EAGAN — Before Sean Mannion shared the practice field with Kirk Cousins, he knew all about the starting quarterback’s ability to make pinpoint throws.
While going through offensive installation with the Los Angeles Rams in 2017 under Sean McVay, Mannion watched plenty of Cousins’ film. McVay’s explosive 2016 offense in Washington put him in the spotlight and ultimately earned him a head coaching gig at the age of 31 and played a role in Cousins garnering an $84 million contract as a free agent.
Mannion remembers being impressed by Cousins’ accuracy.
“I feel like I have more of an appreciation for Kirk before having gotten here than most other people just because of the circumstances with Sean [McVay],” Mannion said following Sunday afternoon’s practice. “I think his accuracy [comes from] the way he plays with his feet, he’s always on time, he doesn’t get behind the play. Sometimes when you get stuck on a read and get behind the timing of a play, that’s when bad decisions tend to happen. Kirk is very sharp at playing first-hitch, second-hitch and really reading with his feet. His accuracy is really at the top.”
The Vikings’ No. 2 quarterback, who is known for his strong, accurate arm himself, said that when he arrived in Minnesota and saw Cousins at work, he had some “wow” moments watching the starter in practice. He described a play with a decoy route that quarterbacks usually ignore but the franchise QB somehow found it for a big play.
“That was something where you are scratching your head like, I don’t know how he saw it but there was a gap,” Mannion said. “I think it’s his vision, his timing. That play in particular, you’re standing back there, fitting yourself in the play and reading it through Kirk and you’re like, ‘whoa,’ something flashed and he let it fly and it was unbelievable.”
PFF’s Quarterback Annual charted every throw the Vikings’ quarterback made in 2018 and found that he had the ninth best Accuracy Percentage, fourth fewest “uncatchable” passes, fifth best accuracy when his receiver had a step on his defender and seventh best in “tight window” accuracy. He was 6.8% better than league average on throws between 10-19 yards. To get even more specific, only 0.9% of Cousins throws were behind receivers, which bodes well for hitting them in stride across the field.
In 2016 Cousins gained 4,917 yards at an impressive 8.1 yards per attempt, which ranked third in the NFL only behind Matt Ryan and Tom Brady. He ranked eighth in Pro Football Focus’s passing grade, a shade behind Drew Brees and Russell Wilson.
The McVay offense is predicated on play-action throws and bootlegs that ask the quarterback to hit intermediate crossing routes in stride and complete deep throws when opportunities present themselves. When using play-action in ’16, Cousins averaged 10.4 yards per attempt (second best in the NFL per PFF) and when launching the ball more than 20 yards in the air the former Michigan State QB posted the fourth highest rating in the league.
Now with Cousins returning to a McVay-style offense under Gary Kubiak and Kevin Stefanski, the Vikings are looking to use his greatest gift to unlock their version of the quarterback that shined in Washington with McVay. And in turn, get Cousins to the “next level.”
‘You’re not at the driving range’
So far in training camp, the Vikings offense has routinely hit on accurate throws from Cousins deep down the field to Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen. In the preseason opener against New Orleans, a 32-yard completion to Adam Thielen down on a play-action pass set up a short touchdown toss in the lone possession by the first team. The throw was placed over cornerback Eli Apple’s inside shoulder where only Thielen could make the play.
Stefanski’s explanation for that type of big-time throw: DNA.
“[Cousins] has that skillset where he takes that ball and he puts his eyes on his target and he hits his target, some people are blessed with that ability,” Stefanski said. “Certainly there’s technical aspects that you work on that help you. You can throw from a platform and different things that you can work on to improve that, but certainly God blessed him with that skill.”
Certainly things like hand-eye coordination play into being an elite thrower, but Mannion points to a painstaking process. He said that accuracy is much more than simply connecting with receivers on throws. In the NFL the windows are small and the routes are extremely specific. Each type of throw must be perfected in order to be a consistently accurate thrower.
“All the time when you are by yourself working on drills, working on routes on air, it’s just elevating your standard where you are not satisfied with a completion, you want it to be the perfect ball, the perfect location, the perfect trajectory, all the kinds of ins and outs of that,” Mannion said.
Since the NFL only allows a certain amount of practice time, quarterbacks have to spend endless hours throwing to receivers during the offseason. Cousins got together with Vikings receivers on multiple occasions during over the spring and early summer months.
“One of my old coaches used to say: ‘you’re not just at the driving range banging balls,’ you are working on a specific shot,” Mannion said. “Golfers at the driving range are working on a certain shot, a certain yardage. You try to take the mindset of: I’m not just out here throwing routes on air. I’m really thinking about what concepts we have on a particular route and what coverages would we be throwing this against and trying to visualize it in your mind so that you are training your feet to react to a play even when nobody is there.”
Not only do the most accurate QBs work on execution of specific routes with game situations and coverages in mind, they also have to consider the ways they can best highlight their teammates’ skill sets.
“It is more of the quarterback understanding what we are really good at,” receiver Adam Thielen said. “What each receiver, his attributes are. Is he a jump ball guy? Is he a guy that has body control and you can kind of put it back shoulder balls and things like that. I think it is more of him figuring out who his players are and who are the guys that he has to throw certain balls to.”
Since Thielen and Cousins had a notable heated exchange in last year’s Week 17 loss to the Bears, the star Pro Bowl receiver has been trying to emphasize that their relationship is ever improving when it comes to chemistry and where the accurate passes need to be thrown in order to be effective completions.
“It takes a long time to get on the same page as the quarterback because there are so many different situations,” Thielen said. “There’s so many things that come up throughout practice, games and all that. You really have to be on the same page as far as the leverage that DB’s are giving you or how they play a certain route, and what you are going to do as a receiver and getting on the same page. It usually takes a couple, I guess, incomplete passes to really get on the same page.”
For two players who aren’t fully on the same page, Thielen and Cousins performed at an exceptional level last season with the Vikings’ QB registering a 115.4 rating when targeting Thielen. But there is room for some growth in efficiency. Thielen had the lowest yards per reception of his three years as a starter.
“I think it’s really being hard on yourself accuracy wise and not just settling for completions but really striving for the perfect ball,” Mannion said.
‘It can’t be defended’
Mike Zimmer has spent his entire life figuring out ways to slow down the NFL’s most accurate passers. From facing off with Steve Young as a defensive back’s coach to Ben Roethlisberger as a defensive coordinator to Aaron Rodgers as a head coach, he’s been tasked with battling the best of the past three decades.
Zimmer said there isn’t a reliable solution to taking on a QB with great accuracy.
“It’s a hard question to answer because if I’m this far from you [arms length] and he can still throw it in there, that makes it extremely hard because he’s got the velocity and accuracy to get it in there — where it’s just outside your reach,” Zimmer said.
Zimmer recalled a game in which his Dallas Cowboys attempted to mitigate the Vikings’ two superstar receivers and even putting multiple defenders on them didn’t help.
“One time we were doubling Moss and Carter, and we had Carter in between two guys and the ball came and [Moss] caught it right between two guys,” he said. “It depends on the route, depends on the coverage and if they can get it into really tight windows.”
The Vikings’ head coach added that one of the reasons young defensive backs take time to develop — as Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander have — is that having solid coverage in college isn’t like blanketing a receiver in the NFL because the QBs can make throws that NCAA signal callers wouldn’t dream of attempting.
“[In college] I might be from here to this lady [10 feet away] and I’ve got him covered,” Zimmer said. “But that’s about as wide open as you’re going to get in this league. So it makes defensive backs, they have to up their game and get closer and not be staring at the quarterback. They have to get tighter to them. So they have to learn that part. That’s what all these rookies go through.”
And corners aren’t the only ones being attacked by accurate throwers. In fact a large percentage of the league’s completions come in the quick passing games with run-pass options, quick slants, mesh concepts, athletic tight ends and receiving running backs that have all made quarterbacks who can execute the short passing game even more difficult to defend.
“As a linebacker, whoever we are covering, slot, tight end, a lot of times our eyes are on our man so a well-place ball, it’s hard to cover,” linebacker Eric Kendricks said. “The receiver knows when he’s going to break out of the route, he knows when he’s going to turn around so a ball that’s out and away from us is going to be caught usually. They try to attack that, so it’s up to us to leverage our help, know where we have help and know the combinations of routes”
“When you put a ball in the right spot, it can’t be defended,” Kendricks added.
Accuracy wears down defenders mentally. There is only so many times that a quarterback can complete passes on well-defended plays before frustration sets in.
“Today [Cousins] threw a ball to [Kyle Rudolph] and I was on it but he put it high and outside and there’s nothing I could do about it,” Kendricks said.
“You see it all the time, Kirk had a throw against us when he was with [Washington] and Trae Waynes had the most phenomenal coverage ever and he put it a little bit low and outside,” Kendricks continued. “Trae did the best job he could do. He did better than anyone in the world on that play. Sometimes that happens. You have to shake it off.”
‘They have to believe’
The question that keeps popping up is: If Cousins is such a skilled thrower, why hasn’t he been able to repeat his performance from ’16 over the last two seasons? By PFF standards, his accuracy and deep passing have still been strong but his overall grades rank him at 19th and 13th.
Certainly offensive line play has been a factor but they 2016 Washington O-line isn’t walking through that door.
So one potential area of improvement could be in risk taking.
“[Quarterbacks] have to believe they can do it,” Zimmer said. “If they don’t pull the trigger or don’t believe it, it’s probably not going to get there.”
Last year Cousins ranked 20th in “Big-Time Throw Percentage” by PFF and had the fourth best “Turnover-Worthy Play” rate. You could reasonably conclude he was looking to avoid dicey throws into coverage despite having two of the NFL’s best receivers in contested catch rate in Diggs and Thielen.
While Mannion did say that QBs spend all offseason striving for the perfect ball, on many occasions perfect is the enemy of good.
“It really comes down to giving the receiver a chance,” Thielen said.
On throws that are often “big-time” like over-the-shoulder, vertical back shoulder, and horizontal lead throws he is well above average according to PFF’s data.
Whether the Kubiak/Stefanski offense can excel this year after finishing 19th in points and 23rd in yards per pass attempt in 2018 will very likely come down to scheming open throws in which Cousins is routinely above average in accuracy, finding chemistry with his receivers and trusting them enough to put the ball in the air.