There’s a saying that goes: There’s lies, [darn] lies and statistical lies. When we look at the Minnesota Vikings passing game on the surface, there are some statistical lies. On the surface, ranking 13th in passing yards and 10th in passing touchdowns looks like a pretty solid season, but those numbers lie when it comes to presenting how dangerous the Vikings really were through the air.
In reality, the Vikings had one of the least efficient passing offenses in the NFL. They ranked dead last in yards per completion, 22nd in yards per pass attempt and 22nd in Expected Points Added — a stat that compares league average production by situation and a team’s production.
Those numbers are certainly an indictment on the Vikings’ quarterback play (and ability to protect the quarterback), but they also point to the offensive system. While Kirk Cousins may not ever be mistaken for John Elway, his 2018 performance was well below the ceiling he set with Washington in 2016. In D.C., his team ranked second in yards per attempt and fifth in Expected Points Added.
In hiring Kevin Stefanski as the full-time offensive coordinator and Gary Kubiak as assistant head coach and offensive advisor, the Vikings are taking their best chance at getting much closer to that ceiling.
Based on Kubiak’s history with quarterbacks who also wouldn’t be mistaken for Elway, the Vikings have a chance to improve Cousins’ efficiency under his watch.
Last year, Cousins averaged 6.25 net yards per attempt (YPA factoring sacks), the lowest of his career since taking over as a full-time starter in 2015. The Vikings were 18th in the NFL, tied with the Raiders, in that category. The final four teams, by the way, rank No. 1, 3, 5 and 6 in NY/A.
In Kubiak’s 18 years without Elway, his teams finished in the top 10 in NY/A nine times and 11 times in the top 15. Some of the highlights of those years:
— In 2000, the Broncos ranked fourth in NY/A with Brian Griese and Gus Frerotte under center. They were top 10 in third down percentage and red zone percentage. Griese averaged 7.22 NY/A with the great Ed McCaffrey and Rod Smith as his top receivers.
— At one time people figured Jake Plummer to be a bust, but in Denver he led the Broncos to the third ranked offense in NY/A with 7.46 yards per attempt despite the weapons in the Rocky Mountains fading from the Elway/Griese days. Ashly Lelie was the No. 2 receiver that year.
— In 2009, Matt Schaub was the surprising leader of the No. 1 passing team in yards and No. 3 in NY/A at an outstanding 7.60. The Texans had a supremely underwhelming run offense (30th in yards, 31st in Y/A) but still finished fourth in the NFL in total offensive yards and 10th in points.
— From 2007-2011, the Texans finished in the top 10 in NY/A every year.
— The 2014 Baltimore Ravens, who reached the AFC title game and lost to the Patriots 35-31, saw Joe Flacco put up his highest NY/A of his career at 6.66. The Ravens ranked 12th.
— In 2016 with Denver, Trevor Siemian had a nearly identical NY/A (6.22) to Kirk Cousins in 2018.
How do Kubiak’s offenses achieve this type of efficiency?
One way is through play-action passes. In 2012, the first year of Pro Football Focus data tracking play-action, Schaub had remarkable splits between play-action and non-play-action passing. Using play-action, he posted a 108.1 rating and without it Schaub managed just a 84.9 rating.
The difference is Schaub used play-action on the seventh highest percentage of drop backs (25.7 percent) and Cousins ranked 28th out of 36 QBs with at least 200 drop backs.
In the final year of Peyton Manning’s career, in which he had clearly run out of velocity, the legendary QB had a solid 87.8 rating (and outstanding 9.4 yards per attempt) when using play-action but only a 62.8 rating and 6.1 YPA without play-action.
Former Kubiak understudy Sage Rosenfels — who co-hosts the Purple Podcast on SKOR North — joined the Purple Daily show on Tuesday to explain.
“Kubiak is a guy who does a great job of maximizing a quarterback’s strengths and minimizing weaknesses,” Rosenfels said. “The Vikings are not going to lead the NFL in passing yards and touchdowns next year but as far as being efficient with your quarterback and putting him in really good chance to have success, which I believe is the No. 1 goal for your offense…Kubiak has done that at a high level with guys who are less talented than Kirk Cousins.”
There is a natural connection with Kubiak and Cousins. The Vikings’ new offensive advisor worked under Mike Shanahan early in his career and Cousins grew into a starting quarterback while Shanahan was the head coach in Washington.
“It’s not just about [Cousins], it’s about how you use the other guys on this football team,” Rosenfels said. “I thought [fullback] CJ Ham was under-utilized last year. I imagine he will be one of those guys that gets in the conversation, that the fullback will be a major aspect of the gameplan. Kubiak loves the fullback. He loves running zone because that matches up with play-action. When I watch Kirk Cousins…when he has to simply drop straight back, hold the ball in the pocket, five steps, seven steps and he has to find somebody deep down the field, great things don’t always happen and sometimes really bad things happen. But when you can do play-action and bootleg stuff off the run action and design some really good concepts to get him out of trouble, I think Kirk can make better decisions and have more explosive plays.”
The Vikings ranked 20th in passes for 20-plus yards this season despite the presence of two of the NFL’s best receivers. In Cousins’ best season, Washington ranked second.
If Kubiak’s QB-friendly system can draw from Cousins’ best days, the Vikings have the potential to jump in the important statistical areas — the ones that tell us the truth.