Newly hired head coach Kevin O’Connell co-signed Cousins’ one-year extension that will keep the veteran quarterback in purple and gold through the 2023 season.
O’Connell hitching his wagon to Cousins is the same strategy that landed the old regime jobless, however, he’s hedged his bets that he can unlock more out of Cousins, urging the Vikings quarterback to throw caution to the wind.
But that’s easier said than done.
O’Connell appeared on SKOR North’s Purple Daily podcast on July 11, addressing how he intends to create situations to make Cousins comfortable with taking more shots downfield and unleashing the potential of the offense.
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‘I Expect Kirk to Make Those Plays’
Drawing from his Super Bowl run with the Los Angeles Rams, O’Connell pointed to the fact that quarterback Matthew Stafford earned heaping praise and has reinvented his reputation in the NFL after winning a title.
O’Connell credited Stafford’s gunslinger mentality for helping Los Angeles go over the top with its offense. Stafford threw for nearly 5,000 yards in the regular season for 41 touchdowns and 17 interceptions and averaged 35 pass attempts per game this season.
However, O’Connell has touted to his new team that the Rams failed to win a single game in November despite having a championship-caliber roster — partially due to a three-game losing skid where Stafford threw five interceptions and fumbled the ball once.
Despite the turnover issues, O’Connell said the culture and fine-tuning the offense to create a balance for Stafford, who was still mastering the playbook into December, was key for the then 7-4 Rams turning the corner on the rest of their season
“I’ve talked a lot to our team initially about this but, we didn’t win a game in the month of November and that was a team that, we won a lot of football games. We won nine out of our last 10 and won a Super Bowl, but we did not win a game in the month of November. In most NFL seasons, that’s enough to bury any positive feelings of morale,” O’Connell said. “We had an unbelievable culture built in that building, but the second part of that was we were turning the football over and our quarterback was turning the football over and there were some times where we were able to find that balance moving forward from there. Matthew was one of the best playmakers at the quarterback position, creating explosives in the NFL last year with his arm talent and his ability, but we were also able to kind of situationally manage the game a little bit and understand that not every snap is it’s own is the same, treat each one as its own entity and continue to preach the consistency of him doing his job and the plays coming to fruition from that.”
O’Connell, who helped architect the Rams offense over the past two years under Sean McVay, has tasked himself to doing the same with Cousins — and with the level of talent at skill positions surrounding Cousins, he “expects” the Vikings quarterback to be comfortable to make winning plays in late-game situations.
“Make no mistake about it, there’s going to be times where you’ve got to trust Justin Jefferson to go get the football in a contested situation… You got to hang in there. One thing I’ve never questioned about Kirk is his ability to hang tough in a pocket with his eyes up downfield. If we compare that toughness, that pocket trust that he has, and build separation through our scheme, obviously our receivers are going to get separation with the way they run routes and their ability, but if we can do it in the rhythm and timing, building schemes and creating space, limiting the conflict for the quarterback when we can, I expect Kirk when it’s all said and done this year to stand in there have an extreme comfort and ownership of our offense and ultimately make those plays to help us win football games.”
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Cousins Worried About Playing Too Aggressive Last Season
Last season, Cousins was coming off a 34-31 walk-off win over the Green Bay Packers in Week 10 where he outdueled Aaron Rodgers. He completed 341 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions, said he felt he was playing “too aggressive,” a comment that Mike Zimmer countered with encouragement.
“I want him to keep doing it like he’s doing it. He can’t second guess himself. If he throws an interception, that’s life. But you keep going for the jugular, it’s going to open up a lot of other areas in the running game. It’s going to open up other players. We’ve just got to keep being that way,” Zimmer said on November 23, per The Athletic.
Cousins had thrown 21 touchdowns and two interceptions up to that point in the season and was on pace for 5,000 passing yards. Had Zimmer’s defense performed better and a series of misfortunes gone the Vikings’ way, Cousins would have been in the mix of MVP conversations.
But just as quickly as Cousins caught fire last season, he soon smoldered out. Cousins threw five interceptions in the next five weeks and averaged nearly 40 fewer passing yards per game as offensive playcalling became questionable.
But Zimmer’s urging of Cousins to keep throwing wasn’t the first time a head coach had addressed Cousins’ cautiousness. Washington coach Jay Gruden, who was Cousins’ head coach from 2014 to 2018, Gruden, felt that Cousins’ overly safe tendencies hindered his potential.
“If he does have a weakness, it’s that he’s too much of a perfectionist. He wants everything to be perfect. Unfortunately, I can’t get guys 30 f****** yards open all the time. There are going to be some tight-window throws he’s going to have to throw some days,” Gruden said of Cousins, who responded saying he’d throw 20 interceptions if he played how Gruden asked him to.
Gruden’s rebuttal: “He’d have about 60 touchdowns year (too).”
O’Connell embarks on his first season as head coach where he’ll attempt to let Cousins loose despite the quarterback’s concerns with playing too conservative in the past.