EAGAN — On Friday afternoon the practice field was cleared out at TCO Performance Center with the exception of a small group at the 50-yard line.
Kirk Cousins gunned passes to practice squad receivers and tight ends Irv Smith and Tyler Conklin, stepping back with crisp footwork and putting gas behind the ball like it was third-and-long against the Packers. He took every other throw with backup Sean Mannion while No. 3 quarterback Jake Browning worked on his drop-in-the-bucket throws to receiver Bisi Johnson. After about 10 minutes Cousins jogged off the field leaving the other two with the extra receivers. Browning finished up by going through some bootleg and play-action throws into the empty end zone.
You always hear about players being the first one on the practice field and the last one off but the truth is that the quarterbacks are always the last ones to wrap up practice. Turns out they aren’t just trying to show their dedication. The Vikings backups — and sometimes their starter — have plenty of reason to work after everyone else is in the locker room and once upon a time Cousins honed his craft in Washington D.C. in post-practice workouts en route to becoming a full-time starter.
“Time on task”
When Cousins’ career began in Washington he was the No. 3 quarterback behind Robert Griffin III and Rex Grossman. But the Vikings’ franchise quarterback outplayed Grossman and became the No. 2, starting one game in his first year, a 38-21 win over Cleveland in which he threw for 329 yards and two touchdowns.
With the organization wanting to give RGIII every chance to bounce back from a devastating knee injury in 2013 and then Jay Gruden giving Colt McCoy chances in 2014, Cousins only saw eight starts in three years.
The rest of the time, Cousins and Washington’s practice squad receivers were the last ones to walk off the practice field each day.
“It’s helpful too because your quarterback coach stays out with you too. Klint [Kubiak] does often time, for me it was Matt LaFleur my rookie year who would stay out after and work with me,” Cousins said. “Getting his input helps, especially as a younger player. Any time you can spend with your QB coach, with your teammates talking football, detailing routes is time well spent. With the rules for how many times we can be out there.”
Aside from hanging a tire from a tree, there aren’t many opportunities quarterbacks get for extra work, especially with coaches and pro receivers. Cousins gets together a handful of times throughout the offseason with other guys but that’s about all the chances there are for QBs simply because of the nature of the game.
“I’ve always joked that if you’re in the NBA and the offseason you can go to a YMCA and play five-on-five and get an assimilation of basketball,” Cousins said. “I can’t go to a park in Inver Grove and get 22 guys and zone blitzes and protections. It’s always been hard to practice your position in football, especially at quarterback. So you do the best you can on air year ’round. It’s a far ways from 11-on-11 but sometimes it’s the best you can do.”
Whether it was seven years ago or last Friday, Cousins said there’s always a purpose behind post-practice throws. In D.C. he would aim to get himself ready in case he was asked to come in mid-game. Cousins would try to master new wrinkles in the offense, master particular routes or progressions that he wasn’t as comfortable with or just solidifying his confidence in a certain concept.
“Time on task is so important,” Cousins said. “We call it ‘deliberate practice.’ You’re not just out there mindlessly throwing, you’re focused, you’re trying to get something out of each throw. When you deliberately practice, you can’t just do it for two straight hours, it has to be very focused and intentional and after 20, 30, 40 minutes you’re done and that’s all you got because it takes that much focus.”
The Vikings’ offense has gotten a number of receivers and tight ends involved this year, partly because of an injury to Adam Thielen but also due to the use of a myriad of personnel packages that include multiple tight ends. That means that Cousins has to find time to connect with players who don’t always get many reps in practice.
“If you have a receiver who came here who’s new or something he hasn’t done before and you have but he hasn’t, you might say ‘hey let’s stay after and make sure you get that rep as well,'” Cousins said. “It helps you own the gameplan by having to go over it again, talk about it. The more you spend time on it the more you own it and make it yours.”
This week No. 3 tight end Tyler Conklin was getting looks with Cousins after practice. Conklin has two catches on four targets this year — though one was a first down reception on third-and-long last week in Minnesota’s comeback over Denver.
“I don’t get a ton of reps with Kirk in general, whether it’s game reps catching the ball or practice reps catching the ball,” Conklin said. “Any time I get a chance to go out there and build that chemistry and make sure we’re on the same page so he knows he can trust me when I’m in the game, that’s the big thing for me. Everybody runs routes a little different and it’s good to build that chemistry.”
The driving range
Sean Mannion is often still on the field even after the extra receivers have gone inside. He works with equipment assistant Terrell Barnes.
“Even though there’s not a defense out there we will take a call sheet or script and run down the script and say: these are all the throws Kirk got at practice, now I’m going to get these and try to do your best to picture them in your mind and fill the gaps of the physical reps that Kirk is getting and there’s not time in the day for me to get,” Mannion said.
“With [Terrell] he usually knows all the routes and all the spots we’re going to hit. Maybe it’s a slant to the right, maybe one week it’s on a certain play or certain concept but another week it might be slightly different. I think it makes it where we can kind of run through it and T knows where to go and where to stand.”
The uphill battle while trying to execute the week’s gameplan on the empty field is having to pretend there’s a defense on the field in order to get something out of the reps. Out there Mannion is like a kid in the back yard, making calls to himself, picturing the defense in his mind.
“It’s just trying your best on your own time by yourself to make it that way in your brain,” Mannion said. “When you go through the install meetings you’re talking about a certain coverage you’re attacking or this is the way their cover-3 plays or the way their cover-2 plays and this is how we’re trying to approach it, this is our formation. It’s calling the play to yourself. Let’s say for example a team plays a lot of quarters, you’ll have an idea of what their defensive structure will look like and then you take yourself through that read.”
Mannion has Barnes run different routes in the progression so it’s not always a first read, it’s not always a quick drop, it’s not always with a perfect platform to throw from.
“One of my old coaches in college had a saying that the pro golfers go to the driving range but they’re not just out there banging balls,” he said. “Someone like me when I go to the driving range, I’m just pulling out the driver and hitting and hitting and hitting but they are working on a fade, working on this yardage. I try to take the same mindset of intentional practice, intentional work post-practice and applying it to football.”
In college Mannion was considered a decent NFL prospect. The third-round pick of the Rams was a four-year starter at Oregon State, throwing for 13,600 yards in his NCAA career. Prior to his second year, the Rams selected Jared Goff as the No. 1 overall pick, eliminating any chance Mannion had to compete for a starting position.
This week Cousins said he believes his backup, who is 27 years old, will someday get the same shot he earned in D.C. The only way to be ready when he gets there is to take continual steps forward in OTAs, minicamp, training camp and after practices. He says that his throwing ability has taken significant steps forward since the Oregon State days simply due to the extra time spent on the field.
“As I’ve gotten stronger, my feet have gotten cleaner, the consistency of accuracy is something I’ve really tried to work on,” Mannion said. “It’s muscle memory. People talk about your arm getting stronger…I think the throws become more effortless. You’re so trained on the footwork over so much time, so trained on throwing the trajectories of balls that it becomes an effortless throw where in college throwing the 55-yard post you’d think ‘man, I’ve got to gear up for this one’ and now it’s just where you’re not thinking about it. The most critical thing is accuracy. I’m thinking about repetitive accuracy.”
“Get that in there”
In those post-practice workouts in 2012, Cousins pictured himself being the franchise QB he’s become. Mannion pictures himself becoming Cousins someday. Jake Browning, the Vikings’ practice squad quarterback, wants to take the next step and become a solidified backup like Mannion.
In the locker room on Friday, Browning walked in covered in sweat and sat down at his locker next to Laquon Treadwell. When he was asked about throwing after practice, Treadwell jumped in to say, “Kirk still does that, get that in there.”
Quarterbacks know it never stops no matter where you are in the food chain. Browning gets to work with two players who have locked up roles at the highest level. He gets to watch everything they do, study the same things they study and put himself through the same
“Everybody has different experiences and hearing and learning from them based on their experiences and watching film with them, second-hand learning and being a sponge and picking up as much as you can from what they do each week, how they prepare and then tweaking that,” Browning said. “Maybe they do one thing one way but I want to do this differently, so you nitpick and pick and choose the best way to do it.”
Receiver Bisi Johnson, a seventh-rounder who won a job out of training camp and was elevated to the No. 2 receiving spot after injuries to Chad Beebe and Adam Thielen, said that he and Browning have spent many days after practice going over routes, learning the NFL game together. The extra work isn’t just the developing quarterbacks.
“Maybe I’ll get to the point where I have a set amount of reps every week, I’m not there yet, I’m still learning,” Johnson said. “If I feel like I need more work on a route then I’m going to do that. Specifically I worked on over-the-shoulder catches with Jake because I’ve struggled with it during the game. It’s obvious but it doesn’t mean I can’t catch an over-the-shoulder ball, I just need to work on it. That’s why I talk about reps, it’s not bad to get more reps.”
While there’s certainly a focused mindset for each player on the field after everyone else has called it a day, the quarterbacks also have a game they play to keep it light and competitive. They fling balls from way downtown at the goal post to see which one of them can hit it first.
“The goalpost game is fun,” Cousins said. “You’re pretty much always playing it, even if you’re walking to a new drill you might say ‘hey $20 if you can hit the cross bar.’ It’s a lot more fun when you have someone shagging the football for you. We always stand there, back it up to the 20, 30, 40, 50-yard line and launch it. Usually try to put some money on the line but sometimes you’re more lucky than you are good.”