EAGAN, Minn. – Kirk Cousins may be the oldest skill position player on Minnesota's roster, but he hasn't stopped striving to grow his game.
Cousins celebrated his 32nd birthday on Wednesday by speaking to media members via video conference and spoke to entering his third season in Minnesota.
"Every year is different; there are always changes and new variables that make it feel like the first year of that group and that locker room," Cousins said. "But certainly there's a greater comfort level than there was in 2018, and that's to be expected – the longer you're in a place, the more comfortable you are with so many parts of the environment.
"You'd like to think that it lends itself well to playing your best football; but really, now, that's just talk," he added. "You've got to go out and prove it."
Cousins hopes to play his best football in 2020 after having a career campaign last year, throwing 26 touchdowns to just six interceptions and finishing with a quarterback rating of 107.4.
One component he's emphasized wanting to implement more is running the football. And if anyone knows a thing or two about that, it's Hall of Fame quarterback Fran Tarkenton. "Scramblin' Fran," who played in his first Super Bowl with the Vikings at age 33, has encouraged Cousins to extend plays with his feet.
"Whenever I connect with him, he's encouraging me to run the ball more, and I really agree with him," Cousins said. "I think that I do have – I'm not going to say that I'm Michael Vick – but I do have enough athleticism to make more plays with my feet than what I've done in the past. That is something that I want to get better at doing.
"You can't go look for it. If you look to go run the ball, then you're going to miss open receivers," he continued. "You have to truly train that instinct that when the play breaks down, take off and run. Finding that balance of remaining a passer and becoming a runner is a very fine line, and that's what I'm working on in camp."
Being that teams have navigated offseason programming shortened by the COVID-19 pandemic and will have no preseason games, Cousins said you "do the best you can" to practice scenarios in which you may run the ball.
"We have drill work just individually we try to try to emphasize it. We try to have moments in practice where you basically, even if you complete the ball, you look and see was there a better opportunity to run and why was that," said Cousins, who added that he also gleans tips from the defense.
"You just try to gather information and learn and, even with a red jersey on, do the best you can to get better in that area," he said.
It's helpful for Cousins and his teammates that Minnesota's offensive system will look quite similar to what it ran in 2019.
Although Gary Kubiak didn't call the plays last season, his fingerprints certainly were all over the playbook, making for a smooth transition when he stepped into the offensive coordinator role for 2020.
It's fair to say, then, that the Vikings likely will again field fewer three-receiver sets than a majority of teams across the league. Kubiak's offenses have been known to utilize heavier personnel groupings, as was demonstrated last season.
Cousins pointed out that when Adam Thielen suffered a hamstring injury at Detroit last year, Stefon Diggs became the main receiver and the Vikings relied heavily on tight ends, running backs and fullback C.J. Ham to do more in the receiving game.
Kubiak's approach keeps defenses on their toes.
"I'd like to believe that when you put those personnels on the field with heavier people – tight ends, fullbacks – that it puts the defensive coordinator in a bind because he's assuming that it's going to be run, or, 'This is going to be a tighter formation,' " Cousins explained. "And when you have versatile players like an Irv Smith or a C.J. Ham that can line up in a lot of different places and do a lot of different things, you'd like to think it puts defenses in a tough spot and they can't quite make their call just off of personnel alone.
"I do think personnel is one of those things that's the 'game within the game,' and when you have versatile players and you can stay very multiple with what you do within a personnel, it can make for a great advantage," Cousins continued. "So last year we still moved the football well in a lot of different personnel groupings that didn't involve receivers. Ultimately, it does come down to running the football well, and I think when you do that you have a lot of flexibility to stay in [fewer] three receiver sets."
That being said, Cousins is also looking forward to continuing building chemistry with receiver Justin Jefferson, whom the Vikings tabbed with the 22nd overall draft pick in April.
Jefferson has made a positive impression thus far in Verizon Vikings Training Camp, albeit in limited outings thus far.
"I think he's just doing a nice job here getting the play call in the huddle, getting out, getting lined up, knowing where to go, what to do, the depth to go on the route," Cousins said. "And ultimately why you bring him in is for the natural stuff. Learning the plays takes time no matter how good you are, but when the instincts can take over and you can make great plays, that's what you're looking for. He's shown an ability to do that, so we have to continue to get more reps, get more plays together, find out where he's most comfortable and certainly keep him in that comfort zone early in the season and continue to [add to] his plate where, as the year goes on, we're asking him to handle anything and everything, and hopefully he can handle it."
The Vikings are scheduled to kick off their season on Sept. 13 against the Packers.
Asked what they're doing during an unprecedented offseason to set them apart from other teams, Cousins said it boils down to which team best adapted to the curveballs of 2020.
"[Vikings Head Coach Mike] Zimmer and Gary Kubiak said the team that handles this unique circumstance the best, the team that can still get a lot of work done virtually, that can get a lot done in walkthroughs and what not, is going to come out of this in a much better place in September and then through the season," Cousins said. "We have understood that, and we have tried to take that to heart and apply it to the way we work.
"Just being in camp right now, honestly, it's more similar to where we would be at this time than what April, May, June, July were like," he added. "Those were more the months to make up ground. Now we are able to play football and get back to a pretty normal routine."