Vikings riding ups and downs as Cousins learns new scheme

A sequence late in the fourth quarter Sunday perfectly illustrates Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins' uneven start to the 2022 season.

Tied at 25 and facing a first down from his own 32-yard line at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, Cousins launched a perfect 39-yard pass down the left sideline to receiver Justin Jefferson, the pair's 10th connection of the game. Jefferson was tackled at the New Orleans Saints' 29, putting the Vikings in position for a game-winning field goal. Cousins' top priorities at that point were to maintain possession and get in reasonable field goal range.

Both were threatened, however, on a second-down play. The offense got to the line of scrimmage with 10 seconds remaining on the play clock and, at the 4-second mark, Cousins stopped and put both hands on his helmet to signal an alert. Now Cousins was in a frenzy, shouting: "Gotta go, gotta go!" He stomped his right foot to send receiver K.J. Osborn in motion just as center Garrett Bradbury snapped the ball with :00 on the play clock.

Although Cousins had avoided a damaging delay of game penalty, the timing of the play had been thrown off. Cousins collided with Osborn as he backed away from center. He held on to the ball and managed to hand off to tailback Dalvin Cook, who gained 1 yard. The Vikings moved no closer before kicker Greg Joseph converted his winning 47-yard kick on fourth down.

The Vikings are 3-1 this season, their best record after four games since Cousins joined the team in 2018. That accomplishment has run parallel to a jagged start by their offense, starting with Cousins. He has made key throws to win games but has also flirted with -- and occasionally encountered -- disaster. If nothing else, Cousins' first four games have dispelled the fanciful notion that new coach Kevin O'Connell would wave a magic wand, inducing instant elite-level performances from a quarterback who entered the season with a clear track record established through 120 career starts.

Cousins' Total Quarterback Rating (46.1) ranks No. 20 in the NFL. For the first time since he joined the team, his completion percentage above expectation -- an NFL Next Gen Stats statistic that measures quarterback performance relative to the level of difficulty of his throws -- is below zero (-2.5%) after four games. In other words, he is completing fewer passes than an average quarterback would be expected to in the same situation.

Cousins has expressed full awareness of that reality, especially after needing fourth-quarter comebacks to pull out victories over the Saints and Detroit Lions the past two weeks. He said last week the offense is "not where I want it to be" and reiterated that sentiment Sunday.

"There's just a lot to clean up still," he said. "Similar to coming away after the Lions game with a win, you feel great about the win [over the Saints], but you also feel there's a lot you leave out there. We've got to get better. I've got to get better. That's where our focus is."

It's important to take a step back and put Cousins' performance in context, especially in light of an ongoing transition to O'Connell's complicated scheme. Using QBR as a measure, Cousins has had better starts to a Vikings season (2018, 2021) and he has had worse (2019, 2020). His four interceptions are tied for sixth most in the NFL, but in 2020, he had six by this point in the season. He had more touchdown passes through four games in 2018 and 2021, but his current total of six is tied for No. 10 in the NFL during a down year for scoring league-wide.

O'Connell is the sixth playcaller Cousins has had in Minnesota and is still learning his rhythms. Asked Monday to assess the ups and downs of Cousins' performance, O'Connell noted that he has "been incredibly clutch when we've had to have it" and said: "It's still four weeks into a new offensive system to him."

He added: "I think Kirk is going to continue to be more consistent and make the throws that we ask him to make while running the show. ... I feel great about where Kirk is headed, and then there are obviously some things that we can coach harder, that I can coach better, to help him be at his best and truly start maximizing what we're going to become as an offense."

After Sunday's game, Cousins lamented a pass he threw behind Jefferson in the end zone during the third quarter, a possession that ultimately led to a field goal. Another play was perhaps more emblematic of the way Cousins and O'Connell's mindsets are still melding.

On a third-and-1 from the Saints' 10 just before halftime, Cousins had at least two options on the play O'Connell called. One was a quick pass to tight end Johnny Mundt, who was open at the 9-yard line for an easy first down. The other was receiver Adam Thielen, who was on his way to breaking open on a corner route from the slot, where he would have had a clear path to the end zone.

Cousins chose Mundt, saying afterward that "I got to take the guy who is open for the first down" before lamenting that he didn't pump fake to allow Thielen time to emerge. In talking about the play Sunday and Monday, O'Connell noted the option of throwing to Thielen both times. Mundt, however, dropped the ball, and the play's failure prompted O'Connell to send out the field goal team instead of going for a seemingly makeable fourth-and-1.

During Sunday's game, longtime NFL personnel executive Randy Mueller suggested via Twitter that the Vikings will be among the teams looking for a quarterback in the 2023 draft. With 13 games remaining in the season, it's a bit early to draw dramatic conclusions. The most we can say at this point is that Cousins' performance this season has fit into the aggregate summary of his career -- for better and worse.