Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins said he has been spending time this spring studying flash cards in an attempt to learn the offensive system being installed by new coach Kevin O’Connell. Of course, changes to the Vikings’ scheme are nothing new for Cousins.
Since arriving in Minnesota in 2018, Cousins has played for a different offensive coordinator each season, but that doesn’t mean there always has been an overhaul of the system. That will be the case this time as O’Connell and his new offensive coordinator, Wes Phillips, bring many elements of the system that Rams coach Sean McVay uses in Los Angeles with the Super Bowl champions. O’Connell had been McVay’s offensive coordinator — although McVay called the plays — and Phillips was the tight ends coach and passing game coordinator.
“(I’m) just trying to memorize plays and terms and formations and protections,” Cousins said Tuesday following an OTA practice. “Just all the rules around all of those things, so it becomes instinctual. You feel like an eighth-grader studying for a quiz at school the next day (with) the way you go home each night and study. But that’s really what it does take to come out here on the practice field and just be able to play instinctually.
” … Talk through things and make mistakes, go back and correct them. Make plays and have success and just continue to build a foundation for our offense and for our team in 2022. It is a lot of work because there is much that’s new and requires going back to the basics. That’s kind of what we’re doing. Try to make every day productive toward getting to early September.”
O’Connell served as Cousins’ quarterbacks coach with Washington in 2017 before Cousins signed a three-year, $84 million free agent deal with the Vikings the next year. The Vikings have made only one playoff appearance since Cousins arrived and missed the postseason the past two years. The expectation is O’Connell’s offensive system will enable the Vikings to thrive and that O’Connell also will have a far better relationship with Cousins than former coach Mike Zimmer.
But Cousins made it clear the offense he will be running for O’Connell in Minnesota isn’t all that similar to what he ran in Washington.
“There are elements that are the same, but it’s amazing how much things have evolved,” Cousins said. “Looking back to when I was with Sean McVay in 2016 (when McVay was Washington’s offensive coordinator), Sean’s offense, to the degree that this would have similarities, has gone a long way over the last five years. There’s been a lot of changes.
“The league changes and there’s been a lot of changes with that. I’m sure if you were to take a snapshot of any offense I’ve played in, if you look back five years later, there’s always a lot that’s changed because that’s just the nature of things. You have to keep up with the times. There’s a lot that’s new, there are foundational undertones that are similar, but I just learn it all as if it’s new.”
The Vikings have to be hoping Cousins is a quick study, considering expectations are high for this offense and the veteran received a one-year, $35 million guaranteed contract extension this offseason. Cousins will carry a salary-cap number of $31.4 million for this season, taking up 15 percent of the Vikings’ cap, and $36.3 million for next season, a hit of 16.1 percent. There also is a no-trade clause included for 2023.
Asked what he likes about the new scheme, Cousins said: “There’s nothing that stands out particularly. So many offenses there’s a lot similarities, there’s a lot of carryover. It’s just a new way to call it. It’s a different language to really say the same thing. So you’re learning a new language just as much as you’re learning a new system and that’s really where studying has to happen.”
As for the use of flash cards, Cousins hopes it will help him be ready for the Sept. 11 regular-season opener against the Green Bay Packers at U.S. Bank Stadium.
“It’s an effective method, but not one I’ve used a lot in the past,” he said. “I was kind of chuckling to myself just the fact that was how I was studying. I thought, ‘You’ve got to learn it somehow.’ If this works, great. This is the first time since really 2014, when Jay Gruden was hired (in Washington), and then back in 2012, when I was a rookie coming from Kyle Shanahan’s offense.
“Those were the only other two times in my career that maybe I truly felt I was learning it from scratch. I guess you could also say coming here in 2018 as well. So you have those moments in your career where you’re saying, ‘I’ve got to really lock in and learn this.’ But there were other years where there were changes, but they were more subtle. So this is requiring a lot of studying.”
GLAD TO BE RID OF ZIMMER?
It was no secret that Cousins and former coach Mike Zimmer didn’t have the best relationship, and that the two didn’t even begin meeting once a week until last season. But if Cousins is glad to have a new offensive-minded coach and no longer have to work with the defensive-minded Zimmer, he certainly isn’t willing to say that.
“I think more is similar than different,” Cousins said when asked about how different things feel. “In Year 11 now, when you just get in the rhythm of Phase 1 of OTAs, Phase 2 of OTAs, what you’re doing, the time you’re putting in. Out here on the practice field, so much feels the same in terms of the rhythms of the year, the way you relate to teammates and the way you’re studying. The way you’re trying to fine-tune and find areas to take another step as a team, your mindset is pretty consistent year in and year out. I’m just always looking for continuous improvement and to feel like I’m getting better as a player. And every year I’ve stood here in the spring, I feel like that’s happening. As long as that’s happening, that’s a good sign.”
So is anything different?
“There’s obviously changes, but I wouldn’t say it’s a big deal that I would be focusing on,” Cousins said.
When asked about the tension that seemed to surround the team last season, and the fact that he almost certainly is talking to O’Connell more than he talked to Zimmer, Cousins continued to bob and weave like a championship boxer.
“I’ve always been somebody who cares about how things go and, as a result, has butterflies going into it,” he said. “You don’t have to believe me, but I’m sitting up there drawing plays, we have about a 45-minute break before practice and I’m sitting in the quarterback room just drawing plays, and I’ve got butterflies in my stomach to go to practice. There’s still a tension.
“You’re being filmed, you’re being evaluated, you’re trying to take another step as a player and so you always have a deep care and concern for what you’re doing. As a result, you feel that tension in a good way. I don’t think that will ever go away and it’s never needed to come from a coach. I think it’s just something that comes from within, to put a high standard on your performance and to expect that out of yourself at all times. Especially when your best is required.”
DOT, DOT, DOT
- While kicker Greg Joseph and punter Jordan Berry return to the Vikings roster, new special teams coordinator Matt Daniels said there will be competition for both jobs. Gabe Brkic, a rookie from Oklahoma, will challenge Joseph and Ryan Wright, a rookie from Tulane, will compete against Berry.
- Daniels, who was hired by O’Connell after being the assistant special teams coach for the Dallas Cowboys, carries himself like a guy who could be a head coach one day. Well prepared and enthusiastic, the 32-year-old reminds me a bit of former Vikings defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin in his approach.
- The Vikings and 49ers reportedly are working on holding joint practices at TCO Performance Center before facing each other on Aug. 20 in a preseason game at U.S. Bank Stadium. Vikings general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah is a former 49ers executive.