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Zulgad: What a cut-up: Vikings QB Kirk Cousins has taken offseason film study very seriously

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Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins (8) looks to pass in the first quarter during an NFL football game against the Carolina Panthers, Sunday, Nov. 29, 2020, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/David Berding)

Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins has finished each of the past two seasons with some impressive stats, but that doesn’t erase the fact that he didn’t have a good start in either year.

Two years ago, Cousins had a 64.7 completion percentage with three touchdowns, two interceptions and an 88.6 passer rating as the Vikings went 2-2 in their first four games. Cousins then led the Vikings on a four-game winning streak, completing 78.5 percent of his passes with 10 touchdowns, one interception and a 137.1 passer rating. That stretch helped the Vikings to their only playoff appearance since Cousins signed.

Last season, Cousins’ rocky beginning lasted six games as the Vikings’ 1-5 start went a long way toward ending their hopes of making the postseason. Cousins had a 64.6 completion percentage with 11 touchdowns, 10 interceptions and an 88.2 passer rating. Was it all Cousins’ fault? Obviously, not. But no matter how big of Cousins apologist one might be, there’s no way to spin 10 interceptions, including three apiece in losses to Indianapolis and Atlanta.

Cousins can’t afford that type of start again as he begins the second to last season of the two-year, $66 million extension he signed in March 2020. That might be part of the reason Cousins has spent extensive time this offseason looking at film of his entire nine-year NFL career.

“I wanted to go back and really just study, create cut-ups and really build up some volume that I can pull from as we go forward,” Cousins said on video conference with reporters Wednesday. “I regret I hadn’t done it earlier in my career, but I did get the film set up in my house to basically have access to all of that … so that all offseason — even if I’m not in the facility — I’d have access to tape. I do think it’s been a very valuable resource to have, and I’m kicking myself I didn’t do it sooner in my career. It was just a piece that hopefully can help me improve this coming year.”

The Vikings made significant improvements to their defense this offseason and also added two draft picks (first-round left tackle Christian Darrisaw and third-round guard Wyatt Davis) to help improve the spotty pass protection that Cousins has received. With a list of skill position players that includes standout running back Dalvin Cook, wide receivers Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen and tight end Irv Smith Jr., there is no reason Cousins shouldn’t have a big season from day one.

Coach Mike Zimmer’s seat already is warm and, probably to a lesser extent, so is the seat of general manager Rick Spielman. Cousins, who will turn 33 in August, was signed in 2018 to help lead the Vikings to a Super Bowl. So far, he hasn’t come close.

Cousins had plenty of film to study as he looked to make improvements and changes. He has been a starter for six seasons, beginning in 2015 with Washington, and has only missed one start since that time. That came in the 2019 regular-season finale, as Cousins and several regulars were rested because the Vikings had their playoff position locked up.

Cousins is 51-51-2 in 104 career starts and 25-21-1 in the regular season as the Vikings’ starter. His 4,265 passing yards in 2020 were eighth in the NFL and his 35 touchdown passes were sixth. Cousins finished with 13 interceptions, tied for third in the league, but threw only three in the final 10 games.

“I watched my whole career, plus a couple other offenses to see what they did the years they had a lot of success,” Cousins said. “I do think that time looking at tape through the winter and the spring and even now … I do think it’s helpful to see what has worked in the past and what I want to make as a staple for myself as I move forward. But then also, where do I need to improve?”

“Evaluation certainly comes from your coaches day-in and day-out, but there also has to be an ability to self-evaluate. You say, ‘I like what I’m doing there, keep doing that.’ Or, ‘That’s not good enough, I want to improve that.’ Being self-led and being hard on yourself can really help as you watch the tape that you have put out there.”

Cousins’ most interesting observation from his film study might have involved the guys he’s targeting on his throws.

“You realize that the way Pierre Garçon ran a route or DeSean Jackson ran a route (in Washington), that affects you in the way you play and the way you think,” Cousins said. “Then you come to a new team and you’re trying to tell Adam Thielen to run a route that way, and he’s saying, ‘No, I don’t do it that way.’

“So just the process of learning those players and saying, ‘OK,’ and understanding that you always have to be aware of what your teammates do well and try to put them in those positions to be successful. I could probably go on for a while about different pieces I’ve learned – I’ve certainly taken a lot of notes and created some fun cut-ups that I’ll have now for as long as I’m around football. It’s been a good exercise.”