It was shaping up to be a bad weekend of football for the State of Minnesota with the Gophers falling to the Iowa Hawkeyes, and as the Vikings were trailing the lowly Denver Broncos by 20 points at half-time. So you’re not alone if you either considered or just did turn off the game at the half as the Vikings essentially would have had to be perfect on both sides of the ball to mount a successful comeback in the second half. Considering how they’d put up zero points in the first half, and allowed yet another backup quarterback to have a career day against them on defense, it felt like that was simply going to be a bridge too far.
The result, at least on the offensive side of the ball was nothing short of spectacular, with the Vikings offense becoming the first in league history to score a touchdown on every possession in the second half (while also winning after trailing by 20-or-more points at the half). While this win means a lot about the Viking’s post-season seeding and hopes, the result also should’ve put to rest any lingering questions as to whether or not adding Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins was the right move for this franchise (especially and serendipitously, not long after former Vikings quarterback Case Keenum was benched by his second team in as many seasons since his Cinderella 2017 season in Minnesota), and perhaps any question as to whether or not Cousins could bring this Vikings team to the promised land (that is if the defense can find even 50% of its 2017 mojo).
Firstly, this win didn’t start with or build off of the play of running back Dalvin Cook (although the Vikes did still utilize the play-action to astounding results) and/or the running game in general (as Cook finished the day with 11 rushes for 26 yards, a paltry 2.4 yard-per-carry average). Instead, Cousins did what some of his naysayers said was impossible by putting the team on his shoulders and playing mistake-free and clutch football a week after breaking putting some of the other Never Cousins-er talking points to bed by beating a > .500 team, in Prime Time to boot! Sunday’s outcome was the first come from behind 4th quarter win for Cousins since joining the Vikings, as well as what may have been his most impressive performance in purple and gold as well, which, if you’ve seen how he’s played since the disaster that was the Bears game, is really saying something.
While he was incredibly accurate, going 11-of-12 over the first two quarters, Cousins had under 60 yards passing in the half. He also fumbled in the second quarter courtesy of Broncos defender Shelby Harris, who had a career day by totaling three sacks. With Cook and company finding similar results, it was looking like the Vikings would be going into their Bye week with a crushing upset by a Broncos team that had a good defense, bolstered by an elite pass defense, but had a rookie back-up quarterback starting his second game. That’s the sort of thing that kills a season (as we saw last season with the Buffalo Bills upset that would’ve been the difference between the Vikings making the playoffs), but luckily/thankfully for the purple faithful, Cousins wasn’t having any of that nonsense even without his (arguably) favorite target, Adam Thielen, missing another game due to his messed up hamstring.
Those first-half stats/outcomes weren’t a gigantic surprise, despite the fact that Cousins has been setting the league on fire since the start of the second quarter of the season, as the Broncos came into the game with a top-five passing defense. It was it’s 17th ranked unit against the rush that many, myself included, thought the Vikings would make their headway against and when Dalvin Cook and company were also shut down in the first-half it was thought that a comeback would be nearly impossible with the likes of the Broncos secondary and an elite pass rusher who some of you may have heard of, Von Miller, playing opposite this mediocre at best Vikings offensive line.
What also wasn’t a huge surprise was the first-half play of the Vikings defense who yet again was bested by a back-up quarterback. It was looking like the Vikings would be losing their fourth game of the season Sunday, with three of those losses then coming from back up quarterbacks (in Brandon Allen Sunday, Chase Daniel of the Bears and Matt Moore of the Kansas City Chiefs). Thankfully, offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski (and company) made the half-time adjustments necessary to jump-start the offense, namely by having the Vikings come out in the second half and run a hurry-up offense but by also implementing more of the play-action rollouts that have been absolutely lethal for Cousins this season.
Cousins discussed that after the game, pondering why the hurry up seems to work (is it that it tires out the defense? Or is it that it requires the defensive coordinators to think on their feet quicker than they already do?). What wasn’t touched on, at least as far as I could see when prepping for this piece, was whether they discussed why the Vikings offensive brain trust yet again kept Cousins immobile in the first-half. Cousins has been best when he’s been able to roll out or throw on the run this season, and perhaps it was due to the lack of success in the run game (and thus a lack of play-action)… But as we saw from his 54-yard touchdown to Diggs in the second half (and the game-winning touchdown to Kyle Rudolph), not only is Cousins surgical with this B when rolling out, but play-action works even when the run game necessarily isn’t because Cook has established enough of a reputation to keep opposing defenses at least somewhat honest.
There are still a lot of answers on the defensive side of the ball, even with the three points they allowed in the second half and the amazing final stand that ended the game (as they did give up multiple fourth downs on the final drive of the game, including two fourth-and-6’s and another fourth-and-1 in the red zone that almost allowed Broncos QB Allen to rush for the go-ahead score with under 30 seconds left in the game). However, it’s the fact that Cousins and the Vikings offense was/were able to come from behind the way they did and against whom they did, that should really reinforce to those who are still in the “wait-and-see” approach that this Vikings offense is not only for real (and carrying this defense), but also good enough to win a championship. Keep in mind that this is without a full game from Adam Thielen since over a month ago.
That’s right. I’m saying I think that Cousins is good enough to win a Super Bowl with this team and that as of the writing of this piece, the main/only major liability I can see is coming from the last place you’d expect, the secondary, a position group that has three first-round picks and a second-round pick in it’s top four corners and a head coach that came up as a defensive backs coach/CB Whisperer in the league. I mean, imagine if this offense could play alongside the 2017 defense?
To be fair, they basically are, considering how many players are the same from two seasons ago, which should alleviate concerns that we all have about this defense getting it together before the playoffs start. However, it’s also far too late in the season for a defense of this (former) caliber, or rather, a defensive backfield of this caliber to be in the position that it’s in and as we saw multiple times Sunday, that would be better stated as “out of position”.
But back to Cousins, who as Stefon Diggs said Sunday, deserves “more credit” and a “pat on the back”. Another quick aside; I know that those comments sound pretty ‘Meh’ in terms of compliments. I mean, the guy just orchestrated one of the best comebacks in recent NFL history and he gets a… Pat on the back? But when you take where things were in the Diggs/Cousins relationship earlier in the season and compare it to these statements, it’s clearly night and day and a huge sigh of relief (as a happy Diggs is a non-impromptu Talkin’ Trade “Rumors” press conference (because, as we all now know, there’s truth to every rumor!)).
After the debacle in Chica…cle, even I (who was the first in Vikings media to state that the Vikings needed to go “All In” to acquire Cousins ) said that I was officially/finally off the Cousins band-wagon. While I was extremely frustrated at the time, the decision was rational and multi-faceted as Cousins was essentially not only make bad decisions but also failing to execute when he was making the right decision. Even before Sunday’s historic comeback, it has become apparent to even the most ardent Never-Cousins…er or bandwagon jumper that he’s making the right decisions and executing at an MVP level (his numbers from Week 5 until a week or two ago were strangely identical to the 2018 numbers of that seasons MVP, Patrick Mahomes):
— Look at Cousins the last 4 games and how he’s come on
— Compare Cousins’ start to that of last year’s MVP Patrick Mahomes through 8 games. ??♂️ pic.twitter.com/fukVUTipzc
— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) October 25, 2019
While the point of this article isn’t really to explain the how of Cousins’ amazing turn-around, it’s safe to say that the Cousins does better when he’s able to throw while on the run or at least, after running or rolling out (something the Vikings perhaps would’ve realized in 2018 had they had one or two of the following: even just a kinda bad offensive line, a run game, an offensive coordinator and head coach that were on the same page). That makes me think that I was too rash to jump off the bandwagon after Week 4, even though some would’ve said at the time (and did) that it was far too late for me to have done that. I was still reeling from that pick in Lambeau, and the lack of production in Chicago (after all of our hopes went WAY up when Bears QB Mitchell Trubisky left the game early) irked me.
Looking back at that game now, it felt a lot like the 2018 Vikings in that Cousins was pressured constantly and had no help from the run game. Nor did the offensive coordinator in Kevin Stefanski dial-up any of the sorts of plays that we’ve seen from Week 5 on that have catapulted Cousins into the MVP-debate. Case in point comes from his second touchdown of the day (although his third touchdown to Kyle Rudolph was also a play-action roll-out) Sunday, a 54-yard “Dime” (as described by Dalvin Cook) that is one of the more perfect throws you’ll ever see in the NFL.
With Cousins rolling out to his left, he was able to throw to his left to Diggs IN STRIDE. I’d argue that Cousins was always capable of this level of performance and that it was the Vikings, not Cousins, that didn’t live up to expectations in 2018.
Bear with me.
Now, if you recall the first quarter-and-a-half of last season, Cousins was playing really, really well. That’s how Thielen was able to tie former Lions receiver Calvin Johnson’s record for the most 100-yard games to start a season with eight. I would argue, or just state (since it’s a fact) that it was their defense that let the Vikings down at the beginning of the 2018 season and not Cousins, who did everything he could to keep the team in the running despite a rash of injuries, no offensive line support, and no running game.
On top of that, there was turmoil and infighting on the coaching staff between head coach Mike Zimmer and offensive coordinator John DeFilippo that was bad enough for the team to release DeFilippo before the season even ended (despite DeFilippo being framed as the next young, up-and-coming offensive-minded head coach a la Sean McVay). Because of all of that, it was hard for the team to really get a sense as to what worked best for Cousins. Sure, he showed flashes of spectacular play in 2018, I just mentioned the fast start he and Thielen got out to. He played particularly well against the Packers (both times) and the Rams, but after taking a ton of sacks/hits and with nearly constant pressure, any quarterback would end up seeing ghosts and getting happy feet.
Perhaps that changed Cousins, who had always struggled when pressured (something we saw yet again this season when he was flushed out of the pocket Week 2 against the Packers on first-and-goal), and the team needed to find a way around the subsequent happier feet that Cousins now has while standing in the pocket. To be honest, it doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that the Vikings found out not only that Cousins can be elite as the elite talent around him, but how to consistently ensure that he performs at that elite level, and the key to that was shown on that 54-yard touchdown to Diggs.
For reasons perhaps only known to Cousins, who previously was considered relatively statue-esque and immobile (a knock that many Never Cousin-ers used against him during the great Cousins Free Agency Online Wars of the 2018 off-season), he is excelling when he’s throwing on/shortly after a run/roll-out/bootleg. While you’d think that they’d have realized that last season, considering he often had to run for his life behind an offensive line that was just bad on its BEST day. It’s actually the planned roll-outs that Cousins is succeeding with, not so much the Case Keenum style of Houdini-esque escapes we all fell in love within 2017.
Not to mention that the Vikings couldn’t really successfully pull off play-action plays last season as they had no run game for teams to fear and, honestly, because the additional time needed to run a play-action play just wasn’t there behind the 2018 offensive line.
Speaking of Keenum, that 54-yard touchdown to Diggs is actually the best example of why Cousins was the right pick for this Vikings team that I can think of (which may be surprising as you’d think that throwing on the run is Keenum’s bread and butter), as what perhaps the most impressive part of that touchdown was that Diggs was Cousins’ fourth option on that play. If you recall, back when Case Keenum was under center for the Vikings in 2017, he was mostly limited to two general options per play (one deep and one underneath as a safety valve) as the powers that be didn’t trust him to make that many decisions per play mentally or physically.
Keenum couldn’t make all the throws on the field (and/or would make bad decisions that’d end in interceptions) and because of that the Vikings also had to limit the types of plays that they ran with him (vs. the plays they ran with Sam Bradford before he went down with injury earlier that season) on that level as well. Considering the fact that you have the best one-two punch in the league at wide receiver in Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen, it makes sense to invest in a quarterback who can handle more than two options each play and who can make the types of throws that Diggs pulled in to bring the Vikings to 13-points on the day as well.
Despite how amazing that throw was, the Vikings still needed another touchdown to pull ahead of the Broncos. That came four minutes later in another pass to a wide-open Kyle Rudolph, his third touchdown in the past two weeks. Rudolph was that open (partially) thanks to yet another play-action roll-out that got Broncos defender Duke Johnson Jr. to bite HARD. While Cousins hasn’t picked up many yards this season, he has been mobile enough to force defenders to play him straight up (whereas we’ve seen in years past that there can be 10/15/20 yards in front of Vikings QBs because the opposing defenses just don’t fear their ability to pick up yards with their feet). Just another aspect to Cousins’ game that has contributed to an overall level of output at the QB-position that few of us in Minnesota have really ever seen that shined during a comeback that few have ever seen, period.
When asked of the comeback after the game, Cousins said:
“It doesn’t just happen like that”
Not quite “YOU LIKE THAT” that made Cousins a household name to many outside of the Beltway/Big Ten, but considering what it means for this team and it’s playoff/championship ambitions, it’s safe to say that this was an even more pivotal moment in the career of Kirk Cousins that the 24-point comeback that spawned his catch-phrase. It’s pivotal for a few reasons, perhaps the least important of which is that it also should’ve finally converted any remaining doubters in the state of Minnesota as to whether or not he was the right choice under-center for the purple and gold both in 2018 and the future.
That’s a future that can be very, very bright. But keep in mind that Cousins spurned the Jets’ larger offer to come to this Vikings team partially because of the dominant play of the defense, and at this point, it’s looking like Cousins is carrying the defense yet again. So maybe it’s time we all agree that Cousins was, again, the right choice and that he perhaps, never was the issue in the first place.