MINNEAPOLIS — Two weeks.
That is how much time the Minnesota Vikings have before their Sept. 8 regular-season opener against the Atlanta Falcons and how long they have to get their offense prepared to operate at a respectable level.
On Saturday afternoon, in the final dress rehearsal for first-teamers in the preseason, the Vikings’ top offense played the entire first half against the Arizona Cardinals and looked like a group that was nowhere near prepared to run Gary Kubiak’s passing scheme in a meaningful game. (The Vikings close out the preseason on Thursday in Buffalo.)
Kubiak, hired during the offseason to be the Vikings’ offensive advisor and assistant head coach, had to be wondering if leaving the comfort of retirement to take this job was a wise choice. The temptation after what we saw in the Vikings’ 20-9 victory over the Cardinals would be to overreact but this was an exhibition game so we will do our best to avoid going overboard.
That doesn’t mean we can ignore the ineptitude we saw from Kirk Cousins and Co. for most of the first 30 minutes. Pro Bowl wide receiver Adam Thielen was held out but even his presence wouldn’t have helped the Vikings overcome the many flaws that fans at U.S. Bank Stadium were forced to witness.
Cousins, the Vikings’ $28 million QB who last season failed to guide his team to the playoffs, finished the day 3-of-13 for 35 yards with two sacks and a 39.6 passer rating. This was after he completed 10-of-12 passes for 133 yards with a touchdown over three series in the first two exhibitions. The Cardinals’ Kyler Murray, the first-overall pick in last April’s draft, was 14-of-21 for 137 yards and an 84.8 passer rating.
Murray’s performance provided hope. Cousins’ performance? Even the veteran knew it wasn’t close to acceptable.
“I’ll just start by saying, it’s a disappointing performance,” Cousins said. “Put it on me, it wasn’t good enough. If we play that way during the season it’s going to be a very tough year so we have to be much better than we were today. I really should say, I have to be much better than I was today and it’s about as simple as that. … I’m going to have a lot to look back at and learn from and correct.”
Cousins wasn’t exaggerating. The highlights with him in the game were few.
After the Vikings went three-and-out on their opening drive, running back Dalvin Cook, seeing his first preseason action, took a handoff on the first play of the second drive and went 85 yards on first-and-20 for a touchdown. Late in the second quarter, Cousins completed a 29-yard pass to Stefon Diggs on second-and-10 from the Vikings’ 46.
Got all that?
Otherwise, Kubiak and offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski had to be disappointed and at least a little (to a lot) concerned. Vikings coach Mike Zimmer was far more succinct in summing up his quarterback’s play. “I think he can play a lot better than that,” Zimmer said.
The Vikings’ opening drive ended with Cousins overthrowing Diggs on a deep pass over the middle. After Cook’s feel-good moment, Cousins’ poorly thrown screen pass for fullback C.J. Ham was nearly picked by Cardinals linebacker Terrell Suggs on the Vikings’ third drive. Cousins had been sacked for an 8-yard loss on the previous play to set up a third-and-13 from the Minnesota 37. Cousins’ struggles to throw screen passes remain a mystery but the problem is very real.
It didn’t get better in the second quarter. After an incompletion for Diggs and a 1-yard run by rookie Alexander Mattison, Cousins was sacked again for a 3-yard loss on third-and-9 from the Minnesota 26. That sack was on tight end Kyle Rudolph.
“I think at the end of the day, I can get rid of the football,” Cousins said, taking responsibility for being sacked. “You can always as a quarterback, throw out of bounds, find an eligible (receiver) to throw it over his head so it’s in the direction of him or even try to skate out and start a new play.”
The Vikings did get a first down on their next possession — it came on a 7-yard Cousins completion to Brandon Zylstra — but that drive opened with a poorly thrown pass to wide receiver Chad Beebe and ended with a third-down pass that Beebe dropped.
Even on the drive in which the Vikings moved the ball from their own 46 to the Cardinals 25 on the completion to Diggs, Cousins only completed one of five passes and rookie kicker Kaare Vedvik missed a 43-yard field goal wide left (sound familiar?) to leave the Vikings trailing 9-7 at halftime. Vedvik missed another field-goal attempt, this time from 54 yards, in the fourth quarter.
“I don’t think it’s any one thing,” Cousins said when asked what went wrong. “I think it’s a lot of things. I don’t think you can put your finger on any one issue. But the bigger issue is we were certainly off balance and it was disappointing.”
The Vikings had 106 rushing yards in the opening half and 35 (24 net) through the air. It was third QB Kyle Sloter who led the Vikings on two fourth-quarter scoring drives to give the Vikings the victory.
The good news was no offensive starters got hurt. Cook carried twice for 88 yards — 3 coming on his first carry — and then spent the rest of the day watching from the sideline. He had to feel pretty good about what he accomplished in his one and only tune up for the regular season.
As for the rest of his teammates on offense?
“We have a long story to write here for the season,” Cousins said. “This will be ancient history as we get deeper into the season and we’ll find out if this was a help or not. But all I know right now, without that benefit of hindsight, is if we play … I should said I, if I play the way I did today it’s going to be a long year. So, we’ve got to be a lot better and thankfully I know we can be and I know we have been better. We have a lot of good on tape as well and that needs to come out the next time we step on the field.”