The Vikings and Rams Have Traded Places

It should be every single NFL team’s job to make their quarterback’s life easier.  A QB’s life is already hard enough.  To succeed in the NFL, you need to be one of the 15 most important athletes in sports.  Nothing is harder than playing quarterback, let alone being average or better at it.

The list of quarterbacks that are average or better is small, which leaves the majority of the NFL in a precarious spot.  Don’t have a quarterback?  Well, you’re in rough shape.

But there are ways for teams to not put themselves in that pickle and not be dragged down by their quarterback so much.  The Rams and Vikings are two teams that have had to combat this in the past few seasons, and their up-and-down success is proof that it’s no easy task.  The effects of taking on such a project are showing this year – one team for the better, and one the worse.

The loss of offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski was concerning for Minnesota coming into the 2020-21 season.  Not only was he a home run hire for Cleveland and their needs, but Stefanski had made his living with the Vikings turning Kirk Cousins into a serviceable quarterback – one that could get his team quite deep into the playoffs.  Stefanski did this by heavily utilizing the play-action scheme, which was effective thanks to the emergence of Dalvin Cook as one of the NFL’s best running backs.  Cook baited defenses hard, which opened up the field for Cousins – a passer who’s notoriously not been able to make tight throws downfield.

The key was to not make Cousins have to do too much, and Stefanski didn’t.  Cousins posted a 12.9 percent mark in the NFL’s Next Gen Stats’ aggressiveness rating in 2019-20 – a stat that measures how often a QB throws into tight coverage.  That mark was the sixth-lowest in the NFL last season, though the true rank is even closer to the bottom as players who didn’t have the same sample size (David Blough and Delvin Hodges for example) ranked above Cousins on the chart.

This was a good thing.  Cousins isn’t talented enough to make “aggressive throws.”  Keeping that percentage low was Stefanski’s job, and he did it well.  He’s already doing a similar thing with Baker Mayfield in Cleveland.

The play-action helped reduce Cousins’ aggressive throws dramatically.  In 2019, Cousins and Stefanski passed out of those sets 130 times, tenth most in the NFL.  Cousins averaged 9.5 yards per attempt out of the scheme, a good number overall and given his limitations.  It was quite effective.

But the loss of Stefanski has resulted in the loss of the play-action, and could be the reason for Minnesota’s 0-2 start.  While the defense was somewhat expectedly picked apart by Aaron Rodgers in Week 1, the offensive side of the ball should have been Minnesota’s strength this year.  That has not been the case.  The Vikings are fresh off an 11-point showing against the Colts, and while they did put up 34 against the Packers in the season-opener, Cousins only attempted 25 passes (completing 19 of them, which is quite good).  The completion percentage, and yards-per-attempt (surprisingly) were impressive, but for Cousins to throw that little when Cook only carried the ball 12 times – albeit in a shootout – shows a lack of trust from the coaching staff in his ability.

It’s clear the group isn’t copying Stefanski.  So far this season, Cousins has only thrown out of the play-action ten times in two games, which ranks 26th in the NFL out of 35 players with more than one passing attempt.  That’s turned into just 58 yards, or 5.8 yards per attempt.

Adjust these numbers for a 16 game pace and they aren’t pretty.  If Cousins keeps throwing out of the play-action as little as he has in the first two games, it would amount to just 80 play-action passing attempts over the course of the season, dramatically lower than the 130 mark posted in 2019.

In addition, Cousins’ aggressiveness rate has risen to 21.6 percent so far in 2020, ranking as the sixth-highest in football.  Keeping that number low for Cousins is a key to his success, and the Vikings haven’t done it thus far.

Continuing to win and have success with an average quarterback is hard.  Minnesota is undergoing serious change in a lot of areas within their team, including coaching.  That can make the task of elevating a QB’s play even more challenging than it already is.  That said, another team has figured it out this season after encountering Minnesota’s 2020 struggles last year.

The Rams were one of the most disappointing teams in football in 2019-20.  Their 9-7 record felt much worse, thanks to the fact that the Super Bowl runner-ups missed the playoffs and watched their franchise running back crumble before their eyes.  Jared Goff regressed, and Los Angeles looked like a team whose future was bleak despite holding a team to 13 points in the Super Bowl the year before.

Head coach Sean McVay has been regarded as revolutionary, but his schemes and principles are quite simple.  That could be the product of Goff being his quarterback – things must be simple and easy for him to succeed.

The Rams ascent to being one of the best teams in football during the 2018-19 season was rooted in making things easier for Goff.  Los Angeles had a thumping run game with Todd Gurley and one of the league’s best defenses behind Aaron Donald.  Gurley’s 1,831 yards from scrimmage and 21 total touchdowns made defenses key in on him and not Goff, causing play-action to be an extremely effective tool for the Rams.  According to Football Outsiders, Los Angeles possessed the league’s highest play-action percentage in 2018-19, with 36 percent of the team’s plays coming from the scheme.  That resulted in the league’s second-best result via play-action, as the Rams averaged 9.4 yards per play.

Last year saw no change in the usage of play-action from Los Angeles, but a decrease in its effectiveness occurred.  Goff’s yards per attempt out of play-action dropped to 8.06, and the former No. 1 overall pick looked like a shell of his 2018 self, missing passes across the field and sinking the Rams offense to 16th in Offensive DVOA – perfectly average.

Why the decrease in effectiveness?  Gurley’s regression and constant injury nag led to a 1.1 yard drop in his yards per rush attempt, and a one-third reduction in total touchdowns.  A lesser running threat reduces the success of play-action – why should linebackers and the rest of the defense bite on the hand-off when the running back poses no real threat?  The Rams offensive line didn’t help Gurley or Goff out – it was a group that was either inexperienced or washed.  Goff needs a clean pocket to operate in – when things get chaotic or messy, it can lead to bad decisions from him.  A half-percent increase in interception rate articulated those troubling choices well.

To rebuild Goff’s production – and ultimately the offense’s as a whole – the Rams had to get back to basics this season.   The running game ranks third in the NFL thus far, averaging 172 yards a game.  Malcolm Brown has elevated into the lead half-back role, and has carried it quite well.  Back-up Darrell Henderson, in addition to rookie Cam Akers, have complimented the former Texas running back nicely (Henderson led the Rams rushing attack in Week 2).  Los Angeles has continued to stay creative with its speedy receivers, as Robert Woods has gotten four carries on end-around plays – Cooper Kupp also got 15 yards on a sweep motion against Philadelphia Sunday.  

The rush has predictably made things easier for Goff out of play-action.  The Rams have passed 31 times out of play-action this season, the second-highest total in the league.  Goff’s yards per attempt are lower than one would hope for at 8.7, but Los Angeles hasn’t needed anything more from him thanks to a 2-0 start.

Minnesota and LA have the same problem at the helm of their offense, and they’ve both been able to fix it in the past.  A season after one team found the answer and the other struggled, the roles have been reversed.  The answer laid within in the Rams, and now it’s Minnesota’s turn to find it.