Vikings did their part, now it's on Kirk Cousins to get to 'next level'

The blame game went a little something like this as the Minnesota Vikings stumbled to an 8-7-1 finish last season.

It’s the offensive line’s fault! It’s playcalling! The defense lost its edge! Kirk Cousins was a bad investment!

Assigning a singular scapegoat for all of Minnesota’s shortcomings is indolent, but two sentiments have worked their way to becoming near absolutes in the NFL.

When things go well, the belief is that the quarterback is (usually) doing everything right.

When they don’t, it’s the quarterback who’s the problem.

Minnesota’s brass went back to the drawing board this offseason to remedy the supporting cast around its $84 million passer. The Vikings removed the interim tag from offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski and hired Gary Kubiak as an assistant head coach/offensive adviser, along with new coaches for the offensive line, quarterback room and tight end group.

Building a system tailored to what Cousins does well was the top priority. Then came fixing the interior of the offensive line (drafting Garrett Bradbury, moving Pat Elflein to left guard, shoring up depth) and securing more weapons for the offense, notably tight end Irv Smith Jr. and backup running back Alexander Mattison.

Over the past seven months, the Vikings did their part to give Cousins what he needs to be successful. Now it’s on the quarterback to take the next step.

“You can have all the gaudy stats in the world, but this business is always going to come down to wins and losses,” general manager Rick Spielman said. “We can have two 1,000-yard receivers and this and that, but it’s always going to come down to wins and losses. ... It’s not going to be about stats or individual stats.

"It’s going to be about what we have to do every week to go out there and win football games. I know that’s the mindset of [coach Mike Zimmer] and that’s the mindset of this football team.”

Cousins is entering his eighth year in the league and fifth as a starter. He has been knocked for coming up short in the game’s biggest moments and struggling against superior competition. He has been labeled everything from not clutch to a system quarterback throughout his career -- a player who needs everything around him to be just right in order to be successful.

Even if all those things hold true, that’s not to say Cousins' "next level" is out of reach.

To expect that Cousins will be an entirely different quarterback in Year 2 in Minnesota is unrealistic. Even with an improved offensive line, the way Cousins performs in the pocket might not appear that different.

“I don’t see Kirk becoming this incredibly -- in the pocket -- feel-based quarterback where he feels pressure so much differently and navigates it better,” said ESPN analyst and former NFL quarterback Dan Orlovsky. “But I don’t see it as an issue for him where it’s something that’s going to be the downfall for him. The offensive line needs to be better, and a big part of it is the internal part of it.

"The quarterback can deal with stuff on the edges. When you don’t have any comfort of what’s in front of you [on the interior of the O-line] and any confidence that you can get up into a pocket, you start seeing stuff and feel stuff differently.”

While Cousins' quarterback makeup might not change that drastically, there are areas of his game that, with the right diagnosis, could improve.

Minnesota finished 19th in points per game last season, a result of many stalled drives. One glaring area where Cousins and the Vikings' offense stumbled was on third down, particularly on third-and-6 or longer, where their conversion rate ranked 25th.

“Teams were a little bit more willing to play some coverages that were man or match coverages where the windows are smaller, because there’s zero concern about Kirk ever running for a first down,” Orlovsky said.

Staying out of third-and-long territory is the goal of every team. Even though Cousins showed the ability to make the right read on third-down plays that went awry (he had the fifth-best adjusted completion percentage on such throws in 2018, according to Pro Football Focus), there are ways the Vikings can help the QB.

“You have to be willing to get more creative [with playcalling],” Orlovsky said. “Your offensive line needs to be able to play well in order to push the ball downfield on third-and-6 or longer. You need to know whether the guys up front can or can’t block the other team long enough to get three receivers past 8 yards. That’s a reality. The offensive line blocking better and being better in protection, especially up the middle, will help Stefanski be more willing to have it be just [Stefon] Diggs past the markers. He can go Diggs, [Adam] Thielen and Irv Smith where we trust the offensive line will hold up and we can push the ball and put some guys downfield a little bit more with their routes.”

Another area where Cousins struggled in 2018 is one that's been his Achilles' heel throughout his career: the red zone.

Though his statistics -- 20 touchdowns, 114.7 passer rating -- inside the 20-yard line don’t reveal the full picture of his struggles in this area, there are ways to scheme around his shortcomings by leaning more on the run.

“Being great in the red zone is really difficult, especially when teams don’t fear you running the football against them,” Orlovsky said. “They can commit to playing coverage more and more down there. Kirk’s lack of mobility isn’t something that scares teams.

“Down in the red zone where you have 15 yards or so to work with, if I’ve got four guys going out into my pass pattern and the defense isn’t really concerned with having to stop a run or being exposed to the run, they can commit six guys to coverage. That’s really freaking hard.”

Over the next month, the Vikings will look to correct Cousins' shortcomings in these areas by scheming to his strengths so the weaknesses of the offense aren't exposed. Doing so may not only help Cousins reach his next level, it may also help decide the outcome of the season.

"I’m sure with it being my second year here and my eighth year in the league, you just continue to evolve as a player and ask different questions and have more authority or assert yourself more," Cousins said. "But probably more similar than different, and ultimately I and we are going to be evaluated on things far from training camp. It’s going to come down to those 16 regular-season games and then beyond that."