Minnesota Vikings-Tampa Bay Buccaneers Week 1 Reaction: How Did the Vikings Answer 5 Key Questions?
The 2023 Minnesota Vikings faced a number of key questions entering the season, and it's easier to begin answering those than make sweeping conclusions for the team after their loss.
The Minnesota Vikings 20-17 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers doesn’t tell us much about the team – one game never does – but it does tell us a little bit about the biggest burning questions facing the franchise heading into 2023.
Generally speaking, there’s a bit more to be optimistic about than pessimistic, even if the surface-level performance of a three-turnover outing against a team expected to compete for a high draft pick looks pretty bad.
After all, losses are losses and no amount of statistical wizardry or “potential” will correct the record. The spectre of close-game competitiveness – a boogeyman in 2021 and a savior in 2022 – hangs over the result and a close game loss seems like a bitter reminder of the sustainability question posed to the franchise just eight months ago.
The Vikings averaged 5.9 yards per play, which would have ranked fourth over the course of a full season in 2022. They allowed just 3.6 yards per play – a dead-last type showing. They outperformed the Buccaneers in net rushing yards per play and net passing yards per play, earned more first downs, generated a better third-down conversion rate and had better highlight performances from key players on both sides of the ball.
They also lost.
It might be obnoxious to focus on the overall sustainability of the team going forward after losses just like it was when the conversation kept recurring after wins last year. But it’s something to take home, even if penalties and turnovers feel like bigger problems in the moment than they might be in the long run.
Instead, let’s focus on five key questions the Vikings made progress on answering after Week 1. The first one is free.
Wide Left is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Can Kirk Cousins Synthesize His Two Selves?
For most of his career, Cousins has been a textbook quarterback – he would process the play and execute the play design; no more, no less. This has been characterized in a number of positive and negative ways: predictable, coachable, reliable, robotic, stale, unadaptable, boring etc.
It’s a baseline requirement for an NFL quarterback to follow his reads and execute the play but the ability to do that from down to down, game to game is somewhat rare. Cousins does it better than almost anyone in the league.
But it led to a problem when the context for those plays changed – primarily in two-minute situations, especially when trailing. For most of his career, he struggled to perform when presented when those scenarios.
Things changed on that front last year, with the Vikings producing a stellar close-game record in part because of Cousins’ growing adaptiveness and improvisational capability. That allowed him to lead the league in fourth-quarter comebacks and game-winning drives.
Along the way, he lost a lot of the efficiency that made him such an appealing by-the-book quarterback, with underperformance in the second and third quarter necessitating some of those heroic comeback drives. Overall, it was one of his least effective passing seasons, though the tradeoff was seemingly worth it.
Combining the best of both worlds could produce a potentially elite quarterback and it’s possible that he could use 2023 as a season to bring all of it together.
What was saw was closer to an awkward middle ground – not quite the worst of both worlds, but an uncomfortable mélange of the two ideas. Cousins played better than his worst critics have said, but it wasn’t an enormously efficient or heroic effort.
One of the key plays was a pick thrown to K.J. Osborn in the red zone, robbing the Vikings of a touchdown opportunity. Cousins mentioned after the game that the interception to Osborn was intentionally thrown behind him. The pass required Osborn to alter his running path and twist back to grab the ball, but it did protect him from the safety on top.
Osborn looked to have caught the ball, but undrafted rookie corner Christian Izien snatched the ball out of his hands – a task made much easier because of his positioning relative to Osborn and the difficulty of reeling in a pass thrown behind him.
Osborn never felt he had it, saying after the game, “I never really had it.”
Cousins played a partial role in that turnover and also bore some responsibility for one of his fumbles in the pocket. Those turnovers defined their mistake-riddled effort and couldn’t rally a second-half performance.
After averaging 9.4 yards per attempt and 8.1 adjusted net yards per attempt in the first half, Cousins played a second half with just 4.7 yards per attempt and 5.7 adjusted net yards per attempt.
In the second half, he didn’t adapt to changing circumstances or go off reads when necessary. But when he needed to stay in structure, he was late to the play or off in his accuracy. The early returns were promising – he finished the game with +4.9 completions over expected – but it wasn’t enough to salvage the effort.
Through three quarters, Cousins earned +0.12 expected points per play. In the fourth quarter, he managed -0.24. In fact, it was the inverse of most of his 2022 performances; in this game he earned negative expected points in the first and fourth quarters and played in the positives in the second and third quarter.
At the moment, Cousins is still trying to figure out his balance.
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial