The Vikings Are Running Like It’s 1972

The Minnesota Vikings said this offseason that they were going to get Kirk Cousins, their $84 million quarterback, “to that next level to do the things he does best.” Based on the game plans the team has run since overhauling its offense December — especially in Sunday’s 28-12 victory over the Falcons — the thing he does best is apparently handing the ball off to a running back.

Cousins threw only 10 passes all game, completing eight, good for 98 yards and a touchdown. That’s the fewest passes a Vikings quarterback has attempted in a regular-season win since 1977, in a game at Green Bay where the wind chill made it feel like it was minus 3 degrees. But Sunday’s game was played indoors. Since 2001, according to ESPN’s Stats & Information Group, only one winning team has attempted fewer passes while playing indoors — the visiting Carolina Panthers at the Atlanta Falcons in a 10-3 victory in 2006. The Atlanta Falcons had the next fewest passes in an indoor home win, throwing 13 times in a 34-21 victory in 2008 — Matt Ryan’s first game his rookie season.

Cousins, of course, is no rookie. He’s 31 and in his eighth season. Yet he’s being treated like a game manager by his head coach, Mike Zimmer, who fired pass-happy offensive coordinator John DeFilippo last December after DeFilippo dialed up pass plays at a rate of 67.0 percent overall and 57.3 percent in wins. DeFilippo also reportedly ignored repeated instructions from Zimmer to run more. That message was received by new offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski:1 In Minnesota’s three wins (in four games) since the firing, the Vikings have looked to throw just 37.6 percent of the time,2 including just 22.4 percent versus the Falcons this week.

This is a radical departure in today’s game. From the start of the 2018 season through Week 1 of the 2019 season, winning NFL teams pass a majority of the time: 52.6 percent, according to ESPN Stats & Info.

Don’t expect Zimmer’s Vikings to change their approach anytime soon. “I did not foresee us throwing the ball 10 times, but I’m happy we did,” Zimmer said after the game.

Cousins doesn’t seem to mind.

“Throwing 10 times is really unique,” the quarterback said. “Probably haven’t had a game with that few attempts since literally Pop Warner. I probably threw 10 times or more in most high school games, too. It was what the game called for, and I have no problem with being conservative. As long as we win the football game, that’s all that matters to me.”

The Vikings and Stefanski adopted what is ostensibly a Mike Shanahan-inspired offense, bringing in former Shanahan disciple Gary Kubiak as an assistant head coach. But in reality, Zimmer may be looking even further back for inspiration, to the NFL’s last undefeated team3 — the 1972 Dolphins. Miami that year passed only 32.3 percent of the time. But the NFL then was all about establishing the run, running to win and then running to beat the clock — the Bears that year called pass plays just 17.5 percent of the time in their wins. The leaguewide passing average in 1972 was 37.2 percent, or almost identical to what Zimmer’s squad has averaged since jettisoning DeFilippo.

This is a shocking turnaround for a team that went all in on Cousins in free agency, connecting him with a pair of elite receivers, Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs. The receivers each posted 100-catch seasons with Cousins in 2018, but they were targeted only a combined six times on Sunday. Minnesota’s relatively low number of total plays (49) and slow pace (the Vikings controlled the ball for just under half the game) certainly helped keep the number of pass attempts down, but the share of passes should still worry the receiving tandem. In the four games since the coaching change, Diggs is catching balls at a pace of 64 per 16 games, and Thielen’s pace is even lower, at just 52. That would put them on track for just 116 combined catches for the duo, while Thielen by himself caught 113 last year — 103 of them in the 13 games where DeFilippo was calling plays.

The Vikings may keep winning by making Cousins mostly a middleman in getting the ball from the center to the running back. And that would make Zimmer a hero to fans of a forgotten NFL, when teams were built to win in the trenches and defense and the running game were the stars of the show. But in 1972, most top quarterbacks made only about 10 times the league’s minimum salary. Zimmer’s Vikings are paying Cousins about 55 times the league minimum today — a lot of money to simply hand off the ball.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.