During one of the Vikings’ practices this spring, Kirk Cousins dropped back on a particular play, moved off of his first target based on the coverage he saw from the defense and threw toward one of his secondary targets on the play.
After the play, new Vikings head coach Kevin O’Connell, the former NFL quarterback who’d been Cousins’ position coach five years earlier, encouraged him to change his thought process.
“He said, ‘Hey, I want you to take that [first option] with that look [on defense]. Don’t progress [through your reads].’ And prior to him saying that I would’ve progressed every time,” Cousins said. “We probably ran that play a half dozen times again in the spring. And when we got that look, I was going to take that [first] option.
“It’s important to understand what he wants and not just play to, ‘Well I’ve done this before so I’ll just do this again.’ It’s more of, ‘How do you want it to look? Let me execute that way.’ But that takes time to learn.”
Cousins and O’Connell developed a solid relationship when they were together in Washington in 2017, and their partnership — the subject of much intrigue after the Vikings hired O’Connell in February and gave Cousins a new deal in March — is entering a new phase as the team begins O’Connell’s first training camp.
O’Connell’s instruction, for the first time, comes to Cousins with the weight conferred by his title as head coach. Cousins’ performance, perhaps more than that of anyone else on the 2022 Vikings’ roster, could dictate the outcome of O’Connell’s first season in the biggest job of his career.
“As the head coach, whether you’re on the offensive or defensive side, the quarterback has to be an extension of you as a head coach. ”
They will meet one-on-one at least weekly during the regular season, O’Connell said; that fact has at least something to do with O’Connell’s role as the Vikings’ offensive play-caller, but it represents a change from Cousins’ relationship with Mike Zimmer, who only started meeting individually with Cousins in 2021 after the quarterback suggested a weekly film study in their fourth season together. Given how much Cousins, a three-time Pro Bowler, views his job to be playing the position the way his coaches want it done, it’s worth noting the steps O’Connell is taking to establish an open line of communication.
“I think that’s one of the best things you can do, especially as a play caller,” O’Connell said. “As the head coach, whether you’re on the offensive or defensive side, the quarterback has to be an extension of you as a head coach. It will be a process, but we’ll find time early in the week or later in the week. I might love something, [offensive coordinator Wes] Phillips might love something, [quarterbacks coach Chris] O’Hara. But in the end, if the quarterback, the guy who’s going to be pulling the trigger, doesn’t love something, then you’ve got plenty of [other] plays.”
“It’s a huge part of my relationship with him, it’s great to have a starting point from our past. But ultimately that’s something we’ll build throughout the week and find out what works best for us.”
The Vikings hired O’Connell days after his year of work with Matthew Stafford culminated in the Rams’ Super Bowl LVI victory. They gave Cousins a contract through 2023 that includes a no-trade clause, effectively solidifying O’Connell’s partnership with him through the first portion of his Vikings coaching tenure.
“It’s important to understand what he wants and not just play to, ‘Well I’ve done this before so I’ll just do this again.’ It’s more of, ‘How do you want it to look? Let me execute that way.’ ”
Cousins, who turns 34 next month, wants to retire in Minnesota. O’Connell, who turned 37 in May, is the face of a new organizational approach the Vikings hope will last for a while.
For it all to work, the two men will need each other.
“The bottom line is, you need to do it the way the coach wants it done,” Cousins said. “I’ve found when you’re coachable and you learn it the way they want it, that’s when you have the most success because they’re really setting up the whole plan to build off of those coaching pieces.”