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MACKEY: Can Kevin O’Connell take Kirk Cousins’ game to a new level?

Kirk Cousins
Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins (8) leaves the field following an NFL football game against the Seattle Seahawks in Minneapolis, Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021. The Vikings defeated the Seahawks 30-17. (AP Photo/Bruce Kluckhohn)

Phil Mackey is the director of content for SKOR North and host of Purple Daily and Mackey & Judd. Follow Mackey on Twitter (@PhilMackey).

As Kevin O’Connell embarks on his first offseason as Minnesota Vikings head coach, here are three key areas he’ll need to help Kirk Cousins with:

1 – PERFORMANCE UNDER PRESSURE: When the pocket is clean, Cousins generally thrives. But when opposing defenses generate pressure, his performance suffers at a much greater rate than most of his peers.

When pressured last season, according to Pro Football Focus, Cousins ranked:

  • 14th in passer rating
  • 27th in completion percentage
  • 32nd in yards per attempt

The two leaders in yards per attempt under pressure were Joe Burrow and Matthew Stafford, last year’s Super Bowl starting quarterbacks.

Also, the Vikings ranked 25th in 3rd down passing success rate last season (the Chiefs, Rams and Bengals led this category). When opposing teams know the Vikings are going to pass, moving the ball becomes difficult.

Yes, the Vikings need to do a better job keeping Cousins clean, but eliminating pressure altogether is an impossible task. Good teams find ways to generate pressure, and when they do, it’s on Cousins and O’Connell to find ways to overcome it.

At his introductory press conference, O’Connell spoke about his desire to get Cousins to play with “a quiet mind.” Considering Cousins’ lack of mobility and improvisational skills, playing with a more “quiet mind” under pressure seems like the solution — much like how Stafford operated within the Rams’ offensive system. Can O’Connell draw some parallels here? Time will tell.

2 – CRUNCH-TIME EFFECTIVENESS: While Cousins certainly showed some improvement in crunch-time last season, he has been very underwhelming late in the 4th quarter throughout his career.

The Athletic recently did a “crunch-time effectiveness” study dating back to 1999, using this criteria:

  • Tied or trailing by 2 scores or less
  • Last 10 minutes of the game (when the team oftentimes needs a quarterback to bail them out)
  • “Successful drive rate” as the measuring stick (the rate at which the offense moves the chains, with field position considered)

The top 10 is full of names you’d guess, like Patrick Mahomes, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees. Even noted punching bags Tony Romo, Dak Prescott and Jimmy Garroppolo show up high on this list.

Cousins is 75th — behind Patrick Ramsey, Andy Dalton, Brock Osweiler and Tim Couch.

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3 – CONVERTING STATISTICAL SUCCESS TO TEAM SUCCESS. Cousins’ individual statistics don’t equate to overall offensive or team success as much as other quarterbacks who put up similar back-of-the-football-card numbers.

For example: Cousins ranks 7th all-time in passer rating and 3rd all-time in completion percentage. Yet, Cousins-led offenses have only cracked the top 10 in scoring twice (the Vikings ranked 14th in PPG last season).

Cousins’ team records also don’t reflect his individual statistics. Below is a list of the top 15 all-time passer rating quarterbacks — and their teams’ records throughout their careers (as of January 2022). Cousins is the only quarterback whose teams are .500 or below. The other 14 quarterbacks on this list are an average of 52 games above .500.

1 – Patrick Mahomes (105.1): 50-13
2 – Deshaun Watson (104.5): 28-25
3 – Aaron Rodgers (104.0): 139-66-1
4 – Russell Wilson (101.7): 104-53-1
5 – Kirk Cousins (98.8): 59-59-2
6 – Drew Brees (98.7): 172-114
7 – Dak Prescott (98.0): 53-32
8 – Tom Brady (97.6): 243-73
9 – Tony Romo (97.1): 78-49
10 – Steve Young (96.8): 94-49
11 – Peyton Manning (96.5): 186-79
12 – Philip Rivers (95.2): 134-106
13 – Matt Ryan (94.2): 120-102
14 – Big Ben (93.8): 165-81-1
15 – Kurt Warner (93.7): 67-49

Is Cousins the unluckiest great quarterback of all-time — saddled with sub-par coaches and teammates his entire career? Or is there something deeper about his performances, some of which I pointed out earlier in this article, that lead to a lack of team success? Maybe it’s a combination of both.

However you look at it, if there is another level to Cousins’ game, it’ll be fascinating to watch O’Connell attempt to unlock it.