The Forgotten Detail in the Kirk Cousins 4th & 8 Fiasco

Vikings Had a Lot
Dec 5, 2021; Detroit, Michigan, USA; Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins. Mandatory Credit: David Reginek-USA TODAY Sports.

Since the brutal decision to throw the football to T.J. Hockenson on the decisive 4th & 8, Kirk Cousins has taken a lot of heat. True, he had a sensational game overall, but tossing the ball well short of the first down mark when the season was on the line elicited a mixture of confusion, frustration, and flabbergastedness. Minnesota’s season ended in an abrupt manner.

Kevin O’Connell took some of the responsibility following the game. Though he acknowledged that the play design wasn’t meant to go to Hockenson, O’Connell nevertheless suggested that he could have done more:

Yeah, the intent as a playcaller is you’re not going to call a primary concept where somebody is short of the sticks to gain, especially on 4th down […] But yeah, looking back on it, I maybe could have just been a little bit more, ‘Hey, this is kind of where you want the ball to go.’ But I want Kirk to be able to play. I want him to be free out there to make good decisions. He did all night long.

O’Connell’s willingness to accept a portion of the blame is admirable. Furthermore, he raises some good points. Kirk Cousins was playing very well, so there’s merit in allowing the veteran QB to take charge of the moment. Plus, the QB1 has been leading 4th-quarter comebacks all season, so this opportunity felt like an extension of what Minnesota had been doing all year.

The problem, of course, is that Kirk Cousins made the decision that resulted in failing to pick up the first down, thereby bringing Minnesota’s season to its conclusion.

What Should Kirk Cousins Have Done?

For the most part, the conversation has revolved around three options: heave the ball up to a well-covered Justin Jefferson, take the sack, or dump it to Hockenson.

There’s a fourth, much more satisfying option that isn’t getting the same air time: working back to K.J. Osborn coming across the middle. Take a look at the pucks to give you a sense of what was going on in the play:

And then the normal game broadcast view:

The almost instant pressure up the middle presented a huge problem, especially given that the first read – Justin Jefferson – is being doubled. Nevertheless, that’s not a very persuasive excuse for the bad decision.

Throughout the game, Cousins was facing pressure up the middle. In fact, the Giants put on the heat 43.6% of the time. Moreover, Jefferson had 7 catches for 47 yards at that stage, good for a very modest 6.71 yards per catch. My point, folks, is that all the ingredients of that final play were already well established by the time that play arrived.

There is no way the Vikings ought to have been surprised by pressure up the middle and NY making a concerted effort to limit Jefferson down the field. It’s what they did all game.

Rather, the Vikings needed to have already done the mental calculus to know that those issues – near instant pressure, double-covered Jefferson – were supremely likely to occur. A solution needed to be baked into the play before it even began.

Three Frustrating Takeaways from the Vikings Loss to the Giants
Jan 15, 2023; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings head coach Kevin O’Connell walks off the field after losing a wild card game against the New York Giants at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

As O’Connell notes, the intent of the play is not to throw it short. Remember: failing to pick up the first down seals the deal. As a result, the next read after Jefferson had to be for Osborn, who was working underneath #18.

Osborn found himself in a one-on-one situation with a ton of green grass in front of him. Does this mean a throw toward the young wideout was guaranteed to work? Of course not. What it would have accomplished, though, is at least a play with a greater shot at the first down. If a quick glance at Jefferson said that it’s not a great choice, then Cousins needed to immediately pivot toward putting the ball in a position where Osborn could compete for it.

Oct 30, 2022; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings wide receiver K.J. Osborn (17) celebrates his touchdown with wide receiver Adam Thielen (19) against the Arizona Cardinals in the fourth quarter at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Super Bowl champion and former NFL QB Kurt Warner has a similar perspective (as well as many great insights). Shortly after the 4 minute mark in his breakdown, Warner argues that Osborn coming across the middle is the “only other option.” It’s hard to disagree.

To be clear, I’m not arguing that Cousins deserves all the blame for the loss. The defense played horrendously and Warner makes some really good points about some of the downsides of the play. Moreover, O’Connell even shouldered some of the blame post-game, so it’d be foolish to shrink things down to just that final play as the reason for Minnesota’s early exit.

What we can say, though, is that throwing to Hockenson was a peculiar decision, one that had very little chance of success. It would have been far better to try to hit Osborn in an attempt at the first down.