RSP contributor Mark Schofield examines an ongoing debate about Kirk Cousins between Dan Orlovsky and Kurt Warner and shows us why it’s a conversation between a baker (Orlovsky) and a chef (Warner).
From time to time you can read a piece that impacts you profoundly, and usually in two distinct ways. First, when you are finished digesting the article you walk away having learned something. In this industry, for example, you might have a deeper understanding of a player’s traits, or a route concept, or a coverage shell, or even a blitz package. In the future, you will be able to identify that schematic component or athletic ability with ease.
Second, you walk away insanely jealous of the writer and their ability to convey that concept. This duality of consumption happens to me on almost a daily basis, given the wealth of great content being produced across the football media world.
My first season covering the game “professionally” was the 2014-2015 campaign, which culminated in the 2015 draft and the “Mariota or Winston” debate. As a true neophyte on the football media stage, I came to the draft process in sync with the calendar: In February, after the Super Bowl. Little did I know then what I know now, that the draft is an all-consuming, year-round proposition.
Undaunted, I forged on, trying to make my case for Marcus Mariota over Jameis Winston. In doing so I tried to read every piece I could about the two quarterbacks, seeing how others made their own cases. It was then that I came across a piece on Mariota that had the above-described effect on me, and it was written for this site by the venerable Eric Stoner. Marcus Mariota: The Task-Oriented QB.
It stopped me in my tracks and immediately had me rethinking everything about my own evaluation. Stoner made the argument that at times Mariota can be so “task-oriented” with play design that he is missing opportunities to exploit, or take advantage of, what the defense is giving him. It is a beautiful way to frame quarterback play. As a former quarterback, I still have the pre-snap mental checklist of everything I would look for in my head, and I still view pays in terms of progression reads. In other words, I am still viewing the position as a series of tasks to accomplish, akin to a pilot and his pre-flight checklist.
However, playing this position is more than just checking off a list of tasks, and Stoner’s piece crystalized it in my mind.
That brings us to Kirk Cousins.
In the past few days on Twitter, you might have come across a debate about the Minnesota Vikings’ quarterback, spurred on by former quarterback and ESPN analyst Dan Orlovsky. The former Lion put some of Cousins’ 2018 tape under the microscope, specifically over 30 third and long plays, to make the argument that Cousins was doing the right thing with the football, and needed some help, either in the form of better routes or play design.
But reading through his thread — and the subsequent criticism of it — Stoner’s piece flashed into my mind. As a former quarterback himself, of course, Orlovsky is making the case that Cousins is making the right reads and decisions because he is doing everything by the book. The defense shows him a coverage, he goes to the route in the play call to beat it.
The 2015 version of me would have been right there with Orlovsky, but only after stepping out of the huddle and into an office chair did I begin to crystallize in my mind the need for creation. The need for a quarterback to sometimes take that presnap mental checklist and throw it out the window.
Matt Waldman posed the analogy that with this question: Can [the quarterback] make music? I’ll take it in a different direction: Is the quarterback a baker, or a chef?
Cooking is something I love to do in my spare time. Our kitchen (and even some closets and bookcases) are filled with cookbooks. If you are looking for a good series, I strongly recommend America’s Test Kitchen cookbooks, especially their international version. Admittedly, I am a much better chef than a baker, and here is part of the reason why. Baking requires precision, it requires attention to detail, and it requires strict adherence to the rules and recipes. Otherwise, things get ruined.
Cooking, however, does not require as much in the way of precision. If you get heavy-handed with the spices or add too much garlic, you might simply enhance the flavoring, and not outright ruin a dish. Try that with the baking powder in some dough, however, and you’re starting from scratch in an hour.
Perhaps Cousins is a baker and not a chef.
Take, for example, this play in Week 13 against the New England Patriots. The Vikings trail 17-10 late in the third quarter, and start a new possession on their own 25-yard line. They run a three-level flood concept to the left, with Aldrick Robinson (#17) running a vertical route and Latavius Murray (#25) running a route to the left flat after carrying out a play-action fake.
Adam Thielen (#19) runs the intermediate route in this three-level flood, as he executes a deep crosser working from the right to his left. The Patriots drop into a single-high coverage.
Cousins (#8) looks for Robinson on the vertical route, and the pass falls incomplete:
Now by the book (or according to the baking recipe if we’re going to rely on this analogy), this is the right read and decision. On a three-level flood concept as a quarterback, you will work that side of the field from high to low. Against a single-high coverage look as this, if your go-route receiver gets a step, you’ll take your shot.
Now watch that play again, and peek at Stefon Diggs (#14) on the backside vertical route.
A chef might pull the trigger on that throw to the backside. Against this coverage look, you have arguably your best receiver in a one-on-one matchup, you might want to take a peek at him.
Here, Diggs gets loose behind the coverage of Stephon Gilmore (#24) and is open for what could have been a big play. But Cousins, adhering to the task in front of him, never looks in that direction.
The 2015 version of me is fine with the QB’s decision here. The current version of me wonders if he can create outside the tasks in front of him.
Here is another play from that contest, this time from the game’s final quarter. The Vikings face a 1st and 10 on their own 29-yard line to start another drive. This time Minnesota runs an Air Raid staple, Mesh-Sit with a wheel route from the running back. The Patriots drop into a standard Cover 2 coverage:
You can see Cousins literally check off the tasks as the play unfolds. First, he checks the wheel route from the running back. Then he checks the crossing route coming to the play side (working left to right) and against the zone coverage, the crossers will sit down in space. Cousins goes to that first crosser read, hitting Diggs for a short gain underneath.
However, look at the sit route over the top of the mesh from Thielen. Once more, Cousins does everything by the book here, yet, against a straight Cover 2 like this, that sit route in the middle of the field is an opportunity to get a bigger gain downfield.
Thielen squats behind the linebackers and well in front of the safeties, and if Cousins drops in this route the receiver has a chance for a big gain. This is a great option against zone coverage, such as the Vikings see on this play. But he stays to the recipe, and the Vikings face a second down.
Finally, let’s examine this play from Week 3, which was hotly debated on the Twittersphere. Down 27-0 with over five minutes remaining in the first half, the Vikings face a 3rd and 7 on their own 20-yard line. They put Cousins in the shotgun and run a pair of corner routes to each side of the field with boundary receivers, and use tight end Kyle Rudolph (#82) and Thielen on a shallow cross concept. The Buffalo Bills show a single-high look presnap, but drop into a Cover 2 look as the play begins:
Once more, Cousins does this by the book. With the defense dropping into this two high scheme, putting the safeties in position to squeeze the corner routes to the sideline, the textbook response is to work the shallow cross concept. Here, Cousins tries to lead Thielen away from danger when the receiver is walled off to the outside and works back to the middle of the field, but the pass falls incomplete.
However, viewing the play this way is “old quarterback terms” as termed by Seth Galina, a quarterback coach. Because if you look at the corner routes, there is still room to throw either one of those, for a big gain. Instead, Cousins goes by the books and ends up making a contested throw on an adjusted route, and the pass falls incomplete.
The baker follows the rules, the chef adds spice to taste. Plus, down 27-0 you might need a little spice. The context of taste, as it were.
This might seem heavy-handed criticism of Cousins, and the 2015 version of me would agree with you. I remember those days trying to deflect criticism of quarterbacks with phrases like “that is not in his progression read” or “he won’t be looking for that against this coverage.”
Most of the time, going by the book at the QB position is going to work in your favor. Do not get me wrong, Cousins is a very solid quarterback who can win from the pocket and make big plays for his offense within structure.
He’s a great baker.
But when it comes to being a chef, and creating to taste, that is where Cousins might be lacking. Until he starts identifying and exploiting opportunities like these, he might not make that leap into the upper echelon of quarterbacks. Making him a very expensive baker for a Vikings’ restaurant with the ingredients ready-made for a chef.
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