MINNEAPOLIS — Gary Kubiak’s first game as head coach of the Vikings offense Sunday could not have gone better. Kubiak, whose official title is assistant head coach and senior offensive advisor, turned Kirk Cousins into a game manager, Dalvin Cook into a star and undoubtedly made Mike Zimmer a very happen man in the process.
The Vikings’ 28-12 rout of Atlanta at U.S. Bank Stadium featured everything Zimmer wanted to see from John DeFilippo’s offense last season, but rarely did during an 8-7-1 year that has put Zimmer and general manager Rick Spielman on the hot seat entering 2019.
Those seats will cool considerably if the Vikings continue to play like they did Sunday, and the guess here is that Zimmer won’t care if Kubiak gets more than his fair share of the credit. Kubiak and offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski definitely should receive credit for how they managed Cousins.
The Vikings’ $28-million-a-year quarterback put forth a performance worthy of a Case Keenum-like contract, or $3.5 million a season. There was nothing wrong with that. Cousins finished 8-of-10 for 98 yards with one touchdown. It’s the fewest amount of attempts and yards for Cousins during the six seasons in which he has started games. The last time a Vikings quarterback attempted only 10 passes in a game was in December 1969, when Joe Kapp threw 10 in a 10-7 victory over San Francisco.
“Throwing 10 times is really unique,” Cousins said. “Probably haven’t had a game with that few attempts since literally Pop Warner. I think I probably threw 10 times or more in most high school games, too. It was what the game called for, and I have no problem with being conservative. As long as we win the football game, that’s all that matters to me, and we found a way to get the win, so the approach was a great approach.”
The Vikings signed Cousins to a three-year, $84 million contract before the 2018 season because they considered him to be a safer option than Keenum. They overpaid to get a quarterback whom they felt could make the offense efficient enough to get to a Super Bowl, but the thought process was it would be the defense that would be the star of the show. DeFilippo arrived as offensive coordinator last season working under the assumption that Cousins was a new expensive toy who should put up big numbers.
That led to a solid statistical season for Cousins, but also exposed all of his flaws when it came to the important stuff, like actually winning games.
That also was DeFilippo’s mistake and something Zimmer never wanted. Zimmer wanted to run the ball more and he wanted his quarterback to limit his mistakes. DeFilippo was fired with three games left in the season and Stefanski was promoted from quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator.
What the Vikings really wanted was a veteran offensive mind who could step in and install the type of plan Zimmer wanted. Kubiak, who won a Super Bowl as head coach of the Broncos, did that this offseason and the opening-day results were impressive. While Cousins became undoubtedly the highest-paid game manager in NFL history, Cook became the star of the show, on offense at least, running in the zone blocking scheme that has led to so much of Kubiak’s coaching success.
Cook, who can be a star if he stays healthy, had 74 yards on 12 carries with a touchdown by halftime as the Vikings led 21-0. That was more yards than Cook had in eight of the 11 games in which he played last season. He finished with 111 yards rushing on 21 carries with two touchdowns after having only one game last season in which he surpassed the 100-yard mark.
How complete was the Vikings’ domination of the Falcons? Cousins, who has the most fumbles in the NFL since 2015, had two fumbles and barely anyone noticed. He recovered one and even had a third overturned, when a fumble was changed to an incomplete pass after a replay review.
“I never thought we’d throw it 10 times,” Zimmer said. “The score of the game dictated that. You get midway into the third quarter and the clock is our friend, we really had no reason to throw the football being up 28-0, or whatever it was. So, when you get in those situations, the clock is your friend, the faster that clock goes the better it is. We didn’t turn the ball over today, they turned it over three times. So, those things help you win football games.”
While there will be games in which Cousins will be relied upon to do more with his arm, the formula the Vikings used on Sunday likely isn’t all that far from the blue print they would like to see used on a consistent basis.
“I think every game calls for something different,” Cousins said. “Don’t be surprised if we have to win a game 52-51 this year. Coach Zimmer wouldn’t be very happy about that, but every week is different. I think you look around the league today and you see how wacky the scores can be and the results can be and you realize that every game is its own entity, and you have to go play what the game calls for. It’s very important you understand what kind of game we had to play today to win, and that’s what we played. ”
Cousins is right about that. Where he is wrong is in the fact the Vikings might play a 52-51 game. No one associated with the franchise has any interest in seeing Cousins try to win a shootout for this team. That’s not what game managers do — there is no shame in being one — and that’s what Cousins should be for the 2019 Vikings.