By: Craig Peters
Kirk Cousins was in Minnesota when he found out in the days leading up to Super Bowl LII his time in Washington would not continue through the 2018 season.
A trade that sent Alex Smith from Kansas City to Washington tipped the first domino for Cousins and the NFL. Cousins quickly wound up on a phone call with a voice from the past — and the future.
One of the first people to reach out to Cousins was new Vikings Head Coach Kevin O'Connell, who had been Cousins' position coach in 2017.
They talked after the Smith trade, weeks before Cousins signed with Minnesota as one of that spring's highest-sought free agents.
The relationship between O'Connell and Cousins — 2017 had been O'Connell's third as an NFL assistant and Cousins' third as Washington's starting QB — prompted O'Connell to ask for a signed jersey.
"I'll gladly sign for the ones that ask. I think I've only had two coaches ask," Cousins explained. "That was Kevin and [Rams Head Coach] Sean McVay, so I signed for those two because they asked."
Four-plus years after that phone call, a phrase Cousins included with his autograph — "I hope our paths cross in the future." — seemed quite prescient, or at least remarkably coincidental.
"Maybe Kirk was predicting the future a little bit there, but I have a lot of respect for Kirk as a player, person, a leader," O'Connell told Vikings Entertainment Network in California shortly after winning Super Bowl LVI as offensive coordinator with the Rams. "Really, really excited about the opportunity to get a chance to coach him again."
Subtle movements can make major differences
O'Connell and new Vikings Offensive Coordinator Wes Phillips, who also earned a Super Bowl ring as the tight ends coach of the Rams, have great familiarity with Cousins. Phillips overlapped with the QB in Washington for four seasons (2014-17).
"I spent more time with Wes going back to our days in Washington than probably any other coach," Cousins said. "I really enjoyed my time with him there, and the tight ends he coached there were a big part of me being able to have success at quarterback."
Cousins, a history buff (football and non-football), appreciates the "great lineage" of the Phillips family that runs three generations deep in the NFL from O.A. "Bum" Phillips (Wes' grandfather) through Wade Phillips (Wes' father) to Wes.
"When we were in Washington together it was when his dad was the defensive coordinator at the Broncos, who were the best defense in football," Cousins said. "We were watching his dad win Super Bowl 50 while I was working with him, and he would tell me stories about his grandpa and about being in elementary school at the Denver Broncos training camp or in high school at the Buffalo Bills training camp."
O'Connell and Phillips have set about building the 2022 Vikings offense and maximizing the things that Cousins does best.
Rather than emphasizing off-schedule plays and creating something from nothing, they want to enable more opportunities to play on-schedule.
"I know Kirk has [talked about making more off-schedule plays] over the years, but one of his best traits is his ability to play in rhythm," Phillips said during training camp. "He's got a really good base in the pocket, he's got great footwork, he can get open to throw off play-actions. He can come off, he can turn his back to the defense and throw with no hitch, with one hitch or progress through with his feet tight.
"It's one thing to know when those [improvisational] opportunities come up and try to feel it, but if you start trying to force, 'Hey, I want to make more plays off-schedule,' ultimately I think you just have to be you," Phillips said. "If you start trying to force things, then we're taking sacks and just not playing football, being the player you are. And we believe that's good enough."
O'Connell has mentioned during media sessions how Cousins' subtle movements in the pocket have kept plays on rhythm and enabled completions during training camp.
Those successes have been built on what has become a key part of Cousins' offseason training. He has embraced tennis for its cardio benefits, as well as the overlap between throwing a football and serving with — but not letting go of — a tennis racket.
Tennis great Pete Sampras used to warm up his serve by throwing a football, and future Hall of Fame QB Drew Brees pointed out to Cousins at a Pro Bowl how hanging onto the racket can help strengthen some shoulder muscles.
Beyond those benefits are hand-eye coordination, as well as footwork.
"It forced me to move in all directions. And I honestly do think it's helped with my moving in the pocket, being a little bit more agile," Cousins said this summer. "I'll never be a Lamar Jackson type, but I think playing tennis is just one way to kind of train that instinct of moving and running."
There will be a few times when the best option is to tuck and run, almost like charging from the baseline to reach a wicked good drop shot or on a Sampras style serve-and-volley, but the subtle movements — like the footwork during a baseline rally — are "arguably just as important" for a quarterback.
"Those are going to happen so often because pass rushers are good and they're going to try to affect you even if they can't get you on the ground," Cousins said. "They're going to try to affect the platform from which you throw, and being able to hitch and slide a yard in one direction or another could be the difference in getting the throw off or not, so I do that almost instinctively because you can't focus on the rush.
"You just have to feel the rush, so you're focusing down the field and just sort of sense that you need to slide or move and you do it without even thinking," he added. "There are times when I'll go back and watch the tape and didn't realize I slid where I did. You're just sort of feeling open space and moving there, so that's a part of the game that I don't even think too much about. I just try to do it instinctively."
Reading in rhythm
The connections with O'Connell and Phillips — a pair of former quarterbacks — and returning skill players and most starters on the offensive line are helpful to Cousins.
But his generally strong camp didn't occur without work.
The likes of Justin Jefferson, Adam Thielen, K.J. Osborn, Irv Smith, Jr., Dalvin Cook and C.J. Ham give Minnesota multiple options with personnel groupings, adding more for a quarterback to master.
"You see teams that don't change personnel and have a lot of success, and you see teams that change personnel constantly and have success," Cousins said. "It just comes down to how you want to do it, and having been with coordinators in a lot of places, you learn there are different ways of doing things. One is not right or wrong. It's just different, and there are ways to be successful and different ways to be successful.
"The key is whatever one you are doing right now, whatever offense you're in, whatever coach you are with, whatever system you run, you better know that one cold," Cousins added.
He made flashcards this spring to help master the verbiage to the point of hearing the play and relaying it at the huddle. There's also a significant amount of command needed at the line of scrimmage to deploy pre-snap shifts and motions.
"It's unwiring your brain from where you were doing things a certain way before, re-wiring to do it the way you're doing it now with your footwork, maybe a read or a route depth," Cousins said. "Then once you get to the line of scrimmage, just having your process of snap count and the motions and the shifts and how the play needs to be read and run, so there's just, every rep you get more and more comfortable with a new way of doing it and start to forget the old way of doing it."
After leading at the line of scrimmage comes the need to crisply execute, advancing through progressions to find the right place to put the football.
"We may coach the read slightly different or the details of it. Maybe for us, it's more of a high-to-low read, where he's used to being able to take the underneath — 'Hey, it's there, I took it,' whereas we might want to let that thing kind of develop and progress a little bit," Phillips said. "He's been great, especially from the spring and transferring it over to the fall in training camp, he's been great at kind of adjusting to the way we want to do things, and of course we're taking input from him, as well, with his experience.
"Really, this offense, if you're talking about playing in rhythm and timing, it's being able to kind of click through with your feet in the ground, playing grounded, hitching in place, working through progressions, being able to say no, see areas and really feel areas as opposed to watching routes," Phillips said. "Which is kind of any offense in the league: You can't watch routes. You've got to be able to feel and anticipate. But if you can be grounded at the top of your drop, feel an area, say yes or no and then click through to the next progression, hopefully your eyes have moved the defense in a way that the next guy coming into that window will be open.
Quiet mind in a noisy pocket
Another phrase O'Connell has used is enabling Cousins to play with a quiet mind, which the quarterback described as "big toward getting familiar with the plays to where you own the material."
Cousins said a quiet mind is best established in "meeting rooms, by asking questions and trying to learn where the bones are buried" in different offensive plays and defensive looks.
A quiet mind is perhaps best challenged by a noisy pocket.
The Vikings have tried to create pressure situations with their own defense as well as during a pair of joint practices with the 49ers instead of playing Cousins — and most starters, for that matter — in the preseason.
O'Connell said the joint practices gave Cousins and the offense a look at "different coverage structures" and feeling a pass rush that is attacking with a different approach than the Vikings.
"We're not doing a lot of game-planning and scheming, but it allows these guys to play in rhythm and obviously with a pass rush like the Niners have — I've experienced it five times over the past two years playing against them — they change the way you have to play the position. The discipline of rhythms and reads and understanding when you can try to hold it a little more and when you can't. They can change a game with their pass rush, especially with Nick [Bosa] on the edge.
Each time Cousins was able to trust that defenders would abide by the red, no-contact jersey, but that means he hasn't had a live game rep since Jan. 9.
"I think a red jersey is always the frustration of trying to simulate and get ready for the real thing. That's where preseason games are valuable," Cousins said. "I think the rest of practice simulates preseason games very well, but you don't have a red jersey on in a preseason game.
"I like the pocket to be noisy in practice," he added. "I like to feel like the rush is on me because I sense that it's a good simulation for the real thing, but you also have to weigh — not having a red jersey in preseason games has to be weighed with the fact that there's a risk there, too. … Whatever the workload is, whether it's no preseason or not, I have to maximize every practice day to get ready for Week 1."