wanted—they became a run-oriented team that was efficient when they passed. The Vikings were one of just three teams to run more than they passed in 2019, ranking no. 30 in pass attempts. But the Vikings were tied for no. 5 in net yards per pass attempt (7.1). As a whole, their offense is the 10th-most efficient this season, according to Football Outsiders.
Despite this success, the Vikings are being counted out to beat the Saints, in large part because of their Week 16 loss to the Packers on Monday Night Football that locked them into the no. 6 seed and handed Green Bay the NFC North. Minnesota managed just two first downs in the first half against in that game and struggled to block edge rushers. Without the ability to change their playoff seed, Zimmer rested some key starters in Week 17, including Cousins, to be fresh for the wild-card round game.
“I don’t think anybody believes that we can win this game, so we go in there and we slug it out,” Zimmer said in a press conference this week. “We’re eight-point underdogs. We’re going on the road. … They just had an NFL video of all the playoff teams—except us. We’ll just go from there.”
Minnesota is more than a touchdown underdog, but there is a path to victory, and it begins by studying the San Francisco 49ers’ 48-46 win over the Saints in Week 14. Both the 49ers and Vikings have similar philosophies about zone running and play-action, as Mike Shanahan taught his style to his son, Kyle, now the head coach of the 49ers, and his former offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak, now an adviser to Minnesota. The two teams have similar splits. San Francisco ranked no. 29 in pass attempts and no. 2 in rushing attempts while the Vikings ranked no. 30 and no. 4, respectively. This season, Jimmy Garoppolo used play-action the fifth most of any quarterback (31.5 percent of dropbacks) while Cousins used it the sixth most (30.6 percent). The Vikings and 49ers have more in common than meets the eye (that’s all Jimmy Garoppolo and Kirk Cousins have in common, for the record).
Against the Saints, Garoppolo had his second-most passing yards on play-action of the season (186) and nearly registered a perfect passer rating (157.9). The 49ers scored four touchdowns on their first five drives and averaged 14.5 yards per play. Running back Raheem Mostert had seven touches for 95 yards in the first half.
This is the Vikings’ dream situation: jump the Saints with big plays and lots of points early, have Dalvin Cook do the damage Mostert did in the first half, and make sure they can dictate the style of play. The Vikings aren’t nearly as talented or well-schemed as San Francisco, but they’ll have a slightly easier time facing the Saints defense, which is missing defensive end Marcus Davenport and defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins, both of whom were injured against San Francisco.
One defensive lineman the Vikings will face on Sunday is defensive end Cam Jordan, who they’ll definitely be chatting up after his conversation with Rich Eisen. Cam will get to see firsthand just how proficient Cousins is as a quarterback, and if the Saints win he might get to finish the second part of his statement. If the Saints lose in the Superdome, Cousins won’t need to say anything at all. He’ll finally have some juice.